March 12, 2024

Are Our Buildings Assets?

Assets and liabilities, that’s Accounting 101. Assets generate income or initiative or power, whereas liabilities are those things that cost money and cost energy, focus, attention. Assets and liabilities.

The church’s greatest assets, of course, are the Holy Spirit and God’s people. To have a truly divine inspiration and calling, such that our vision will always exceed our human capacity – making us rely on God’s power, not our own – well, that’s an asset. That’s our primary asset. Clergy and lay leaders are our second greatest asset. If we’re prioritizing assets, The Episcopal Church should not only imagine but hasten to implement a future in which these two assets are lifted up as our greatest strengths. Anything else – everything else, in fact – should be shaped around these.

That’s not so much a dream, nor theological fluff, as a radical agenda for the future shape of the church.

But of course people are going to say that we have too much at stake, too much in terms of received inheritance, too much in our immediate attention to simply rely on the Holy Spirit and the movement of God’s people. Take, for instance, our buildings and property. These are significant holdings that play important roles in so many communities.

But are our buildings and property assets? The Episcopal Church has 6,000+ parishes. That’s a whole lot of churches, chapels, rectories, vicarages, parish halls, parish houses, other houses, other buildings, other property, land, and fields. Lots of local congregations list the fair market value of their real estate holdings on their asset sheet. Even a tiny congregation can show assets of half-million, upwards of one-million dollars.

The technical definition of an asset, however, is “property owned by a person or company, regarded as having value and available to meet debts, commitments, or legacies.” That is to say, an asset is something that can generate income, opportunities, and initiatives to meet real needs. That standalone church building that sits locked all week long and is used by one congregation for one hour, maybe two hours each week – is that an asset? The parish house and its five classrooms which once housed the growing Sunday School of the 1970s, but which now collects dust – is that an asset? The old rectory where the church offices are now housed – what’s that? Asset or liability?

Our buildings and property are only assets if they are actively generating something.

For starters, they can generate income. That’s one definition of an asset.

Congregations can rent out unused space. Such rental income helps balance the books. But what happened in the early days of the Covid pandemic when rental income dried up, but buildings – and building maintenance – remained the responsibility of the owner congregation?

Can we start admitting that rental income is not a long-term growth strategy? Nearly 50 years ago, I went to pre-school and kindergarten in a school that rented space from the local Unitarian congregation. My family never became Unitarians. I took Suzuki violin lessons in the local United Methodist Church that rented space to an ELCA congregation. We weren’t Methodists or Lutherans, and that thought never occurred to my family.

Space usage and blessing our community – with pre-schools and music lessons and food pantries, etc. – are great initiatives. Important mission work in our communities. But we need to stop thinking that there’s even a distantly remote possibility that “these people” will become members (because we’re actually thinking about pledging members) of our congregation. Let it go, church. Let it go.

So not all assets are long-term assets. Some things we think of as assets – rental income, for instance -- are keenly balanced liabilities, which is what we came to learn in 2020: lest another crisis, or pandemic, or HVAC breakdown happen.

Congregations can develop meaningful partnerships and work to build new models of sharing space, investing in communities. Like renting spaces, this model has compelling financial benefits but, even more, it has great communal and missional benefit, too.

Getting more cash in the church’s checking account is not the only way to generate something. Buildings and property can generate community engagement, such as the model of shared space within an organized partnership. The assets who are our people, lay leaders and clergy, can be utilized in our communities for building up the common good, just as much as we expect them to focus exclusively on church functions. Buildings, too, can be used to empower a local community. Try asking your immediate neighbors what they would use your space to do if they were radically welcome to use the space ( …the inverted JFK approach: ‘Ask not what your neighborhood can do for you [=church]; ask what you can do for your neighborhood.’) Even if it’s simply a theoretical exploration of your neighbors and their needs, as well as their perception of your church building(s), it’ll might lead your congregation into some hard but beautiful internal conversations: we say this, and -or- but our neighbors say this. Our churches and church spaces can be great spaces to gather people and generate neighborhood meet-and-greets and advocacy forums. They’d be neighborhood assets, at that point.

But just because it’s a building and some land with a realtor-approved fair market value attached to it in dollars and cents does not necessarily make it an ‘asset.’ Defining something as an asset is a high bar, far higher according to the church’s gospel-based mission.