church buildings

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.

Church Buildings and Plastic Couch Covers

Growing up I had a friend whose family had a formal living room. I’m not sure why they had a formal living room, since they got just about as much use out of it as the crawl space under the stairs, which always seemed prone to flooding. But having a formal living room was a big deal … I guess in case the President or K.C. and the Sunshine Band stopped by to visit.

And while the President and Mr. Sunshine Band would have been welcome to sit on the plastic couch cover, ordinary human beings were not. It was a place set aside for some ultra special event that everybody believed might one day occur, and for which no one wanted to be unprepared. And so it languished in all its Teak-paneled and shag-carpeted glory, its uncomfortable looking orange couch and lacquered end tables gathering dust.

Not that it looked like a great place, either to play or relax, but I always harbored a secret desire to sneak into that living room and start moving the macraméed owl wall hangings and the vases filled with big glass balls around. I knew such hijinks in the forbidden room would be stroke-inducing to the people in charge, but dang, it felt like it needed to be done.

I suspect the need to have a perfectly preserved room (even if it looked like a touching/creepy homage to the Partridge Family) stemmed from the desire of working class folks to have nice things. Many of the folks in that generation had come of age in the aftermath of the Depression, World War II, and then the cultural pre-pubescence of the 1950s. Having nice things for certain social classes in this generation was still a relatively new phenomenon. Like domestic police, the impulse to “preserve and protect” seemed a natural response to the rapidly shifting political and cultural forces reshaping the American landscape.

“Get out of the living room!” and “You better not spill anything on the good furniture!” became the new suburban rallying cries. Some rooms were for everyday, and some rooms were for … well, never.

I preferred the family rooms of my youth to the living rooms—the former to be used, dirtied, broken, and restored, the latter to be encased in harvest gold amber, and to be later excavated by post-apocalyptic anthropologists looking to explain the domestic habits of late twentieth-century bourgeoisie.

Unfortunately, not only were the aesthetics of this time ecclesiastically enshrined in church buildings [Seriously? Burnt orange upholstery on the pews?], but so were the attitudes about church buildings as special places to be protected against all human encroachment, preserved for some special purpose at a distant point on the horizon of time.

Look, I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be places in a church that are set apart as holy space. The sanctuary probably shouldn’t double as the gym for the Day Care during the week. The baptistry probably shouldn’t house hidden jacuzzi nozzles for staff parties. We probably shouldn’t eat our Cap’n Crunch out of the offering plates. Fine.

Let me be clear, I’m thinking less about the use of particular rooms in the church than about the church building itself. In many people’s minds the church building has become the plastic-wrapped living room that should be safeguarded against the invasion of sticky-fingered people bent on messing it up.

But what if the church building was recast as a family room, to be used, dirtied, broken, and restored?

What if we turned loose of the idea that churches are antiques to be collected, rather than tools to be used to accomplish some purpose?

What if we took a chance and let the community use our space as a gift to those with whom we live and work, instead of defaulting to suspicion of motives or fear of what might happen?

Declining mainline denominations have these huge legacy buildings, sucking up more and more of our resources. What if we said, “We’re going to think about this building as a launching pad, rather than a saddle?”

We’re going to make mistakes. It’s going to get messed up. Somebody’s inevitably going to spill something on the plastic couch covers; somebody’s going to move the owl hangings and leave beer can rings on the lacquered end table.

So, fix it … or learn to love beer can rings.

People visit museums; they don’t live in them.

The Practice of Stewardship

I’m going to begin by saying I don’t have the answers to this. I’ve been thinking about this since I started at this church in September, even before I began, and still haven’t come up with an answer.

How do we practice stewardship better with limited resources?

Facts: few people give 10% of their income anymore.  I know I don’t, and can’t, with the amount of student loan debt, healthcare expenses and other things that have been added into my life. I’d like to give 10% and strive to get closer to that amount, but I can’t right now. 

In larger congregations, traditional stewardship campaigns may work, but I bet they don’t work as well as they used to.  While you may have a greater pool of people who can give ten percent or more, it’s not the same as it once was.  In smaller congregations, the pool of course is much smaller.  And there are income demographics to take into consideration.  I currently serve a small church, with most folks on a fixed income (retired) or two-income households that still struggle to make ends meet.  Most young adults in my congregation still live at home and/or depend upon their parents for childcare or other help. 

So what are our options, as income shrinks and operating expenses grow?

