Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On Church Buildings

I currently serve at the Diocese of Chicago's third oldest parish, which was founded in 1851. If you were to pass in front of the building, you might not think it was a church at all, and certainly not one of such great longevity. Grace is now at its sixth location in a converted commercial building in the South Loop's Printer's Row. It houses not only an Episcopal congregation on Sunday, but a number of not-for-profit organizations, a Lutheran satellite campus, a Korean congregation, the South Loop campus ministry (Lutheran/Episcopal), a weekly community breakfast for 200 homeless men and women, yoga, Alcoholics Anonymous, and a number of other activities that vary from week to week. The building is almost always FULL.

For many congregations, though, their buildings are perceived as a burden, rather than an asset. After several years on the diocesan Congregations Commission, I came to appreciate how pivotal a building can be to a congregation's survival and vitality. Many are faced with huge obstacles posed by deferred maintenance: a roof that needs to be replaced, a parking lot that needs to be resurfaced, tuckpointing to preserve a crumbling facade, foundation or other work to stem flooding, electrical upgrades, plumbing repairs, a new boiler or water heater. The list goes on and on. In every congregation where I have been a leader, both as a layperson and as a priest, there have been major physical plant challenges. As a result, some have argued that we need to get out of our expensive Gothic or Romanesque buildings and relocate to spaces that are more economical and better suited to the kind of work our congregations want to do. They're bleeding us dry, people complain.

A community meeting on the 1st floor meeting space.
While that may be true in many cases, the larger question for me is: what does your building make possible? There is no doubt that Grace, a parish that numbers a steady 65 on Sundays, is able to do disproportionately more than other congregations its size because of its extraordinary building. I know you'll indulge me and allow me to brag a little that the parish has a reach and a reputation in the community that most congregations would envy. But even a contemporary building ideally suited to ministry in the wider community has a variety of associated costs. Tenants provide a steady revenue stream, but they also generate costs. Additional wear and tear on the building from increased usage; staffing to provide building security, custodial services, and setup/break-down of the various meeting spaces; infrastructure repairs and upgrades to the physical plant; and legal fees incurred to negotiate contracts and occupancy agreements can also be part of the equation. There is no doubt in my mind that these expenses are worthwhile; and the relationships the parish builds with its community and ministry partners are inestimable. But they can add up to a sizable fiscal note. So, a parish needs to be informed about what's involved and smart about managing it all.

Saturday's community breakfast.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges posed by church buildings. Moving out of an historic Gothic building might be more cost-effective, but relocating to a converted printing warehouse might not support the ethos and aesthetic of the traditional liturgy that is central to a particular parish's identity and reputation. On the other hand, it might be just the thing that allows that parish to grow into a more vibrant and stable version of itself. It might encourage the parish to think of itself in new ways, as its members discover what the new building makes possible. In either case, the parish needs to act strategically to ensure that it has the right leadership, resources, and infrastructure to support its mission. As a priest that spends about half of his time doing administration and management, I value the experience and skills sets I developed as a not-for-profit executive. I couldn't do my job without them. I am aware, however, that if we imagine new ways of being church, including the types of buildings we use, seminaries will have to train clergy differently and congregations will need to recruit particular types of expertise to fill leadership roles on vestries, building committees, and other bodies. Church buildings can be a invaluable asset if we honestly evaluate what they make possible, and what they don't, and what they need from us to make them work.

Fr. Ethan+

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