Wheaton's Viers Mill Baptist Church, a 638-member congregration representing 11 nationalities, has staved off bankruptcy thanks to an arduously arranged financial bail-out plan that includes what the pastor calls "a grand offering" from its members.

"It will be a great sacrificial offering," said the Rev. Malcolm Jones, who arranged the unusual three-part rescue plan with the dexterity of a Wall Street financier.

"We're calling on our people to give money, deeds to property, jewelry, old coins, anything of marketable value," Jones said of the offering scheduled for Nov. 22. "We're not begging," he added, "but we want to widen our circle of influence and make more people aware."

It may not be the most orthodox way for a cash-strapped institution to pay its bills, but Jones hopes that the "grand offering" will raise at least $60,000 to pay for some building repairs and to help retire part of a $645,000 debt that includes two bond issues, their accumulated interest and outstanding bills and loans.

This return from the brink is viewed as little short of a miracle by church members who just a month and a half ago voted to close down the church and sell its property as the only way to pay its bills.

While the financial plight of the Viers Mill Baptist Church is unusual, according to officials of Maryland's Baptist Convention, money problems have become increasingly common for many area churches squeezed between higher maintenance and utility costs and slower growth of contributions in the collection baskets.

"I don't know if any other churches in our convention have been strained as severely as Viers Mill," said Larry High, a convention spokesman. High said churches have begun cutting costs in several areas, like asking pastors to forgo salary increases in some cases and printing less literature."

As part of Viers Mill's financial balancing act, the state's Baptist Convention has agreed to back the local church's bond issue..

The third part of that plan includes an agreement with the Atlanta-based Southern Baptist Convention's Home Mission Board to pick up the tab for two of Viers Mill's special ministries -- one for Vietnamese, the other for Koreans -- targeted at its rapidly growing Asian population. Under the arrangement, the Home Mission Board will make periodic rent payments to Viers Mill.

Viers Mill Baptist's financial problems began back in 1968 when the church decided to go to the bond market to finance its operating and maintenance costs.

For Southern Baptist churches to take out long-term bonds for financing is common, but it usually is done under the auspices of the Southern Baptist Convention. But the Viers Mill congregation decided to take an independent route, going through an Atlanta-based company for two separate 15 1/2-year bond issues totaling $201,000.

At the time, it looked like a good deal -- the first payments would not be due for eight years, and the church was not required to put aside any money for repayment. Bond issues usually require some sort of a savings plan agreed to in advance.

"They weren't putting away anything and weren't required to," said Jones, who arrived at the church as pastor in 1976. "It allowed them to ride for eight years."

Jones said that when he discovered the financial mess he began a budget plan of cost-cutting and fund raising that saw the church budget jump from $139,000 in 1976 to $239,000 this year. It still wasn't enough. Jones said that at one point the church owed a total of over $864,000, including $2,100 a week to Suburban Trust Co., trust officer for the bonds.

The church, confronted with the gravest crisis in its 29-year history and with the money lenders knocking at the door, voted on Sept. 16 to close its doors and sell its property to pay the bills. The church property, which includes a chapel, a sanctuary building, and a children's center all at 12221 Viers Mill Road in Wheaton, was valued at $2.3 million. The congregation was told that it would have to relocate.

It was that dramatic gesture that Jones believes alerted state and national Baptist officials to the plight of Viers Mill and allowed him to piece together the bailout plan.