Some churches have opted to sell the building.  This is a great option for those who can go through the process.  It is difficult.  So many have memories that intertwine “church” with “building” and it is hard to let go.  I have now seen a number of congregations who have sold their building and moved into rental situations or have purchased much smaller, more efficient buildings for their ministries and they are thriving. Still others are meeting in more communal settings such as malls, schools, community centers, and bars.  Operating expenses are down, plus they have a nice financial cushion for the period afterwards.

For churches that aren’t in commercial locations, however, this can be a challenge.  Crunching the numbers, it may not be a great financial decision in the long run—short-term needs will be met, but longer term needs are set aside. 

There is, of course, the option of renting space. Most churches (in fact, I think all of the mainline Protestant churches I know if in the area) rent space to other groups.  We already do so.  What happens then is that one owns a building one cannot use except for the previously reserved times and dates.  As ministry is moving back out of the building and into the community, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but churches end up in the tenant/landlord business which isn’t always good business or good ministry.  I have seen some great models of this relationship where the church building has become more of a community center.  It can work, but it can be difficult as well.

I think, however, the question still needs to be asked of stewardship.  What does stewardship look like in the 21st century? Is it always about tithing or giving money?  What else does stewardship mean?

I have always thought of stewardship as taking care of the gifts God has given us.  Gifts such as finances, but also our time, our prayers, and our gifts.  Stewardship needs to have a holistic approach.  Those who cannot give much financially maybe give more of their time. We all know that one person in the church who does so much—they aren’t always the biggest givers financially but they are the biggest givers of themselves.  There are also those you know who are praying for you and the church.  They are giving much of their spiritual gifts and energy.  We need to find ways of cultivating those gifts and honoring those who give out of what they have.

But we still need to talk about money, and it’s not easy.  Some are repulsed by the thought of churches talking about money, especially pastors talking about money from the pulpit.  This hasn’t changed—if anything, it’s become more difficult as the gap between the rich and the poor increases.  There are those who cannot afford to give and those who don’t believe they should have to give because they can afford it. 

As I stated before, I don’t have the answers.  But I do believe we have to change the way we think about stewardship.  It’s beyond money, and yet still includes money.  It is beyond the giving of our individual gifts but it includes all that we can give, individually and collectively.   It involves the questions of how we use our buildings and whether it’s time to rent or sell our buildings.  It also involves the question of what is our purpose and vision and are we needed anymore?  

The questions about continuing on or closing are also difficult.  My small church is choosing to continue on, casting a new vision and generating new ideas and dreams for the church.  There is a lot of great energy here.  And yet, a church twice our size decided to close due to dwindling numbers.  Are we fools for thinking we can go on? Or are we dreamers with a lot of faith?  I think we may be a little of both. 

How are you addressing stewardship in your congregation?  How are you rethinking your ministries?  How are you rethinking the purpose of having a building?  How are you rethinking your church? For newer congregations, how are you addressing stewardship?

Letting Go: Yep, We Need to Go that Far

By Tim Graves

 Mindi Welton-Mitchell writes that the church needs to "let go of the building" in Letting Go. She builds her case well but stops short when she states, "I’m not suggesting everyone go out and sell their buildings." I disagree. We need to go that far.

Until we give up our property, the church will continue to be viewed as -- and in fact be --  hypocritical. When Jesus called his first disciples, "immediately they left their nets and followed him." (Matthew 4:20 NRSV Read in context.) They left the security of their fishing business.

They left security and control behind to follow a scruffy messiah who didn't seem to know how royalty should act. Jesus was the President without secret service protection or Air Force One. He took on tasks considered beneath royalty. Jesus washed the filthy feet of guests, went to the outcast, ate with them, touched the untouchable, and in the process gave hope to the oppressed.

He did not build a synagogue and call people to him. He walked among the people.

The cost of discipleship to Jesus is ceding control to God. Following Jesus requires disruption of our lives of consumerism to seek justice in a world of unjust actions and systems that oppress. Leaving our safety nets behind, we hear the Spirit along a path that branches away from material security.

Followers walk among the people, learning from and with them. Though we sometimes fail, we strive to be God's loving, empathetic presence in a world of indifference. The church, however, is too often about security. The institution of the church itself possesses capitalism's symbols of success: property and financial investments.

Property has become Christians' idol that keeps us from God.  We feed our property-god with new roofs while people sleep under bridges. We slash Educational ministries, missions to those in need, and even Evangelism budgets when our golden calf demands new paint, carpet, or stained glass. With every expenditure we fear opening our doors to those in need will spoil the splendor we've created.

The time has come for the church to leave our nets and business behind and risk it all for the One we claim to follow.