Our Building as an Asset (not as an Albatross): Old First E-pistle 10.19.12

Our Building as an Asset (not as an Albatross): Old First E-pistle 10.19.12

It’s become somewhat popular in cutting edge church circles to pooh-pooh congregation having buildings. The critics have got a point.

It’s a fortune of capital upfront (that most young congregations do not have) to buy or build dedicated space. And, on-going, a building’s upkeep takes a lot of volunteer and staff energy, not to mention significant financial resources. (Alongside personnel costs, buildings are among a church’s biggest expenses.)

The management of the property unquestionably adds to the agita and angst in local church life, as well as to the confusion and misunderstandings that sometimes happen among leaders and the congregation.

Many churches realize they can rent space — school auditoriums, for example, that lay fallow on Sunday mornings and evenings — more successfully than own. After all, church is first and foremost not the building, but people committed to one another and God in a community of service.

For older churches, being “property-free” often isn’t a realistic option. The church building has usually been “theirs” for so long, people in and outside the congregation identify the structure with the congregation or its mission. Sometimes we even mistake the bricks and mortar for the church. It is, at the least, a sacred sign of that which is holy in the midst of the community, albeit not that tangible.

As North American congregations have shrunk in size, and financial resources have followed suit, many churches find themselves saddled with plants much larger than they need, and whose upkeep is often well beyond their current means. Historical designations or other community recognition of the building complicate the situations further. Nonetheless, those four walls and leaky roof become a sacred cow, especially for congregations whose current community life pales in comparison with all that happened during their well-remembered, if now long past, glory days.

There have been churches that have been literally driven out of existence by buildings that sapped their resources — time, talent, treasure — until there was nothing left for ministry. It’s not unusual to hear of sacred, decrepit buildings described as the proverbial albatross around the neck of the congregation who calls it home.

This week, a group of Old First leaders — Suzanne Cole, Nancy Donohue, Mike Wass, Mindy and I — began a 7-month training program sponsored by the Partners for Sacred Places. It’s called “New Partners/New Dollars” and teaches a different take on buildings: you might call it the glass half full approach.

Partners for Sacred Places fully acknowledges all the responsibility that, particularly, aging buildings can be for the congregations who own them. But Sacred Places also believes that these same buildings are great assets — not only for the ministry that the congregation initiates out of them, but also for all they add to the surrounding community. Sacred Places has developed a way not only to evaluate, but also to value the affects that a congregation has… both the worth of the services that a church provides, as well as the “magnetic effect” that a local church’s presence can have for the wider community.

Their philosophy and tack are to help local churches recognize their buildings as something other than bottomless pits demanding the congregation’s lifeblood. It’s important, Sacred Places preaches, if buildings are prized as incomparable assets that locate and enable most of the church’s work as well as providing economical space for a host of other community endeavors and a boon to the whole neighborhood.

Sacred Places believes that congregation’s buildings produce much more than they cost. The “New Dollars/New Partners” training intends to help us and our surrounding community understand.

We began by thinking about “making the Old First case,” the explanation… for our own community and the wider world — which articulates both the uniqueness of our congregation and the difference it makes in the world. There was a business school exercise, making your “elevator speech:” “you’re walk into an elevator and realize it’s just you and either a venture capitalist or the mayor; you’ve got 2 minutes before your ride together ends to tell this potential supporter what you want and why they should give it to you.” (We asked Mayor Nutter to help us get sanitation to pick up more than 10 bags of garbage and give us a credit on utilities during shelter season… and to use eminent domain to help us our German School building {ask big, we’ve heard!}.)

We also began to think about the best practices for caring for historic properties as well as overseeing work in the building. Mike is taking some materials and worksheets back to our Property Ministry Team to help them “look, identify, assess, resolve.” Not surprisingly, Sacred Spaces insists on the integrity of the “building envelope.” The joke was made: “Religious communities have two enemies: the devil and water.”

Finally, we began to work on figuring the value of what Old First does as well as the value we add to the larger historic section of the city… and how the building is integral to that.

We hope that our participation in “New Partners/New Dollars” initiative will help us to come to a better appreciate the buildings left to our current ministry by previous generations. And in so doing, help us also to organize the resources to care for these buildings as their historic lineage and current usage demand. We hope in becoming clearer about these first two, we will end up better stewards of the structures, the precious community that calls them home and the sacred endeavors they house. Pray for the learning of our leaders in this new program and for the difference a change of attitude and more knowledge will might make for our whole ministry, will you?

See you in church,

Michael