Eying the 'street view' of church maintenance and building potential

Episcopal Church Building Fund helps revitalize congregations
June 6, 2011

Like many contemporary churches, Trinity, Buffalo, was saddled with too much building and maintenance and too few resources, until the Diocese of Western New York congregation eyed its "street view" circumstances and turned a liability into an asset.

Take the parking lot, for instance. "We had rented some spaces in our parking lot and raised about $20,000 a year. But it was really beat up. It was so beat up that some of our neighbors complained about it," recalled the Rev. Cameron Miller, Trinity rector, during a recent telephone interview.

"And the people renting the space complained because it had so many potholes. We started looking at it and realized it had a lot of potential."

The Episcopal Church Building Fund (ECBF) got involved. "They led us through a process of renovating the parking lot and expanding it," Miller explained. Revenues have more than tripled since, to $65,000 annually.

Empowering congregations to realize hidden potential in depreciating, even decaying buildings is a major focus for the ECBF, created in 1880 "to help make loans for the westward expansion of the church," according to President Julia Groom-Thompson.

"We started thinking, how much sense does it make for us to put all of our eggs in the basket of building new churches -- isn't there a better way for the building fund to serve the greater church with a slightly altered mission," she said during a recent telephone interview.

Realizing the increasing pressure on clergy and vestries to support buildings, and "that every single month ... Episcopal churches close due to financial pressure ... we thought there had to be a better way," she added.

It led to regional symposiums and yearlong pilot projects, a recently completed one in the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania and an upcoming venture in the Diocese of Iowa, said Groom-Thompson.

Three Pennsylvania congregations "in varying degrees of decay ... with huge building issues, the endowment was running out and they had dwindling membership" participated, said Groom-Thompson, who declined to name the congregations.

For one congregation, conducting a community survey was a turning point. "They asked people about their church. Some of the responses included, 'you mean that dirty old place on the hill? I thought it was closed,'" Groom-Thompson said.

"They loved this little church. It was a beautiful sanctuary, a beautiful place of comfort and community. But they came to realize that's not who they were to the community," Groom-Thompson said.

ECBF is soon to launch a churchwide building survey, is developing its materials into a workbook for congregations and is also redesigning its website to include take-away tools for churches, Groom-Thompson said.

The agency helps congregations gather information, set goals, remain accountable, through on-site visits and trainings and even via telephone contact.

"We're trying to mold what we do to the needs of the church, with a limited staff and limited resources," said Groom-Thompson. The ECBF does not receive General Convention funding and operates as a separate entity from the Episcopal Church structure, she added.

It's also a painful process, especially for those unwilling to adapt to the reality of graying membership, and changing economic, environmental and other circumstances, she said.

"There are those people in the parish who are not willing to change," Groom-Thompson said. "If you tell them it's change or die, they feel, 'okay let's die. Just let me die with my church the way it is. Just bury me from here the way it is and all will be good.'"

But most dioceses can no longer afford to subsidize "at-risk" congregations, said Bobbi Yeo, canon for finance and administration in the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California, where a volunteer response team helps floundering congregations.

"One church in particular, is in a rural farming area. They have a beautiful facility, classrooms, dining hall, commercial kitchen, a beautiful courtyard, but their structures are suffering from deferred maintenance and the depressed economy," she said. "They don't have money to address the deferred maintenance issue to make the property usable."

In such cases the response team helps congregations make assessments, and develop creative options to help "repurpose their facilities to generate income to help support their congregations." Including, possibly in this case, development of a retreat center, or even leasing space to a charter school, Yeo said.

Too often, she added, "it's like a hospice situation. It's hard to talk about," she said. "We try to get them to talk about it and think about what they would like to be in the future."

In Buffalo, there had already been talk of closing the 125-year-old Trinity Parish, when the Rev. Cameron Miller was called as rector about 12 years ago.

Its campus, located in one of the nation's poorest and most racially divided cities, included four historic buildings and monthly winter heating bills averaging $12,000.

Miller cultivated relationships with the local community and characterized building use as mission. A "signature" food justice outreach and other programs followed; local agencies rented office space on the campus. Ultimately, building income spiked from zero to a projected $212,000 this year. He now hopes to raise money to invest in local fledgling businesses and ministries.

It all happened through building relationships "with people that may or may not have anything to do with Sunday morning. It has more to do with seeing the church as an integral part of the city and seeing the city as an integral part of the church," Miller said. "After 175 years we joined the neighborhood."

For Miller, assessing congregation vibrancy includes both "the numbers of people who have life-changing experiences, who find healing and are empowered to go out and do something different to serve the community" and a business model.

"You have to outrun the red ink. We have to keep looking for new sources of income. The benefit of that is it keeps you creative and thoughtful," he added.

For Steve Pierce, coordinator for congregational support in the Diocese of Massachusetts and a featured speaker at an ECBF symposium held in Salt Lake City in April, the key is becoming more proactive, less reactive.

Teams of volunteers help congregations assess both vitality and viability, helping congregations discover "if the building's the right one for them today, and what does the future look like? Maybe they end up repurposing the building, and selling it and putting the funds into a stewardship plan for a new and revitalized ministry."

But, it can be tricky, "sometimes people say you're in the church closing business. No, we're in the church revitalizing business. It's snowballing and if we don't grasp it and do something with it all we're going to be doing is reacting, reacting, reacting. I don't think that's what the Spirit is calling us to do.

"It's not about closing buildings and ending ministries. It's trying to figure out how can we help churches be revitalized centers for community and the gospel being made alive."