Shining Light on Your Church’s Halo

This week, a new post from Rev. David Schoen. Rev. Schoen’s new guide Facing Your Church’s Uncertain Future: Helpful Practices for Courageous Conversations & Faithful Decisions is now available on UCC Resources.  To contact Rev. Schoen, email him at dschoen@ucc.org.

What is the value of a church building to its community? I’m not referring to the real estate value of the building but the value of the societal impact of a church and its building to the neighboring community.

It wasn’t long ago that I thought most church buildings were a drag upon congregations; old fashioned, not appealing to younger generations, and an economic drain upon a congregation’s money that could be used for missional outreach. I still believe that there are situations where it is a good decision for a congregation to leave a facility that no longer matches the church’s purpose, mission, size and spirit. However, I now see what a church facility can mean not only for a congregation but for the social and economic well-being of the community around the church.

For instance, I am currently in discussion with a pastor of a UCC congregation in the Seattle suburban area that houses three other congregations, as well as meetings for twenty-nine (!)  Twelve-Step and other community organizations. More than 1,000 folks use the church building each week. That’s more than 52,000 ‘hits’ (significant service visits) each year by community people including a tent community in their parking lot for three months. The church property is a great asset to the community as well as to the congregation of 87 members who care for its upkeep and maintenance.

Partners for Sacred Places, an organization that helps congregations make the most of their properties as civic assets, has studied the societal impact of church and religious buildings in to help congregations measure and articulate the value of the space it shares serving the larger community. In 2016, they studied The Economic Halo Effect of Historic Sacred Spaces  focused on urban churches in Chicago, Philadelphia and Fort Worth. The study found the economic impact that a historic sacred place in an urban environment generates for their community averaged of over $1.7 million annually. Those figures are based on the value of;

  • free or inexpensive space provided to community organizations and non-profits
  • educational programs (schools and day care)
  • direct spending in communities from church budgets
  • employee and staff salaries
  • spending by members and visitors in the community
  • outdoor recreational, playground, garden space and parking
  • volunteer community support and service.

A faith-based group in Toronto using this research created a Halo Project calculator to show that every dollar a congregation spends could create $4.77 worth of service a city doesn’t have to provide.

Rev. Patrick Walker, senior pastor at the New Macedonia Baptist Church in Washington, DC wrote in a Washington Post article, Does a Religious Community Need Its Own Building to Flourish, “If the decline in church buildings as third spaces continues unchecked, among other things, the residents of the city from all socioeconomic levels will be the eventual losers.”

Although churches and church buildings are often dismissed by communities as non-taxable property, in truth churches are of significant economic and social impact for their communities. The Partners in Sacred Spaces study found that 87% of those who benefit from social service, educational or cultural programs housed in the average sacred place are not members of the congregation. All churches are not the historic urban congregations studied in the Partners report, but no matter what their size and location churches can have a significant value to their community and the lives of their neighbors. Think of the small town congregation whose building may be the only gathering place and social service center for the community. The loss of congregations and their buildings in small towns, midsize communities as well as large urban centers is a loss to the social fabric, spiritual presence and economy of each area.

 How can we maintain missional service spaces that churches provide during this time of church closures? The Central Atlantic Conference UCC  (CAC) has recently dealt with issues of what to do with significant church buildings when two historic congregations closed in downtown Washington D.C; Lincoln Congregational Temple UCC a historic African American church founded in 1869 by free blacks and recently enslaved people, and Grace Reformed UCC the church of President Theodore Roosevelt. These facilities used throughout the years by community organizations have remained open after the congregations closed to consider future options that will continue the missional purpose of the buildings.

In a recent presentation, Rev. Marvin Silver, CAC Associate Conference Minister Justice & Witness Ministries said, “In cases where a local church should close, could we develop new churches and ministries at the current location? Should we only be in the business of closing churches? What if we were able to prevent churches from reaching legacy and help them to reinvent themselves into a new church and ministry?” Together with the UCC Cornerstone Fund and UCC Church Building & Loan Fund, CAC has started the Nehemiah Project “a pilot project to re-imagine and rebuild the local church, working with a group of churches to explore, be trained, support each other, and journey together toward a new future.”

Maintaining a missional presence in communities during these challenging times for churches and church buildings will require the imaginative vision and missional collaboration of  all of us; local congregations, conferences, national agencies and community allies. This is a growing edge with budding possibilities already apparent among us, including small rural churches that bond together across distances, as well as collaborations like Brick and Mortals, Inhabit and the Nehemiah Project.

What is the Halo Effect of your congregation and building? As you discuss the use of your building, as you meet and greet neighborhood organizations into your facility and as you plan budgets or capital campaigns, take time to calculate the societal and economic value of your presence and facility using the metrics of the study by Partners in Sacred Space. Shine a light on your church’s halo.

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