July 2023
Reimagining Assets

Leveraging Your Congregation’s Physical Assets

What is the state of your congregation these days?

Are your pews half empty on Sundays? Are your property and buildings largely unused? When you rent out building space are you desperately trying to patch holes in your cashflow by renting for activities like wedding receptions, birthday parties, scout meetings, and yoga classes, or other events that don’t further your mission?

If you answered yes to these questions, you’re not alone. Half of all worship seating in the U.S. goes unused every Sunday, there are more than half a million acres of unused church property, the vast majority of church buildings are empty 85 percent of the time, and most churches rent space opportunistically rather than strategically.

What is your connection to your community?

Between 3,850 and 7,700 churches close every year. And almost all of these are sold opportunistically for things like bookstores, brew pubs, frat houses, laser tag arenas, luxury condos, restaurants, skateparks, wineries, and other purposes entirely unrelated to the church’s vision and mission.

Meanwhile, their surrounding neighborhoods, especially in urban and rural areas, are facing significant challenges, including lack of access to child care, early childhood education, educational support services, high speed internet, food and nutrition, affordable child and maternal health care, senior health care and assisted living, affordable housing, and many other critical services. Many people can no longer afford to live in their own neighborhoods. And yet the nonprofit service organizations that could help them often can't afford to locate there either.

How might strategic thinking help?

We believe that churches can minister more effectively to the neighborhoods they serve, while helping themselves become more vital and sustainable as congregations in the process.

In our work with congregations, we have found that perhaps the most effective strategy is to leverage underused church property and buildings to bring critically needed services into the community and onto their sites.

In an urban or suburban setting, this might look like the illustration at left: A single congregation brings nonprofit organization or governmental agency outposts onto their property and/or into their building to provide a variety of services. Some might move onto the site or into the building permanently: affordable housing and supported living, childcare services, a community credit union, and a parish nurse. Others, like job training, might have a regular but not permanent presence on the site. Still others, like public health screenings, rather than being onsite, might do pop-up services at a nearby drug store or community center.

In a rural setting, church property, buildings and people might be leveraged in a different way. Perhaps several smaller congregations can consolidate in some form, then use the proceeds from the sale of excess congregational properties to develop the remaining joint property in a way that creates a space for one vital and sustainable congregation and allows them to bring needed services on site.

Or perhaps congregations and clergy can link together in some fashion to create a collaborative regional ministry team that plays to their strengths and leverages their connections without closing any of the current congregations.

You can’t do it all — but maybe you can do some

Of course, no congregation has the resources to engage all the needs of their neighborhoods, but God doesn’t expect us to. Rather, God asks congregations to study their neighborhoods, learn the story of their neighborhoods, and let God speak to them about their place in that story. This kind of discernment can reveal a vision God is calling them to see, the expansive mission God is calling them to take up, and the services God wants them to invite. And they can share their findings with surrounding congregations, who might collaborate to bring a different set of organizations and services onto their property.

Congregations also may be able to leverage non-congregational resources in their ecosystem, such as rental, lease, or fee income from services organizations sharing their property; grants from their judicatory or denominational; grants from city, county, state, or federal government; grants from foundations; community bonds, social impact bonds, and more.

And we are here to help

Does leveraging your congregation’s physical assets for the sake of your neighborhoods and your mission sound complex and potentially overwhelming? If you said yes, you’re absolutely right. It is.

But take heart! You don’t have to be the expert on what your neighborhood needs, how your property and building might need to be adapted, or how to negotiate the sometimes byzantine municipal zoning, permitting, and regulatory process.

There are organizations that can guide you. That is why The FaithX Project recently partnered with Stewardship Realty. We’re the experts in data-grounded discernment about your congregation's vitality and sustainability, its strengths and weaknesses, and the missional opportunities and challenges in your neighborhoods. They’re the experts in real estate and in negotiating the regulation and process that surround it. And together we can accompany you on this journey together from end to end.

For more information, contact FaithX at info@faithx.net. Or to schedule an appointment for a preliminary discussion, schedule an appointment at kenhoward.youcanbook.me

The Rev. Ken Howard is the founder and executive director of The FaithX Project, which helps congregations survive and thrive in challenging times through data-grounded discernment. For more information, visit www.faithx.net or email info@faithx.net.


This article is part of the July 2023 Vestry Papers issue on Reimagining Assets