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The Building as an Asset: Thinking Differently about Congregational Programs

The Christian Century recently posted an article about thinking about a congregation’s building as an asset. From the article:

What we’ve discovered—and it has been a learning curve for us, as well as for the congregations we’ve served—is that buildings and grounds can be leveraged to support congregational mission and extend the presence of the church in the community.

The authors, Susan Cartmell and Peggy O’Connor, talk about the ways in which congregations frame these discussions — as a form of evangelism to a new group, or a type of benevolent gift to an organization in need of space. They, however, expand this discussion to talk about the congregation taking on some of these programs for their own. From the article,

At one church, when leaders ex­plored possible uses of the property they learned that there was a need for after-school care for middle schoolers. The church decided that it had space to devote to this project and that such a program fit well with the church’s mission.

The church started a drop-in center that included homework tutoring, a computer lab, and supervised sports and games. The center was open to students of any or no religion, but the program was unapologetically Christian. It promoted cooperative learning, team-building games, and service to others, based on Jesus’ teachings. Plus it offered a mix of intellectual, athletic, and social programs. The church hired seminary students and graduates as staff and recruited church youth as homework tutors. The church’s youth minister served as director.

The program opened with 14 students and was subsidized by the church for two years. Now it has over 40 students and generates enough revenue to cover all its expenses and subsidize the youth ministry budget. The center reaches new families in the community and has enhanced the church’s reputation as a church with a great youth program.

It’s important to note that from the beginning the congregation had a business plan that called for students’ families to finance the costs. The church had discovered that there was a big difference between renting to a program it endorsed but didn’t control and creating a program in its space that was part of both the church’s budget and its mission.

How can you and your congregation think about its space as a resource — not just one to be rented out (although that can be a good use too), but also one that can be used in a new and inventive way? Do you have the volunteers to be able to open a drop-in youth center? Or, another example from the article, a consignment shop? Do you have under-used space that can be used in creative or inventive ways to create some income flows to your organization? As the article ends,

Congregations can learn to be more intentional about how their properties are used. Instead of being apologetic about their space, they should resist the temptation to undervalue or even give away their real estate. When they do this, they may discover that they have a treasure buried in their walls.

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org