The exodus of middle-class blacks to the suburbs bears a special message for many black ministers in Washington: They are losing their congregations.

"After I marry a young couple, the first thing they do is look for housing in Virginia or Maryland. That can be devastating to us," said the Rev. Robert L. Pruitt of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church downtown. "If we're going to keep our communities intact, we'll have to provide affordable housing."

So, amidst the vacant lots and crowded row houses of Shaw, in the tree-lined neighborhoods of East Capitol Street and in the shadows of the boxy apartments of Columbia Heights, churches are putting up apartment buildings and town houses.

Many are redirecting the fabled financial resources of what has been out of the most stable institutions in the black community and redefining their time-tested social mission in terms of domestic bricks and mortar. They are trying to avoid Pruitt's nightmarish vision of a city full of ornate black churches with empty pews on Sunday.

"We're trying to do our part to house as many people as we can, both members and nonmembers," said Elder S.C.Madison of the United House of Prayer for All People, which has built two housing developments in Shaw and is planning a third. "There's definitely a shortage of rental housing in Washington."

The United House of Prayer, headed by Bishop Walter (Sweet Daddy) McCullough, has even done away with one of the traditional festive ceremonies in the black chruch -- the burning of the mortgage. McCullough pays forrhis projects in cash. "You cannot dedicate a place to God if you don't own it," Madison said.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported last week that the number of traditional middle-class black families with wife, husband and children living together has dropped sharply in the District of Columbia during the past decade. Many of those blacks appear to be moving to the suburbs, the report found.

For years, ministers have known that better schools, safer neighborhoods, big back yards and larger and newer homes for the money have been attractng many members to the suburbs, even though some would return to their old churches on Sundays.

Now, with gasoline prices soaring, some local ministers say many of these suburbanites -- old church members and potential new ones -- may look for new churches closer to their homes.

"We have a whole new philosophy," Pruitt said, "to keep the striving, upward mobility class in the city. Otherwise, the city will be home for only the very rich and the very poor. We don't want just single dwellers and (members of Congress). We want families."

Churches have been involved in housing for more than a decade but their concern now is attuned more to the problems of displacement and rising housing costs.

The economic slowdown that has wrought havoc on much of the area's real estate market in recent months could delay building and development plans for some churches. But one minister noted that it would be foolish to abandon housing plans in the face of a situation that could be temporary.

"We might just hold onto our land until things calm down a bit," he said.

After the 1968 riots, church pastors provided much of the impetus for building new housing -- much of it sporting their names.

McCullough, head of the golddomed chruch at Sixth and M Streets NW that was founded by the late Bishop Charles M. (Daddy) Grace, built McCullough Haven, a 12-unit apartment building for the elderly, and McCullough Canaanland Apartments, a 90-unit complex next door to the church. About 60 percent of the residents in Canaanland are church members, including Madison.

The church has been tentatively selected by the city to buy land on which to develop its third project, a 150-apartment complex betweeen Sixth, Seventh, L and M streets NW.

In far Northeast at the Church of the Atonement, Rector Robert Hunter said his church recently constructed three town houses on land it owns at East Capitol Street and Division Avenue NE. The construction was financed by the United National Bank of Washington, Hunter said, and one of the homes has been sold for $83,000.

"By developing the land ourselves, we could control what went there," Hunter said.

Bishop Smallwood E. Williams of the Bible Way Church said his 3,000-member congregation contributed about $250,000 to develop and plan its project, the Golden Rule Apartments, a 184-unit complex at 901 New Jersey Ave. NW.

"We sacrificed our building fund money," Williams said. In addition to the apartments, the church built a Golden Rule Supermarket that ran into financial trouble and closed 3 years ago. The church recently signed a lease with three Korean grocers who plan to reopen the store soon.

The Rev. Henry C. Gregory III, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, 1500 Ninth St. NW. said his church, whose housing committee is headed by former D.C. housing official Monteria Ivey, has "aggressively" acquired properties to guarantee that low-and moderate-income residents in the community are not displaced.

Gregory said the church has encouraged its members not to sell their homes. If they must sell, they are asked to first contact young couples in the 4,600-member congregation.

The Temple Church of God in Christ recently submitted a housing proposal to the D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency, the District's urban renewal board, to develop land adjacent to its chruch at 1435 Park Rd. NW. r

Two Baptist churches, Redeemer Baptist Church, 528 Kennedy St. NW, and the Greater First Baptist Church of Mt. Pleasant Plains, 13th and Fairmont streets NW, are limited partners in a housing development on the riot-scarred 14th Street corridor between Euclid and Fairmont streets Nw, according to Allison Manning, project coordinator for the city's housing department.

But not all of the developments have been done by Baptist and Pentacostal denominations, whose churches attract many of Washington's black residents.

Pruitt's church, located at 15th and M streets NW, is looking for land for condominiums and town houses to provide low-priced homes -- without a government subsidy -- to senior citizens and young families.

The Rev. David Eaton, pastor of the All Soul's Unitarian Church at 16th and Harvard streets Nw, said his multiracial congregation contributed about $12,000 in seed money for a Columbia Heights apartment complex, and got the joint support of a local community group, the Change Economic Development Corp.

Eaton said church members are looking for new projects that may provide special living arrangements for the elderly and programs in which families rehabilitate their own homes.

Nearby, the St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church contributed land owned by the diocese for a housing project, called Urban Village, on 16th Street.

Many of the housing projects have been developed with the help of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and some, especially those begun in the earlier days of the program, have run into financial problems.

"Two or three of the churches that had good intentions subsequently wished they had never crossed that way (been involved in housing). They didn't have the expertise that was needed," said Rudolf Bertrang, deputy chief of loan management for the area HUD office.

Bertrang said the Tyler House, for example, located at North Capitol and M streets and sponsored by a nonprofit affiliate of the Mount Airy Baptist Church, was sold in 1977 to a private, limited partnership when the project was faced with severe financial, managerial and maintenance problems. He said another church is trying to sell its building for the same reasons.

Other projects sponsored by non-profit church-affiliated corporations are either holding their own or doing fairly well Bertrang said.