Five Reasons Your Church Buildings Deserve Better

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by Eric Bonetti

If you’re like most Episcopalians, you value your church building as a place of comfort, warmth and respite–a place of welcome and peace, remote from the stresses of daily life.

Or you think you do.

In fact, it may be that your church building — whether a splendid reminder of the glories of Anglo-Catholicism, or a modest, modern masonry and glass structure — deserves better.

Ivy Clad Ruin - geograph.org.uk - 1312612I know what you’re saying right about now: “Hey, wait a minute….I pledge generously. I cut the grass every weekend (insert grouchy noises of choice).”

But the reality is that there is more to it than money and mowing.

1. You don’t provide enough money

Speaking of money, do you think you give generously to your church? Maybe you do, but maybe not.

Consider the Latter-day Saints (LDS) and other faiths/denominations that routinely give a true tithe to their church. While we may have discomfort with the theological underpinnings of a near-mandatory tithe, the outcome is visible, indeed. Just look at the well-kept grounds of any LDS temple to see the results of tithing. Or check out estimates of the corporate wealth of the LDS church and you’ll quickly see no one’s squabbling about where to find money to patch the roof.

“But I give in other ways,” you say.

To that, I point to a small parish in Northern Virginia, one that pre-dates the civil war. Just shy of 70 years ago, that parish realized it had outgrown its current building, so it began plans for a majestic English country gothic church — a solidly built edifice, designed to stand for the ages. A small group of parishioners mortgaged their homes and businesses — everything they had — to finance construction, putting everything they owned on the line.

Risky for my tastes, and probably for yours too, but the parish paid the debt off in just seven years.

Just how financially committed did you say you were?

2. Your financial priorities are wrong

Hand-in-hand with money goes priorities. Many a church has gone pews-up despite having very solid revenue. Why? Because money wasn’t being spent in the right places.

The warning light here is if you’re seeing too much money being spent internally, and not enough on the building and the community. To be sure, in-reach is vital for any church. But if you’re finding that hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars are being spent on special events, but your roof has a persistent leak due to lack of money, or your furnace is about to fail but you can’t really afford to replace it, you should be hearing the warning sirens, loud and clear.

Same for your reserve funds.

If you’re not saving for the future, you’re borrowing against it. And while you’re at it, you’re betting. You’re betting that your parish will have the resources to make needed future capital investments, despite flat attendance at almost all mainline churches. In essence, you’ve set yourself up as your own banker, and you’ve structured a transaction with a large balloon payment at the end. And you’ve done this despite clear signs that you may not have the money when the time comes to pay off the debt. If this sounds familiar, consider that it’s probably not just your church building on the line–your entire parish is at risk.

Don’t gamble with your future.

3. You don’t understand your budget

Another issue is awareness of the actual costs to run your parish and its physical plant.

How often do we run into people who say, “I pledge!” but pay only a few hundred dollars a year?

Of course, there are many of limited means for whom that is all that is possible, and any healthy parish must demonstrate flexibility in its pledging process.

But do you really stop to think about the costs to operate your church? For instance, a church with a $1 million annual budget must bring in almost $2,740 a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, no exceptions for days with Super Bowl games or your summer vacation. That’s a lot of money, and if you’re giving just $25 a week, your parish no doubt is grateful for the support, but you probably are not paying your full share. And keep in mind that we’re presumably talking operating expenses here–your parish also needs to be saving for the future.

If you’re on your stewardship committee, consider too whether you provide enough information for others to understand your budget and the importance of pledging. Do you provide clear textual information and easy visual charts? Do you invite your parish to think about a “dream budget” that reflects hopes and dreams and potential growth? Or do you prepare an annual budget that looks like a government production–large, detailed, and crushingly dull?

Have a meaningful budget that helps people understand the realities and priorities of your parish.

4. You’re worried about the power

No, not the electric bill.

Years ago, I attended a parish that almost imploded. The issue wasn’t the ordination of women (we already had a female rector, thank you). It wasn’t about marriage equality, the role of the bishop, vestry elections, revisions to the Book of Common Prayer or any of the usual suspects.

The sickening, shuddering sound of the iceberg scraping the hull came when two elderly parishioners, both well-meaning and generous, decided to prune a row of wildly overgrown plants behind the church.

That’s right, prune. Not remove, not tear out, not destroy.

What’s wrong with that? I don’t know, since the plants had become almost comically large, and were occasionally known to snag and remove sections of shingles from the roof during summer storms. But others felt differently, and soon the parish was in a knock-down, drag-out, who-did-what-to-whom uproar, with calls to the senior warden, angry letters to the bishop, and more. (Triangulation, anyone?)

Apparently, the issue was that the plants had been placed behind the church years earlier in memory of a deceased parishioner. And while the decedent’s children had long since disclaimed any responsibility for the care and nurture of these plants, they reserved the right to lurk, like alligators in a golf pond, right under the surface, ready to come roaring out, jaws snapping, at the first sign of an interloper.

While the uproar eventually died down, needless to say, the episode was a powerful disincentive for future maintenance, and giving dropped precipitously in the wake of this debacle. Today, that particular parish has peeling paint, lots of deferred maintenance, lackluster attendance, and a very thin budget. Big surprise, there.

In short, if your priority is protecting prerogatives versus property, the day will come when all you have is your prerogatives, perfectly preserved and meaning nothing.

Set aside differences to make caring for your building a priority.

5. You don’t have professional advice and data

This is closely intertwined with giving and priorities. To effectively care for your physical plant, you have to understand its needs and how to corollate your resources with those needs.

Knowing the needs of your physical plant requires more than just spending time at your parish. Instead, it requires a replacement reserve study, done by a professional, typically at a cost of a few thousand dollars every few years.

Correlating the remaining lifespan of your physical assets with their value and projected replacement costs, a replacement reserve study is both a highly reliable barometer of the health of your investment in your physical plant and the overall financial health of the parish. Indeed, many states require condo associations to conduct one and publish it every several years, since the study is a surefire indicator of looming financial and, often, operational issues.

Yet if you are like most parishes, you haven’t done a replacement reserve study recently, if ever, or it’s a back-of-the-envelope guesstimate you’ve done internally. If that’s the case, you’re on thin ice, since 6-10 percent of revenue typically is considered a healthy annual contribution to replacement reserves.

If you really do care about your church building, get the numbers. Get a professional.

Looking ahead

Whether you’ve largely been indifferent to caring for your church building, you’ve been supportive but long viewed it as the role of your parish administrator, or you’ve just never thought about it much at all, the recent changes and discussion about the future of The Episcopal Church offer an opportunity to revisit old issues and identify new opportunities. And if renewal and rebirth are to be effective, what better place to start than close to home, with the care and maintenance of our parish churches?

Think about it: Does your parish deserve better?

Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor.

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2 Responses to "Five Reasons Your Church Buildings Deserve Better"
  1. You know, often enough we hear the valuable reminder that "the Church isn't the building, but the people." We also hear that we need to be more flexible, and that edifices bind us rather than free us.

    Both statements have some truth to them. At the same time, I think that, having found reasons not to think about the buildings, we don't think often enough about what the buildings are. The buildings are tools. They are certainly tools for our worship, and we think through carefully their design for that part of their function. I just believe we don't think often enough about what other ministries they might be good tools for. And, if there are ministries for which they might be good tools, then there is real meaning in maintaining them.

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