Is there another way? Buildings, landlords, and ministry

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By Rev. Mindi

My alma mater is selling its buildings, its beautiful campus, and relocating. At least, that is the plan. It made the news last week. The oldest graduate theological school in the United States is going to sell the campus.

I’ve written about churches and buildings before, our connection to a space, the power structures in place with building ownership, and of course, the fact that the church is not the building but the body of Christ.

Currently, I’m a part-time pastor of a tiny church, with a tiny church building, with a tiny campus on top of a hill, across the street from an elementary school. A building that is just shy of sixty years old. A building with asbestos in the ceiling and peeling paint and ripped brown carpet in the sanctuary.

I also serve with my husband at Open Gathering, a gathered community without a building. And I have a group of young adults in my tiny church that have started to form a new(ish) community we are, for now, calling “Good Neighbors.” One is renting space; the other meets at a local coffee shop/bar (which, actually, is a Lutheran ministry funded from the sale of a church building).

So what’s the big deal about buildings?

We get attached to space and places. Of course, I am going to mourn when my alma mater moves. Not only did I live there for three years, receive my Master of Divinity there, make some of the greatest friends of my life there and learn so much—I happened to meet my husband afterwards and we had our wedding reception there. The background of my wedding photos is the quad at Andover Newton.

But the school can continue in a different place and space. Indeed, for much of the arguing going on about whether online classes are not personal enough, let’s face reality: more and more people are going to school online. More and more of us are getting our core instruction that way. It doesn’t replace the practical—and I feel that a good seminary education that prepares us for ministry is going to get us out into the field more. Interning at local congregations. Participating in local ministries. Doing chaplaincy residencies at local hospitals and mission organizations. That’s what I received at Andover Newton that was most formative for my practical training.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s what we need for our congregations as well: more practical training in the field. Participating with other congregations in ministries in the community. Volunteering at our hospitals and homeless shelters. Visiting one another where we reside and where we work. I have noticed an increase in participation, from both congregation and community, every time we move an activity outside of the church building—Bible Studies in coffee shops. Pub Theology gatherings at a local bar. Caroling at the train station.

But there are buildings that house wonderful ministries as well. All too often, I have seen congregations hold on to the building by renting out every single space every single day of the week. The congregation becomes a landlord. They are concerned about wear and tear on the building but also how much income is coming in.

Our tiny church building houses four congregations. Four! Our building is in use every single day of the week—for worship, for Bible study, for prayer gatherings, for a Christian preschool in the morning and an After-School tutoring program that we run in the afternoon. We also have had Vacation Bible School, as well as a Social Skills Summer day camp for students with disabilities and their typically-developing peers.  A few years ago we planted our first Community Organic Garden plot, and we hope to expand. One thing I have noticed: when we stop worrying about what's going to happen to us, and start focusing on what God is doing through us, we are open to more possibilities.

Sure, we face the same issues. And maybe we’re kidding ourselves by holding on as long as we can. But the difference may be seeking what is the intention for the space we are in. Is it so we can just keep going? Is our renting to others just to sustain us? Or is it possible to be open to other ministries and missions and giving space for them to flourish? What is God’s intention for us? And ultimately, we do have to ask the question: is building ownership the only way to do this?

It's hard to begin to think of letting go of a place where you've had your wedding, had your child dedicated or baptized, or where your parent's funeral was held. It's hard to not have an attachment to that space, and it is a grieving process.

In my congregation, we are asking some of the hard questions now, and we aren’t sure exactly where we are going. But we are trusting the Holy Spirit. I pray that the leaders at Andover Newton are doing the same. For the rest of us in traditional churches with aging buildings, what is the Spirit calling you do to? Because I’m sure when you agreed to join in membership, or if you’ve been there since Sunday School days, that God wasn’t calling you to be a landlord of the church building. God is calling you into ministry.

Mindi and JC, May 28th, 2005. Reception at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

Mindi and JC, May 28th, 2005. Reception at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.