The Edifice Complex

By Jeannie Babb

“’The Episcopal Church welcomes you’ doesn’t work anymore.” As shrinking congregations around the country struggle to maintain large iconic church structures, Julia Groom has a word of advice for the stewardship of a large, costly building: Consider letting it go.

Groom says traditional church buildings are no longer the draw they once were. In fact, “In many instances they are the biggest barrier to doing ministry and reaching people.” If the message does not surprise you, the source may; Julia Groom is president of the Episcopal Church Building Fund.

The Episcopal Church Building Fund was established over 130 years ago to provide building fund loans without mortgages to Episcopal parishes. Groom says in the last five years, leaders at the Building Fund have been rethinking their purpose and relevance to the Church.

As church attendance wanes and giving falls, many congregations are left with large, energy-intensive buildings that parishioners can no longer afford to operate and maintain. The mission of the parish is then secondary, and the building itself becomes the church’s raison d'être—an upside-down situation some church leaders call “the edifice complex.”

Groom says when she became president of the Episcopal Church Building Fund in 2008 there was no national conversation about the problem. “The Episcopal Church has been closing four or five churches every month for the past 15 years. Those numbers come from church insurance so they are reliable statistics. Here we are, a loaning institution to help churches build new buildings, but we are closing them.” The Building Fund is helping congregations rethink how to use their space.

“We ask, ‘What is your reason for being? What’s your mission? Why are you here? Having and maintaining a building is not a reason for being.”

Challenging the Status Quo

The Building Fund gave St. Stephen’s in Pittsfield, Mass., a 30-day challenge asking them to step outside the building and think about their identity—think about the community sees them. The parish creatively proposed “Maundy Laundry,” instead of washing already-clean feet in a symbolic gesture on Maundy Thursday, They would wash laundry for the entire community. Parishioners set up ministry in the local Laundromat and sixty people, many of them homeless or transient, brought bags of laundry to wash. When they finished, the rector walked out and said, “I don’t need to go to church today; I just lived it.” Now they are providing this service every month.

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Texas, lost their building in a denominational split. Rather than borrow money to erect a new building, they recognized an opportunity to turn their parish inside-out. Sunday worship is held in the local theater and the venue now attracts many of the unaffiliated who are hesitant to visit a traditional church building.

On St. Francis Day, St. Alban’s offers a pet blessing at the dog park then goes to the animal shelter to bless the animals housed there. Having experienced worship and ministry outside the walls, the leadership of St. Alban’s sees no reason to build a building. The rector’s welcome on St. Alban’s website states that the church’s lack of a building is both a risk and a blessing enabling the parish “to fully welcome and value all of God’s children, including those the traditional church marginalizes.”

Groom says, “Many people who grew up with a faith background are no longer going to church. We do interviews all the time and ask people who don’t have a church home, ‘If you were going to have a meaningful experience, what would it look like?’ They respond, ‘Outdoors.’ There’s a better chance of them taking their dog to a dog park than going to a church.”

She says the mission is not to build buildings but to reach people. “If I had a faith community and money to build, I would interview the neighborhood. I would find out what the needs are. What are the holes in that community? Is the biggest problem—literacy, after school care, feeding programs? Whatever it is, I would build a building to serve that need and then worship in it.”

As with St. Alban’s, such a building may already exist and be sitting unused during Sunday morning worship hours. Some churches are cutting overhead costs and shrinking their energy footprint by sharing a worship building.

In Minneapolis, three churches came together to occupy a single ministry center, called SpringHouse Ministry Center. The three congregations worship according to their own traditions (Disciples of Christ, Lutheran, and United Church of Christ), while sharing common ministries and working together on social justice issues. Sharing space allowed the congregations to sell two of their buildings and fully occupy the third.

The Building Fund offers a recasting program to help parishes take an honest look at stewardship of their assets that includes the building, the geographic location, and their ability to meet needs in the local community. Churches using the program have added blood drives, after school programs, counseling services, homeless showers and meals, gala dinners, and band rehearsals.

The recasting process generally requires a year, and is best performed with a group of churches who wish to recalibrate their mission together. The Building Fund considers the historical situation and engages the parishes in honest conversation about their future while encouraging them with stories of hope and practical tools.

Thinking About Buildings and Mission In a New Way

Examples of repurposed buildings and reinvigorated parishes abound with an inspiring mix of ministry and revenue creation. St. Bartholomew’s in New York City hosts the longest running community theatre in New York, the St. Bart’s Players, while Church of the Holy Spirit in Mattapan, Mass., hosts community college classes. Trinity Episcopal Church in Huntington, W.V., holds a fall festival with a haunted house and gigantic rummage sale in their large building, while St. Stephen’s in Richmond, Va., holds annual blue grass fundraisers and a flower festival.

Other churches are rethinking the location and form of their services. In Chicago, Church of the Advent holds Morning Prayer for dog walkers, while St. John’s holds summer services in the garden to welcome pets. A number of churches, including St. Stephen’s in Richmond, Va., are finding that a weekly Celtic service draws different people to worship.

Sometimes the parish can longer justify maintaining a large building and needs to relinquish it to another purpose. The church building that housed St. Thomas in Chicago, Ill., became a safe haven to house homeless children and train foster parents. St. Paul’s Cathedral in Fond du Lac, Wisc., was converted to a warming shelter for the homeless funded by support from community organizations.

In other cases, the real estate asset may help generate income. Parishes may be able to rent out their parking lot, raise revenue through a cell tower contract, or lease building space to a business or non- profit. St. Mark’s in Glen Ellyn, Ill., raises money for outreach by planting a large pumpkin patch each year.

Mission is the ultimate goal, but if the parish is not financially self-sustaining, it will not exist to carry out its mission. That’s why Groom says it is important to engage the congregation and ask, “What’s your why? The answer may surprise you.”

—This article was included in the Fall 2015 issue of From the Mountain.

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