March 3, 2016

Tenants and Friends

Are your tenants your friends? Is that even possible? What is the relationship with the people who use your church’s space?

So many of our churches these days have tenants. It’s practical, mostly. We often have more space and less money than we need, and tenants help pay the bills. When we’re lucky, our tenants are nonprofits and community organizations that do things we are proud to be associated with.

My church has several tenants, including one large one that is a major part of our economic stability. What I have noticed, however, is that the tenant relationship is not particularly conducive to a sense of shared ministry. Tenant relationships tend to have defined expectations, clear exchanges of money, space and services, and not much beyond a friendly hello in the hallway to mark our connections.

In our parish, we have begun experimenting with other ways to offer our space. We are, in essence, asking people to be our friends. When someone comes to ask to rent space, we suggest a more complex relationship. We ask for voluntary donations rather than setting a dollar amount of rent. We ask for some kind of in-kind donation to the life of the church: help with parish work days, an eye out for security when the new groups are in the space, offerings of talent such as music and dance that add to the life of the church.

This approach can make people a little anxious. Many of our neighbors would honestly prefer to have a dollar amount and some rules and be done with it. Many of our parish leaders worry that the church will be short-changed.

Gradually, however, we have begun to see fruits from our efforts. There is a different spirit to the relationship with our friends in comparison to the relationship with our tenants. Our friends make suggestions. They check out aspects of the church’s life that may not be directly related to the reasons they came in the first place. They feel free to ask when they need extra space or extra time. They clean up and encourage others to do the same.

Our friendships bring us music, food and help when we need it. The youth bands that practice in our space have agreed to take turns providing music once a month at our Spanish-language service. The basketball team and hometown associations bring food to our potlucks and gatherings. Those who use the space on a friendship basis have started to meet occasionally and plan joint projects, like cleaning the carpets and floors. 

When someone tossed an explosive into our trash bin one evening, the band members’ parents were first on the scene with fire extinguishers. When a surprise fire inspection necessitated an emergency cleanup of our storage areas, our friends needed only a text message to spring into action. They don’t want the church to be shut down or fined because this is their place too. 

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