Cohort of practitioners forming to find new options for church assets in transition

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage our communities, destabilize the economy, and deepen our sense of uncertainty, many are asking what the church should do. The answer is, of course, a lot. After all, if faith isn’t about healing of every kind, what is it all about? The truth is, however, that the Christian church in America is, by-and-large and across all denominations, having its own crisis. Church closings have been commonplace in every town and city over the last decade or two, by the hundreds in some states, and congregations are having to grapple with a hard question: what is church if we no longer have a building? The Faith and Finance community has ascribed a name to this phenomenon, calling it assets in transition, and the transition we’re seeing is as much about real estate transactions as it is about the evolving role of the church in these challenging times.  

One of the main challenges for churches is what can be called “two-pocket thinking” around faith and money, where a sacred/secular divide makes money either good (charity, tithing) or suspect (for profit investments). There are good reasons for this skepticism, including that many pastors are not trained to even think about money or their role as a financial steward of assets, but if we dig down a couple of levels of “why”, we almost always get to some fundamental disconnect between the institution and the community it seeks to serve. The questions the current global pandemic is raising for all of us, like “who is my neighbor”, “what is my surplus”, and “what is money good for”, are the same questions churches on the brink of shutting their doors are also forced to ask.

Thankfully, there are powerful examples across the country where pastors and their partners are smartly and courageously responding to these questions. These leaders and their organizations have made the church’s purpose inextricably tied to economic opportunities for the poorest in their communities. Some of them, like the United Church of Christ’s Church Building and Loan Fund (CB&LF), have been working at this for over 150 years, and in so doing, turning fear of the unknown into hope and flourishing. CB&LF’s Executive Director, Rev. Dr. Patrick Duggan says, “In trying to discern a better way to steward their assets, some church leaders think they need to be better capitalists. But to unleash abundance, faith leaders need to be better missionaries – to discern a renewed mission and to advance it with passion and focus.” After several decades doing this work, Duggan is clear about one thing, the need to repurpose buildings and not confuse the church with the building itself.

Duggan is part of a larger peer group, launched by Faith and Finance, of practitioners working on church assets in transition, adding affordable housing or transitional housing to church property. We held our first Zoom meeting this week to facilitate the discovery of shared experiences, new strategies, etc. As the conversation unfolded, we all recognized that not only are these folks not alone in their work, they are, in fact, the front line of the “transition” team. Here’s a peek at a few of these church asset transition team leaders, and in the next several posts we will introduce them all.

Dave Harder, based in Ottowa, is working on projects to help churches in transition operating with partners as Parish Properties, and also leads the Canadian branch of Parish Collective, a global movement of Christians reimagining what it means to be the church in, with, and for the neighborhood. Harder is taking part in this “pivot towards neighborhood and place” and started Parish Properties to leverage assets for conscientious development. 

Joel Gilland of Westley Community Development is a developer by trade, who since 2016 has been working with United Methodist churches in North Carolina to rethink space (most churches only use their spac 12% of the time) and develop or repurpose real estate to better meet church and community needs. He leads classes that bring together clergy and laity around developing projects that include LEED certified buildings with solar power. In one case a failing church became senior housing, a meeting place for multiple college youth groups with a community garden in between as well as worship space. Sometimes a church sells, sometimes it also takes an equity stake in a condo development that takes its place. As churches continue to close, Gilland knows those revenues can be redirected and helps churches develop open spaces with a business plan to address how they can combine ministry with revenue generation, while making these spaces carbon neutral. Joel is also working with Duke Divinity to address the fact that pastors are not trained for what they’re being sent to do.

Also in North Carolina is Presbyterian Pastor Amy Cantrell who started Beloved Asheville, a small community of faith that lives together in intentional poverty. Amy is a self-proclaimed street pastor who is developing a model of deeply affordable, community-oriented, sustainable Micro Homes that produce equity for people getting pushed out of the community via gentrification, those who face housing discrimination, or people who are currently homeless. Her advocacy for the homeless had led to a social innovation called the mobile medic team where a group of Homeless Boys are trained to administer medical care, creating a culture of prevention and health for people on the streets. 

Over in San Antonio, working in the poorest zip code in the country, Ram Gonzales is forging new ground by employing creative strategies to remove regulatory and financial barriers to redevelopment as the leader of Urban Lazarus Partners, managing a small real estate fund. Ram also directs the West Side Development Corporation of San Antonio and works closely with the public sector on downtown redevelopment of 45 churches where 19 have property and want to move forward. He is building new public-private partnerships that focus on leveraging these assets to solve community problems and he’s facilitated over $80 million in real estate redevelopment projects. 

One of the main obstacles to finding a new path forward, said Chris Kopka, a veteran of Thrivent’s work with Lutheran and other congregations around the country, is that congregations for whom the numbers dictate a change is needed to avoid potential foreclosure are unable to see the situation clearly. They are unable to detach from visions of an imagined past, Kopka said, leading to them staying blind to the current emergency. That also prevents them from being able to see the new opportunity to share sacred space within a broader, potentially vibrant community. In transactional terms, he said it’s a “willing seller” problem. 

Stay tuned for more profiles from this peer group on their effective strategies for managing assets in transition. Still to come: Sidney Williams, Dave Kresta, Leroy Barber, Graham Singh, Mark Elsdon, Daniel Pryfogle, and David Bowers. We will be mapping the emerging ecosystem of practitioners working with congregational assets in transition, continuing to convene online, write stories and do webinars for a broader group of interested faith-based leaders.

“Half of the population of the United States is poor or low income and yet Americans are conditioned to believe that poverty is an injudicious choice by people who have ample opportunity to prosper.”

Patrick Duggan of United Church of Christ’s Church Building and Loan Fund

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