February 18, 2019

A Tale of Three Buildings

I serve a lovely church on top of a hill in a vacation community. The church is surrounded by lakes, and almost doubles its attendance in the summer. I serve as their part-time interim Rector. The church community has been declining; they have lost two thirds of their members in the last 10 years, and much of their energy has been spent caring for their aging buildings.

There are three buildings on the campus: the church building, the rectory and the parish hall. The church is beautiful. It was built in the 1840’s and is a typical New England white church with red doors, stained glass windows and a steep pitched roof. The church is beloved by the community and has been well cared for. The rectory has not been used as a rectory for decades; it is used mostly for office space and meetings, and is in very poor shape. The parish hall is almost as old as the church, is poorly designed and lacks function. The congregation has talked for years about renovating the parish hall, there are plans that date back to the 1960s, but nothing has been done. These three buildings consume most of their energy.

As interim, my focus is on where God is calling the community. What mission is God calling them to? It became clear that they could not envision a new future, as they were stuck on preserving the past through the upkeep and maintenance of these buildings. They had lost the ability to see past where they were, where they had always been. They had options; they just could not see them. What was needed was a plan to free them from the tyranny of these buildings. A plan was presented - sell the rectory, tear down the parish hall, and build a new right sized building connected to the church. The vestry voted “Yes”! The congregation was brought on board and miraculously, all were in agreement. They were now excited about new possibilities!

The shift in energy is amazing. The congregation has gone from depression to excitement. They have something to look forward to, something to be excited about. There is new vitality, new energy and new focus. So far, the parish hall has been torn down, the rectory will be sold in the spring, and the new building committee is hard at work on design options. You can feel the new life and energy.

Buildings so often define who we are and who we can be. Don’t underestimate the power of your buildings to define your community. So many of our buildings were designed in another era. How do they serve our mission today? Can we adapt them to our needs, or do we need a fresh start? Sometimes buildings enhance the growth and mission of a church, other times they hinder it. Communities often get tied up by their buildings, unwilling to see that new life can be had when we free ourselves from their constraints. How do your buildings enhance your mission, how do they constrain it? It is a question you must ask.

The original text of this article has been edited to reflect ECF's current programs.