Rev. L. Gail Irwin has served UCC and PCUSA churches as a settled and Intentional Interim Pastor. She is a freelance writer and author of Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Her blog can be found at http://freelancepastor.wordpress.com
I have made repeat visits to a particular church called Grace over the last several years.
The first time was about fifteen years ago, when a dozen tired, bitter members were persuaded by their judicatory leaders to reluctantly close the church’s doors. One of those members gave me a tour of the building, showing off the beautiful woodwork and windows. She clearly did not want to let go of the sacred space where she had worshiped for many years.
But shortly afterward, a miracle happened: a local artist and entrepreneur named Jim Rivett purchased the building and refurbished it, carving out office space, preserving the beautiful windows, and refashioning polished wooden pews into bookshelves.
I visited a second time in 2011. Seeing the hundred-year-old space filled with light was startling and hopeful. Rivett opened an advertising agency called Arketype there and hosted weddings and theatrical performances. His agency donated advertising for local non-profits. When I toured the remodeled space and interviewed him, he told me that homeless people, thinking the building was still a church, would sometimes drop in looking for help. And he would help them, tapping into his own resources to offer a meal or to be a mentor. He had a special place in his heart for the homeless and people in recovery.
But a few years later, Rivett died by suicide, and the agency closed its doors. The holy space again seemed overwhelmed with sorrow.
It sat vacant for a couple years before it was purchased again a year ago, this time by a local non-profit agency that works with the homeless.
I stopped by the other day for my third visit. It is now the Micah Day Center, where homeless community members can take classes, work on their resumes, visit a health clinic, have lunch, join a recovery group, or access a computer. Although the center was once sponsored by the Catholic Church, it is now independently financed and run as a secular organization. The caseworker who gave me a tour told me she sometimes sits down at the piano and leads singing for the clients. “It used to be a church, so of course, it’s designed for group singing,” she said.
How communities make use of their church buildings is a growing issue these days. As congregations get smaller, they have trouble maintaining buildings that are too large for their current needs and budgets. This has become more apparent since the pandemic. And, as David Schoen reports, an increasing number of churches are closing their doors. “A UCC church closes or becomes inactive every 10 days,” he writes. “The impact of the pandemic will most likely hasten churches considering closure”.
Among those churches still envisioning a future, some may wonder if they are justified in maintaining expensive buildings for a few worshipers when the money used to maintain them could be spent on more mission-oriented ministries. After all, why maintain a building when Christians have been known to meet in homes, restaurants, and dog parks?
And yet… healthy neighborhoods still value the presence of these iconic and centrally located public spaces. Partners for Sacred Places has studied what they call the “halo effect”: the positive economic and social capital impact of having a thriving church in the neighborhood. The presence of institutional churches as community centers that draw diverse populations is documented in their 2016 study. Keeping church buildings open and hospitable has a positive effect on entire neighborhoods.
Knowing this, some congregations are visioning beyond their own needs to other community needs their properties might address, by transforming their buildings into new forms of ministry.
Here’s the story of three churches who sold two of their buildings and retrofitted the third one to accommodate them all.
Here’s one about a church in Minneapolis that gave its building to an emerging mission as a drop-in center for women and girls healing from commercial sexual exploitation.
And this book tells the story of how a nearly defunct campus ministry in Madison, Wisconsin was revitalized by “impact investment” in building affordable housing on their property.
The transformation of church properties into new ministries, as seen at Grace Church and all these others, speaks to me of God’s ingenuity and flexibility. We sometimes think old church buildings are fixed in their purpose, with their high ceilings, mystical acoustics, and religious art embedded in windows. But the world is God’s playdough. And those with generous hearts and creative minds will find ways to remold physical things into new shapes for the greater good.