Golden Calf or Golden Opportunity (Part 2): E-pistle 08.25.11

Golden Calf or Golden Opportunity (Part 2): E-pistle 08.25.11

Last week’s E-pistle introduced you to Amy Butler’s article “A Change of Perspective.” She believes historic, downtown congregations today must be 1) willing to change, and 2) incredibly intentional about their current (as opposed to past) mission, vision and identity– specifically, how they are actually living them out.

However, her third insight was my reason for sharing her article with you:

3) Older, urban congregations face steeper challenges relating to material stewardship. That’s primarily about finding ourselves responsible for large, older, historic facilities that, while well-suited to the needs of the congregation that worshiped here in 1861– her date!, I’d substitute 1837 for us– are an overwhelming practical and financial burden for the congregation inhabiting them now.

To name the specifics of Old First’s challenge:

~ Ancient building systems.
~ Failing gutters.
~ Fragile windows and rotting sills.
~ A sanctuary of more seating capacity than we will almost ever need in our church-lifetimes (even if we continue to grow as we have been).
~ Historic preservation rules.
~ Neighbors in what has become an upscale residential enclave.

Historic, urban churches face inordinate challenges managing our church lives within the facilities we’ve inherited. Deferring maintenance ironically multiplies that challenge. Our unawareness of the issue increases the uphill climb geometrically.

At Old First, sometimes I hear “our social service activities demand more resources than we can afford.” For a congregation dedicating significantly more to such services than most, that’s a crucial question we need to look at carefully, calmly, rationally… putting all angles, perspectives, passions and fears on the table, and sitting with them long enough, listening to one another deeply enough (without getting defensive!) to come up with some, at least provisional consensus (single or multiple) on the subject.

With the current financial hole facing this year’s shelter operation– due to a 40% cut in the FEMA funding that pays for the night supervisors– this question may bear down on us with greater urgency and quicker than we expected.

But I fear that discussion will not be honest or as productive as we need it to be unless we also acknowledge and factor in our situation with our facilities. An insightful leader recently assumed that our current building usage– both the income it generates and the cost of its operations– were non-variables.

Is that really the case?

Of cours, we’re not going to abandon 4th and Race! But couldn’t our building serve more than its current use?

Can Old First afford to overlook how expensive our facility is, particularly when our largest space (with a seating capacity of 1000?) is used by, let’s say on average 125 people, for less than 6 hours a week? One might say the sanctuary is actually made more expensive by its underutilization.

It takes everyone of us (remember: greeting visitors is a one-time chance; you can catch up with old friends at other times!), but we are building up our worshiping congregation so that the building serves more people on Sunday mornings. I’m not sure this is exactly how a bookkeeper would do the economics, but… if our worshiping congregation were 250 people each Sunday morning, you could say we’d cut the cost of the Sanctuary in half.

But is that the only possibility?

Wouldn’t our whole ministry benefit by bringing our assumptions into the light of day, sitting with them, talking with one another, even if that process and the questions it raises makes us uncomfortable, so we could consider our facilities and their mission effectiveness?

There are options, and we do make choices:

Could we share our worship space with other congregations?
Could the sanctuary be rightly used for purposes other than worship?
What if an orchestra or theater ensemble or a dance company could be in residence here?
Or a children’s program? Or a community feeding program…
I’m sure there are possibilities I’ve not ever even imagined.

Would we be willing to make physical changes to our sanctuary to enable that?

My point is simply that all the questions and commitments of our life together are interconnected, more so when resources are tight. The renewal of our worship as well as the extension of our christian education program and the stability of our social services are all tied up in our investment in this property.

I’m urging a change of perspective and practice: freed up from how we have organized, dedicated, behaved and served in the past, we will find our inheritance is not just a liability, but our an invaluable asset. So let’s start talking…

See you in church,


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