July 2016
Buildings & Grounds [& Mission]

A Ministry of Space

St. Mary’s has many of the ministries you’d expect to find in a church: collecting food for people who are hungry, Sunday School programs, an altar guild, Episcopal Church Women, and more. There’s also a ministry that surprises many visitors: our ministry of space.

At St. Mary’s we USE our space, every inch of it. Our building is larger than some, but smaller than many. Meetings often happen in Sunday school classrooms. In an average month, there are 110 parish events and 125 community events in our building. On any given day, one might find a group in our building at any hour of the day or night! In addition to ten weekly worship services, parishioners gather in our building to minister to each other and to the community. Quilting and knitting groups, bible studies, family fun nights, and a twice-a-month free breakfast for our hungry neighbors are just a small sample of the parish ministries that happen on a regular basis.

Hunger and homelessness are two primary areas of community outreach. In the winter, we’re part of a local warming center program, opening our doors to provide a place for people who are homeless to sleep when night temperatures dip below freezing. Another big piece of this ministry of space is making our building available to the wider Eugene/Springfield community. Our doors open for 12-step meetings, children’s music classes, community yoga, meeting space for local nonprofits, and a range of other uses.

This ministry of space is done on a shoestring budget; we don’t employ a sexton. There is a staff member who devotes approximately ten hours a week to building-related issues such as meeting with potential new building users, managing the building use schedule, and scheduling building repairs and maintenance. Community groups pay a small building use fee to offset some, but not all, of the costs of using the space (staff time and increased repairs, maintenance, and utility costs).

What we provide to community groups is essentially the space, as is. For groups that meet outside of our 9-5 Monday through Friday office hours, we provide a key. They in turn let their own people in often by identifying a welcome person who lets people into the building. When multiple groups are meeting at the same time they often share the welcome task, trading who is responsible to open the door. Groups do their own set up and clean up, setting up chairs and tables, putting them away, making coffee, and taking out the trash if they have a big event.

As a downtown parish we face the same issues and concerns many urban churches face. You may wonder ‘how can we keep our building safe when it is open to so many people?’ Without a staff member or volunteer to greet people or to lock up when everyone has left, how do you avoid theft, people staying in the building overnight, or other property and safety concerns?

We believe it’s because of the relationships we have built with the people we share our building with. There is a level of trust we offer up front, and from there, more trust and mutual respect grows. We have found that the people who use our building, from the neighbors who are homeless who come regularly to our free breakfast, to the people who come to 12-step meetings, and everyone in between, take some ownership. They help take care of and watch over our building. Another way we avoid theft, vandalism, etc. is by not displaying irreplaceable items. No one has walked off with our dry erase board, but if they did, we could replace it. Expensive technology is well secured and out of sight behind doors most keys won’t open. The safe is bolted to the floor.

Being such an open building impacts our decision making process. When flooring needs to be replaced we ask, “How will this stand up to the wear and tear of so many user groups? Will tracked in mud and coffee stains show?”

The parish hall and kitchen were remodeled recently. As we planned the new floor plan, new equipment, and new furnishings, we invited a group of interested parties into the process. The group included representatives of each of the parish ministries that currently use these spaces and others we thought might use a new, remodeled space that would better fit their needs. We considered both current uses and potential future uses, as far as we could imagine. Also present was the staff member who works with the community groups. She asked questions such as, “how will this flooring, equipment, or furniture hold up to heavy use by a wide variety of people?” With very few exceptions, items that require much training are passed over for easier to use items. We are good stewards of our treasure, and will spend more on items that are more durable, since in the long run they are less expensive because they need to be replaced less often.

Our experience shows that you don’t need a large space to open your doors to the community. It’s true that we can’t meet everyone’s needs. We don’t always have a space that is large enough for a community group at the time they need it, and we offer minimal set up, clean up, and audio/visual support. Yet, we are meeting a need in our community: the need for a low-cost, centrally located meeting place, and while parking is tight, we have ample bike racks in a bike-friendly town and a bus stop right outside our gate.

It’s gratifying to be available for so much use, to be a place where recovery happens, where nonprofits can further their mission, where children can learn to love music, and a variety of other important community needs. It is one of the ways we live out our mission to “proclaim and practice our faith with compassion, thereby making a difference in the lives of our members and our neighbors in the heart of the city.”

Louise Fortuna has been the office and building manager at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Eugene, Oregon for 12 years. A cradle-Episcopalian and daughter of a bishop, she worked in commercial real estate appraisal before feeling called to work for the Episcopal Church in her current position.

Try This

Who gets the keys to your buildings? Does the idea of giving out keys to outsiders make you nervous?

Vestry members interested in exploring St. Mary’s approach for sharing their church buildings are encouraged to read Anna Olson’s “Who Gets the Keys?”.

Anna notes, “Keys stand for in for all kinds of questions about access, ownership, and trust. The giving of keys signifies trust, and can mean a great deal to someone whose ability to take responsibility is called into question by prevailing social and church norms. Giving out keys can create tremendous anxiety in those who have understood their vocation, at least in part, as being about keeping the church safe, clean, and secure.” She also raises questions for vestry members to consider and discuss, including:

  • What does the distribution of our keys teach us about how we view each other as neighbors, and how we live out our own call to be neighbors?
  • When was the last time a new person got keys to your church?
  • Who has to ask for permission to use space?
  • What feels like too great a risk when it comes to granting access?
  • Is there any sacred space that is entirely open to the public?
  • Are the ethnic and cultural groups that use your church facility equally represented among key holders?
  • Is there anyone who has keys and perhaps shouldn’t, because their behavior doesn’t meet a Christian standard of neighborliness?
  • Who decides?


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This article is part of the July 2016 Vestry Papers issue on Buildings & Grounds [& Mission]