The Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF), the Episcopal Church Building Fund (ECBF), and the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania are teaming up to develop what they say will be "a thoughtful and spiritually grounded process to assist congregations with the discernment of the ministry of buildings."
Like other Episcopal dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest, many of the parishes in Northwestern Pennsylvania are in buildings that are too large for the size of their congregation, and have significant maintenance, repair, and restoration costs that are beyond their financial capacity, according to an ECF-ECBF news release.
"Rather than serving as a catalyst for ministry, these beloved and often historic buildings are limiting focus and interfering with the mission and ministry of the congregation," the release said, adding that deferred maintenance has caused some health and safety issues requiring allocation of financial resources at the expense of staff, program, and outreach ministry.
A pilot project involving the three entities is meant to provide training, resources, and tools to help congregations address questions such as:
- how they define themselves as a community of faith, and what role buildings and grounds play in that definition;
- whether they have the financial capacity to maintain their property;
- whether there are alternative uses of the property that could benefit both the parish and the wider community; new uses for buildings that will provide an income stream; cost sharing methods that allow small congregations to continue to use the building; and
- what God is calling them to do in the midst of these questions.
Along with helping the participating congregations, the project plans to produce a discernment model that is replicable, sustainable, and transformational that can be used throughout the Episcopal Church, the release said.
"Too often in the church we minimize the role of buildings and grounds in our ministry," Northwestern Pennsylvania Bishop Sean Rowe said in the release. "This project will provide congregations with resources to discern how God is calling them to use buildings and grounds for Kingdom work. We hope to equip congregations to see their buildings and grounds as a catalyst for mission, and not a disproportionate drain of resources."
ECF's mission is to strengthen the leadership and financial capabilities of Episcopal communities of faith to pursue their mission and ministry; ECBF's mission is to aid in the building, improvement, and repair of churches, rectories, parochial, and diocesan buildings by providing assistance in planning and loans, and to aid in the development of congregations through providing training, education, and resources.
The release called the Northwestern Pennsylvania project "the first step in ECBF's plans to expand services to Episcopal congregations and dioceses across the United States."
"The ECBF has traditionally been a funding source for planning, renovating and building church structures," said Diocese of Southwestern Florida Bishop Dabney Smith, board chair. "Congregations close for various socio-economic reasons and the ECBF leadership realizes the critical and immediate need to respond to the Episcopal Church in a more forward thinking and visionary manner."
ECF President Donald V. Romanik said in the release that the foundation has "worked with a number of congregations around the country that are trying to assess how to best utilize, and steward, what is their most valuable, but also their most costly, asset."
"And while the solutions vary in each instance, at the end of the day, congregations must discern what they are being called by God to do, and how they will get there," he said. "When they can answer these questions, there is a renewed sense of commitment to mission rather than to buildings."