March 21, 2024

Can I Buy My Church? Resourcing the Local Parish

Can I buy my church?

About ten years ago, the longtime rector of a nearby parish retired. She’d served well and faithfully for nearly 20 years in a part-time capacity, but the congregation’s numbers, which were never great to begin with, had dwindled. Lay leaders were concerned about the congregation’s future. Understandably so, I’ll add.

One day, nearing her retirement celebration Sunday, a wealthy retired physician – a member of the vestry and parish who had deep, deep connections to the church and whose family was buried in the churchyard invited her to lunch. “Reverend Mother,” he said, “I’d like you to set up a meeting with the Diocese.”

“What for?” she asked.

“I’d like to buy the church.”

“Well, that’s not how it’s done,” she stammered forth, mostly shocked by the request. Technically, she was correct. She is correct. Individuals and families don’t buy Episcopal churches. Our churches and received assets are kept in trust for The Episcopal Church through our diocese. She shared this story at a clergy meeting and we, too, were shocked at the request – and laughed about it all the same. What a silly, silly question! And thus that meeting with the diocese was never set up.

Maybe it should’ve been.

You see, that very church lurched from supply priest to extended supply priest, from dwindling numbers to truly dwindled numbers, from an initial push on the part of some determined lay leadership – who raided their reserve funds and spent a lot of money on their buildings, you know, ‘if you build it they [=new rector?!] will come’ – to a catastrophic building crisis that sapped most of the money in the parish and the energy in the community, from an attempted yoking relationship with a nearby parish that fell on its face to the shell of a formerly-small congregation that’s now tiny and exhausted.

Yeah, I wonder if that meeting with the diocese should’ve been set up. Well, I don’t really wonder about that too much. I know what would’ve been the answer: a bit of shock (like I also had upon first hearing this story) and then, matter of factly: “We don’t do that. Thank you very much.”

I’m not at all advocating for local individuals or other organizations to purchase our churches and buildings and churchyards. I’m not advocating for any one thing except that we think more boldly, more broadly about resourcing our churches and historic, received property.

We’re at the End of One Model of Financial Resourcing, Stewardship

Along with it, we should admit one more thing: our methods of resourcing local parishes, commonly called ‘stewardship’, are nearing the end of this particular season. For the last 125 years or so we’ve understood Pledge Giving and the Annual Pledge Drive as the church’s primary method of (financial) stewardship. That’s coming to an end. Volunteerism and church membership and institutional allegiance are all vanishing, and have been for at least two full generations, and thus financial-stewardship-as-pledging is, too. We’re coming to the end – if not already at the end – of this most recent iteration of how we’ve come to understand (financially) resourcing our congregations.

Good news: pledging was once considered new. Before that, we were renting our pews. Before that, another model. Before that model, still another. To our present crisis, there’s an emerging opportunity. After this model, what’s next?

A Walk to Bemerton

Two years ago, I was taking a walk on the outskirts of Salisbury, UK. It was an intentional walk, for I passed the water meadows on the distant side of the Cathedral and was heading to the village of Bemerton. Avid Anglicans know that Bemerton was the final home and is the resting place of George Herbert: priest, poet, emblem of English pastoral ministry. It’s a beautiful walk even today, and well used by residents of the city and surrounding villages. When I got to Bemerton, St. Andrew’s – Herbert’s church – was locked, though it was enough for a moment to stand in that place and and take note of his former rectory across the tight little lane.

I had plenty of time on my hands that afternoon, and I remembered that St. Andrew’s, Bemerton was part of a two-point parish Herbert served.

From Bemerton to Fugglestone

A quick Google search turned up the name of the other village, Fugglestone, and also gave me walking directions. A short walk; maybe 15, 20 minutes or so. It started out fine: passing down a lane, through some sheep fields. But then the walk to Fugglestone became less than bucolic, passing along a busy motorway toward the major city center of Wilton, for whom the county of Wiltshire is named. At an intersection, I found myself at the church walls of St. Peter’s, which is when I realized that this was Herbert’s other church. But, bummer, my luck ran out again: St. Peter’s was also locked, and has been locked for quite a while from the looks of things; evidently, it requires significant repairs. Someone had turned the church porch into a sleeping area, suggested by the sleeping bag and campstove.

I sat in St. Peter’s churchyard to get a drink from my water bottle and journal a bit, but couldn’t help but notice the cars and buses heading down another busy road, the one intersecting at the church. When I walked out the other side of St. Peter’s tiny churchyard, onto the intersecting road, I found myself looking at a stunning beautiful gatehouse of what appeared to be a magnificent manor home. No more than one city block away from tiny St. Peter’s Church was this massive tourist attraction. “Maybe they’re open?” I thought to myself, still with plenty of time and no agenda, so I headed there.

Wilton House – The Resource

Wilton House, aptly named, was indeed open. The kind lady in the gift shop told me that one tour had just started, and if I was quick enough I could meet them by the front door. I purchased one ticket and hot-footed it up to the manor’s original entryway – finding myself the third person of a three-person tour. Wilton House is still a working home and is currently the residence of the 18th Earl and Countess of Pembroke, but the tour took us through stunning gardens and interior rooms. You know, a casual stroll and close up with the works of Renaissance masters.

Wilton House has been in the possession of the Earls of Pembroke and, for a time, the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery since the early 17[1] century. But the family’s last name is not Pembroke. Turns out, it’s Herbert. It is today, just as it was in the 1630s when young George Herbert was leaving behind his vain attempt at Court prestige and taking on religious orders, owned by a family with the last name Herbert. In the 1630s, when George found himself near family in Wiltshire and determined to take priestly vows, his distant cousin was the Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery (Montgomery being the Herbert family’s original village in Wales) and clearly running things around Wilton, Wiltshire, Fugglestone and Bemerton.

Both ancient and modern biographers of George Herbert note, of course, that the living of Bemerton-with-Fugglestone was assigned by the King, as Herbert’s predecessor had recently been made Bishop of Bath & Wells. But it couldn’t have hurt that George’s family and distant cousins clearly ran things around Wiltshire and Wilton, including Fugglestone and Bemerton.

How to resource my church?

Turns out, local families and individuals have been owning (okay, that’s too strong of a term) … let’s call it “resourcing” local parishes and congregations for a long, long time. Pew rents and pledge giving are modern attempts at figuring out new ways to resource and financially support the mission of the local church. But they are only models. Not stewardship, broadly considered. And pledging isn’t the only model. A quick glance at history shows us that there have always been other models.

And if we’re at the end of one, that simply means that we’re on the threshold of something else. So: what’s next?

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