A virtual conference sponsored by Canopy Forum and the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory (CSLR) featuring scholars, experts and practitioners who will examine issues facing religious congregations, neighborhoods, towns, and cities where houses of worship are falling into disrepair or vacancy. View selected videos and browse all essays here.
“A New Vision for American Houses of Worship”
Houses of worship find themselves at a crossroads today in more ways than one — geographically, programmatically, and physically – in a time of rapid cultural change. We desperately need to redefine the form and function of the American house of worship – no longer being apart from the community to serve its “members,” instead becoming fully a part of the community to serve everyone.
Houses of Worship Are Emptying Out
The number of religious buildings closing is on the rise. Why? Americans are less inclined to participate in religious gatherings; at least a third of Americans in most polls claim no religious affiliation. The American public is mobile, internet-connected, and no longer requires a house of worship every couple of miles. Property operating costs are climbing. Finally, we are only beginning to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on participation and funding of our religious communities. Clearly a major cultural upheaval is upon us.
Three Paradigm Shifts to Transform Houses of Worship
Religious and civic leaders must advocate a new model for houses of worship. Privatized, homogenized, static fortresses have never served communities well, but they now no longer serve congregations either. We cannot continue to think about these properties as we have in the past.
All religious groups facing a real estate crisis will benefit from some fundamental changes of perspective.
- Houses of worship are a tremendous asset with unrealized potential. They are among the only gathering places in their communities. They have spaces to host public meetings, concerts, social services, classes, centers for children or older adults. They are buildings honored for their history, symbolism of spiritual aspiration, and stature as lasting landmarks on neighborhood corners or country crossroads. These buildings tell stories; they are sites of community and congregational memories, rich with significance in the lives of people who “belong” and others who have participated in one way or another.
Too often, however, they are viewed as an albatross and liability. Many pastors and rabbis see maintenance of facilities as a huge time suck and beneath their higher calling to advocate and nurture the faith. Many members exhibit an emotional attachment to their building that just frustrates leaders further. Some Christian laity ally with pastors in arguing that spending money on buildings is sinful, diverting resources away from the “Christian mission” – which usually seems to mean a ministry far away from the house of worship.
What if the building is the mission? Not the mission itself, but the locus and enabler of effective religious purposes. Isn’t religious faith and practice about serving the community, and by serving, showing others a visible reality of the basic tenets of faith? Constituents and religious leaders need a conversion moment that will turn their pessimism about facilities into an asset-based outlook for seeing possibilities. But this isn’t going to happen unless…
- constituents and leaders can shift from a private property mentality to a public-facing asset perspective. Houses of worship are as captive to the private property mindset as any other part of American society. They come to be seen as extensions of the American dream – to own a house on a parcel of land for me, my family, and my possessions. Congregations become as protective as homeowners, anxious not to scratch the new flooring, fearful of strangers moving into the neighborhood, welcoming only friends and family and “people like us.” When the time comes that the congregation is no longer viable or decides to move to a new location, the property is put on the real estate market like any other house.
The private property mentality spins a web of assumptions around houses of worship just as tight as any other kind of building. And it’s hard to escape it. However, what if congregations began to see the public-facing aspect of their buildings? Thomas Frank’s study of nine historic houses of worship around Monument Square in the heart of North Adams, Massachusetts, a small, formerly industrial New England city, revealed that some congregations were no longer connected to their community in any meaningful way.
Lay leaders had never met the mayor – in a town of 13,000 people. Only a handful of members served on the board of any community organization. People at coffee hour were astonished to hear that more than one stranger had commented on the sidewalk outside a church about how beautiful it was and how sad they were to see it getting a bit run down.
When a congregation sees its building as private property, and hence a maintenance burden they must bear alone, their perspective on the future just keeps shrinking. Once upon a time they could take for granted their community connections, because, so the myth goes, everybody went to services somewhere. Many congregations today are simply not prepared to take initiative to build new community relationships. Many others, though, have the capacity to shift outlooks before resources run too low. And that requires…
- a partnership paradigm in which the congregation views its building as an integral asset for the whole surrounding community. Congregations that see themselves as public-facing community assets are healthier, more likely to thrive, and, most significant for this discussion, more able to maintain their facilities. They begin to see their buildings in a new light, as the diverse and complex structures they are. Somewhat like public schools, most houses of worship have multiple spaces for a variety of functions: an auditorium, classrooms, a kitchen, dining area, sometimes a stage or performance space, or a gymnasium. Imagine these rooms without furnishings (OK, except the kitchen and bathrooms): what possibilities are there with that kind of square footage and arrangement of rooms?
