It took 18 years for the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. to gather his Southern Baptist congregation of nearly 7,000 people. It took 18 hours for Hurricane Katrina to scatter that flock through at least a dozen cities in five states.

For several days, the self-described "street preacher from the lower Ninth Ward" of New Orleans could not find his own brother, much less keep track of his congregants. The 2,000-seat sanctuary he built in 1997 and the brand-new gymnasium, library and computer lab he opened this year are flooded. So is the 90-acre parcel where he had hoped to break ground for the city's biggest worship complex next year.

But the physical condition of his Franklin Avenue Baptist Church and the millions of dollars that it may cost to rebuild are not what is weighing on his mind. "Pastor friends of mine have called from all across the country. They have said, 'Listen, man, whatever you need, count on us.' So I'm not worried about money at all," he said.

"It's regathering the flock. That's what I'm worried about."

Along with fellow ministers of many faiths, Luter is now riding a circuit between Houston, Dallas, Baton Rouge and other cities where large numbers of hurricane survivors have taken shelter. Like the rest of the exiled clergy of New Orleans, he is trying to minister to his diaspora while inwardly torn between the desire to help people move on and the hope that, someday, they might move back.

The Rev. J. Douglas Wiley, senior pastor of New Orleans's 13,000-member Life Center Cathedral, a Full Gospel church that was among the largest in the state, said: "All our families have been dispersed to other cities, and, let's face it, some of them have already begun to attend other churches. I'm just going to be pleased that they have someplace to go. But there are some people I love dearly that I will never pastor again, and I'm painfully cognizant of that."

Like many of his colleagues, Wiley is not sure where he will settle. He is shuttling between Houston and Dallas, holding services this weekend in borrowed premises in both cities for as many of his congregants as he can find.

He said he expects to remain a pastor in exile for months and is thinking seriously about relocating his ministry to Texas, though he is not yet ready to abandon New Orleans, where he had 21 employees, a radio and television ministry and a $2 million sanctuary that is now missing its back wall and a quarter of its roof.

In the end, he said, he probably will follow the people who long followed him.

"I'm going to listen to their hearts and hear what they say. My main focus now is to encourage them wherever they are. That's why we're ministering to them in Dallas and Houston while keeping our long-term options open for New Orleans," he said.

Of more than a dozen clergy members interviewed, none said the condition of houses of worship in New Orleans was a paramount consideration in whether to go back.

Abdul Rahman Bashir, imam of Masjid Abu Bakr, the largest mosque in the New Orleans area and the only one with a traditional minaret and dome, said its roof usually leaks in two places. But it came through the hurricane completely dry.

Nevertheless, he said, he probably will relocate to Houston, where he is staying with an aunt.

"The area the mosque is in" -- the affluent suburb of Metairie -- "a lot of people there are professionals, doctors, engineers. A lot have been relocated by their firms. A majority of them are relocating to other cities. Very few of them are coming back," he said.

Rabbi Andrew Busch of New Orleans's 176-year-old Touro Synagogue, the oldest U.S. Jewish congregation outside the 13 original colonies, has slim personal ties to the city. He arrived from suburban Philadelphia just two months ago. This weekend, he said, members of the Reform congregation hope to enter the building under police escort to survey the damage and to remove 10 Torah scrolls.

But, he said, the main decision is not in doubt: They will return. "Building buildings is relatively easy work. Our congregation is our heart and soul," he said.

To hold the congregation together during the months or years ahead, Touro's director of education, Eileen Hamilton, is spearheading the creation of a "virtual synagogue" on the Internet. With message boards, address lists and blogs, she hopes to keep its 650 families connected -- even though she, her husband and their two children are now in Park City, Utah, and are quickly putting down roots.

"The congregation has been our family. But like many other people, patience is the hardest thing for us," she said. "On the one hand, New Orleans is our home, and we're dying to move back. In reality, we have our questions about that."

The heads of two of the city's largest religious institutions, Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Rev. Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said there is no question that they will return and rebuild.

"That doesn't mean we're going to rebuild every single church," said Hughes, noting that he has closed four parishes in the last five years because of shifts in the location of the city's 490,000 Catholics. It does mean, he said, that the archdiocese has a commitment to reestablishing its parochial school system, one of the biggest in the nation.

Kelley said the Southern Baptist seminary has established temporary headquarters in Atlanta and kept track of its 2,000 students over the Internet.

The city's religious fabric may never be the same, he said, but neither will it wither away.

"A city is not going to exist without faith communities," he said. "They will grow up as the families come back."

Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.