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Divest? Foreclose? Reinvest? Renew?

Divest? Foreclose? Reinvest? Renew?

It seems clear enough – from my chair anyway – that churches unwilling to undergo some phase of intentional redevelopment these days could be headed for rough waters. Perhaps it’s a false choice with many more nuances than this, but it appears there’s a fork in the road for many of us: innovate/rebrand/recommit – in short, get really entrepreneurial really fast – or else face the eventual possibility of a period of decline at the end of which may be a divestment or even foreclosure of some sort.

Churches gone all the way down that ramp find property divestment itself can be the worst kind of indignity, usually at the bottom of a string of indignities. As noted last month in the Daily Journal of Commerce, faced with end-of-the-line reality, the faithful feel homeless, suddenly twisting in the wind: pillars of the church wonder where their funerals might be held, or real estate brokers come with offers based strictly on land value. No one sees the old building for the spiritual gem it is, but neither can we pay to keep the lights on. Shall we call the bishop and discuss handing over the keys? Is there still time to do anything different?

It’s even harder than that, of course: along the way lurk a number of thoroughly unpleasant questions. The less they’re addressed over time, the greater the chance of catastrophe. But if we find ourselves asking them, it may mean we’re in slow-burn mode.

… “How do we pay to heat and cool and insure and clean a sanctuary we’re using five percent of the total hours of the week?”

… “In fact, come to it, why does most of our entire facility go mostly unused most of the time?”

… “What’s to keep us from explaining our situation to the groups we’ve hosted for free all these years, in the hopes they can help maintain some of our operating costs?”

… “How long until the endowment runs out?”

… “Why do we run ourselves ragged doing fundraisers for everything but the general fund?”

… “Are we too proud to admit we need help, or at least someone to help us see the situation a little differently?”

… “Why don’t we write for a scholarship or two to fund that new ministry we want to pursue instead of reaching into our common purse all the time?”

… “Why don’t we consider what would happen if we opened our doors to host another congregation – one either on the way up from house-church status or on the way down from just having divested itself of a building?”

… “Is there anything we might do to guarantee revenue generation apart from dwindling plate and pledge?”

… “Do we need this building in order to be church? Is there another way to realize the fact of our community in Christ apart from bricks and mortar?”

If you find yourself in a situation demanding that you start asking any of the foregoing questions or some versions of them, don’t wait. Deck chairs; Titanic.

The congregation I serve has been through a huge bit of processing – is still engaging that process – thanks to the Episcopal Church Building Fund and its program Recasting of Building Assets. You can probably tell by my list of questions that that process has not been easy and might not get any easier any time soon. But at least The Episcopal Church has in its trove a group willing to help stir the pot, announce reality, and instill entrepreneurial spirit. ECBF doesn’t promise perfection or total turnaround, but I think it’s safe to say the Recasting effort tries to help orient congregations to the truth of their situations.

I’m grateful for that – glad for the fact of the truth and all the setting-free it does – and I’m trying to evangelize for it.

The ethicist Lewis Smedes said, “Without Jesus we are stuck with two options: utopian illusion or deadly despair. I scorn illusion. I dread despair. So I put all my money on Jesus.” That doesn’t mean Jesus is somewhere between the heady poles of illusion and despair; it means Jesus stands in a different place altogether, and that’s with the truth. In the end, those of us who claim his banner really don’t have any other place to stand but with him and wherever he is.

So go on and ask one of those questions, or whichever one it is about your congregation’s future that’s burning a hole in your heart. It may be less painful in the long run than it initially appears.


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Ann Fontaine

I agree Matthew — long hard discernment and how else might we use these physical spaces before selling or tearing them down. As one of our kids said when the diocese was thinking of selling the church camp – “you can never get it back.”

Matthew Buterbaugh+

Torey, I absolutely agree with you that there’s no rule to fit every occasion. I am a big proponent of the idea that there’s no universal right model for how to do church.

I think my concern is that the move to rid ourselves of our buildings reminds me a lot of past fads in the Church. “If we start a praise and worship service, young people will come in flocks.” Of course it worked sometimes, but often we compromised our identity in doing this, it didn’t attract young people, and then we undercut what we were trying to do in the first place.

In certain cases, old buildings need to be replaced with new ones, and sometimes a church is better with no building at all. I would hope that in the latter case, a large amount of discernment is taken as it is a decision that cannot be undone. Then again, hopefully most big decisions in the Church are only done after serious discernment.

Matthew, as the priest of a community of worshippers who meet in an absolutely beautiful but aging facility, I can honestly say that our building is both a liability AND an asset, as any church’s balance sheet will attest. I can’t imagine going anywhere else, but if I were to stick around another couple hundred years, I’m sure I’d find out that in the end, despite our efforts, no building lasts for ever. That much is plain.

I want to argue for not only maximization of facility usage, and not only closure as a necessary possibility in certain inevitable cases, but rather the whole putting-on-the-table of all possibilities and options. That, it seems to me, is finally the most faithful move, as surely you’d agree that there’s never going to be a rule to fit every occasion or church.

Do I want to knock down churches willy-nilly? Of course not. Neither, however, do I want my ministry to have largely consisted of having to be inventive about how to cover the costs of building maintenance.

Torey Lightcap

Matthew Buterbaugh+

There’s a big push in the Episcopal Church as of late to ditch our buildings. Our buildings are more than a place, they are sacred space with walls infused with thousands of prayers. They are not a liability. They are an asset. If our buildings are only being used 5% of the time, perhaps the question should not be whether or not to sell the property, but how can we make better use of our facilities?

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