A congregation or religious community’s outlook can be transformed when they move past a single-use framework in which each room has a specific use for an internal program – worship, education, youth groups, and so on. This can be challenging given that every room in a house of worship is a house of memory. Participants recall baptisms or bar mitzvahs or memorable speakers in the sanctuary; wedding receptions or prayer groups in a gathering hall; homemade pies being served from the kitchen; counseling appointments in the rabbi’s study. A lot of furniture and artifacts have been gifts of families or people now gone; perhaps their descendants sit in those pews or light those candelabra now. Many congregations continue to live in those memories.
Such remembrances can easily become nostalgic, tempting participants to wish for a return to an imagined past or a golden age that has been greatly burnished in remembering. This in turn leads participants to view their buildings as static and unchanging, accompanied by a desire to preserve every space as it has always been used. But memories are only life-giving when they are dynamic, part of a chain that continues to unspool into the future. It’s the values reflected in the memories that matter – friendship, care, a desire to help others, concern for the surrounding community – because those values can take on new forms suited to the present day.
A fresh, multi-use framework creates a much more flexible and imaginative outlook on a building’s adaptability that’s grounded in a congregation’s values. An effective way to approach this is to set up a time for constituents of other community organizations to come tour the building. A fresh set of eyes can help stir the congregation out of its taken-for-granted assumptions and see their rooms in a new way. Invite people from the business community – banks, chamber of commerce, civic clubs. Make sure constituents of non-profit agencies are there – from the arts, to education, to social services of all kinds. Organize a process of continuing conversations about what the community needs, what could happen when groups partner together, and how this space might be transformative for its neighborhood or town. Stifle all chatter about money; that’s a topic that’s only useful when there’s a vision in place. Only when there’s a compelling plan will there be any possibility of adequate funds falling into place.
Building Community Partnerships
The new model of a public, mixed-use, dynamic property is radically different from most congregations’ experience. Repurposing or redeveloping a house of worship encompasses not only a change in philosophy on the part of a congregation, but also a considerable amount of adaptive work — a type of work that neither religious leaders nor volunteers are used to performing. This can include gathering and analyzing real-estate data; researching the sometimes arcane rules of the religion or denomination; determining a project’s financial requirements; developing a process to involve the congregation; checking out good potential development partners; sorting out the politics of the city and neighborhood.
Partnering with other religious institutions, not-for-profit organizations, municipal governments, and private developers, to create public, complex, dynamic properties takes foresight, courage, and stamina — perhaps more than most houses of worship can muster on their own. Regional judicatories must reorganize to provide needed resources, training, and collaborations. Some, but so far too few, have started to meet this challenge.
A few denominations and religious associations have seized the opportunity and formed not-for-profit corporations to assist their houses of worship in real estate initiatives, some taking the form of community-development corporations (CDCs) that plan, partner, develop, and manage redevelopment projects. Partnerships between congregations are also growing. A thriving congregation may underwrite the expenses of a struggling congregation by using parts of the latter’s facilities for community activities. Or a congregation may be discontinued so the building can become an additional site for a new or satellite congregation. Congregations also are seeking out existing CDCs at the national, regional, and local levels to serve as development partners.
A few municipalities have begun to recognize the need to intervene in the large number of houses of worship facing redevelopment. Atlanta, San Antonio, San Diego, San Jose, and a number of other cities have formed programs designed to encourage houses of worship to develop underused properties into affordable housing. Some private-sector developers have begun to specialize in redeveloping religious real estate. Real-estate consultants can serve as brokers, planners, facilitators, financial advisers, and/or property managers, advising houses of worship on paths forward.
Many of the tools and resources for integrating our emptying houses of worship into their communities are already in place. Many congregations of all faiths are putting them to use and finding new ways to serve their communities. Many others, though, suffer from a lack of local leadership or simply do not have the time or resources to undertake new directions.
Every house of worship cannot and will not be saved. But many can be if congregations and communities come together to find common purposes and solutions. More broadly, with wider public attention and national recognition of a trend that is afflicting our society and our local sense of community, perhaps we can turn the tide and begin a new era for our nation’s houses of worship. ♦
Thomas Frank is University Professor Emeritus of Wake Forest University, an ordained United Methodist minister (retired), and historic preservationist. He is a past board chair of Partners for Sacred Places and serves on the Advisory Board of the National Fund for Sacred Places.
Rick Reinhard is former director of economic-development organizations in Richmond, Buffalo, Atlanta, Washington DC, and Derry, Northern Ireland, and former Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Buffalo. For most of the past decade, he has worked for the United Methodist Church.
Frank, Thomas, & Reinhard, Rick. “A New Vision for American Houses of Worship.” Canopy Forum, May 3, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/05/03/a-new-vision-for-american-houses-of-worship/