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.

For Whom the Church Bell Tolls: Congregations, Of Course, but Municipalities Too”

Rick Reinhard

Think about where babies in your community are baptized, couples are married, the deceased are commemorated. Houses of worship. Think about where food is distributed, clothes are disseminated, people in pain get together for self-help groups. Houses of worship. Think about what buildings are portrayed on the city postcard, in the local history book, in the community architectural guide. Houses of worship.

Houses of worship are central not only to the spiritual lives of communities, but also to the well-being of neighborhoods and visual identity of cities. Today their well-being is endangered, across religions and denominations and from coast to coast. Reeling from a decline in religious membership, an increase in real-estate operating costs, a burgeoning of mobility and internet connectability, and the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of houses of worship are in the process of emptying out or are already empty. Too many, too large, too expensive houses of worship with too few worshipers to support them leave the U.S. with an overabundance of underused structures, many of them at critical locations in our cities, towns, and villages.

Over the past 30-40 years, the U.S. retail industry has been transformed. Locally serving stores have been supplanted by megastores, online operations, and, at the other end of the spectrum, small specialty shops. The same has been the case with financial services, including locally serving banks replaced by megabanks, online services, and, at the other end of the spectrum, small community banks and credit unions. Today, our locally serving houses of worship have been supplanted by megachurches, online and televised services, and, at the other end of the spectrum, small, specialty houses of worship often defined by ethnic groups.

Would anyone today endeavor to build and operate the 1,000 bricks-and-mortar buildings that currently serve United Methodists in states like West Virginia? Some savvy houses of worship are looking to downsize and use the remainder of their properties for rentals that produce income and/or feature social enterprises.

Challenge to Communities

While faith institutions, as owners of the declining properties, bear the brunt of the burden, municipalities find the problems thrust onto their laps, as well. In hot real-estate markets like Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, developers swoop in to acquire vacant houses of worship, turning them into luxury condos, brew pubs, and mixed-use developments. The good news: properties are made active and returned to the municipal property-tax rolls. The bad news: the community purpose of the real estate may be lost.

In cold real-estate markets, such as smaller cities and even larger cities in the American heartland, empty houses of worship are liable to sit vacant for years if not decades, a blight on the community, often at critical locations. Main Streets in smaller cities, towns, and villages, like Rome, Georgia; Orange, New Jersey; and Ottumwa, Iowa may have a dozen or more downtown houses of worship. Ottumwa, with a stable population of 25,000, has experienced eight house-of-worship closings over the past few years. The community is struggling to adaptively reuse five, leaving three empty. Three more churches remain open but have small, aging congregations, according to the Ottumwa Main Street executive director.

The challenges presented to communities by declining houses of worship are more daunting than those presented by empty stores or banks. Why?

First, the child-care centers, clothing closets, health clinics, and self-help groups hosted by houses of worship often greatly outweigh the size and scope of an actual congregation. Partners for Sacred Places, a not-for-profit organization working on saving historic churches, and the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice have identified how houses of worship have an “economic halo effect.” An average urban congregation creates more than $140,000 per year in value through the contribution of volunteer time; space at below market rates; and cash and in-kind donations. Where will these valuable programs be able to get cheap or free rent and a friendly space to meet?

Second, the scale of declining churches is immense. There are thousands of smaller Main Streets — and similarly situated urban neighborhoods — throughout the U.S. From the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic through 2025, the Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner, Deputy General Secretary for Research and Planning of the National Council of Churches USA, estimated that 100,000 U.S. congregations will have closed their doors. Even if her guess is pessimistic by a factor of two or three, the number is remarkable.

Third, the emotion behind closings of houses of worship is overwhelming. As a result, unlike a usual place of business, congregations seem motivated less by logic and more by nostalgia; they often want to hang on to their buildings until the bitter end, allowing the properties to deteriorate around them.

Fourth, the architecture of houses of worship, with large, open sanctuaries, makes them challenging to reuse, unlike the box of a local store, which translates relatively easily to housing, offices, or institutional use.

Finally, outdated municipal zoning, building-code, and property-tax regulations often discourage for-profit and not-for-profit developers from proposing alternate uses. And NIMBYs (citizens avowing “not in my backyard’) often use the outdated regulations to prevent reuse and redevelopment from happening.

What to do with a massive supply of underused houses of worship, across religions and denominations and from coast to coast? Matching the nation’s desperate need for affordable housing with the vast surplus of faith properties holds promise as a concept, but faces regulatory, financial, and human-behavioral hurdles. Nevertheless, the efforts of some organizations give a glimpse of the efforts that can transform these problems into opportunities.

Faith-based Initiatives

Houses of worship and, especially, judicatories — the parent organizations of houses of worship, such as dioceses, conferences, and presbyteries — have been slow to react to the “great emptying” of their houses of worship.

In centralized religions and denominations, e.g., the Roman Catholic Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, bishops and other church officials have the authority to be able to formulate regional strategies. In decentralized religions and denominations, e.g., the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Church, the Southern Baptist Church, and the Jewish faith, each house of worship makes decisions more or less on its own; in such a system, individual decisions may come at the expense of region-wide strategies. Many Mainline Protestant denominations, e.g., the United Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches, rely on a combination of top-down and bottom-up management, making it difficult to arrive at decisions.

 A few faith institutions are beginning to catch on, motivated mostly by the crisis of empty buildings and the opportunities they bring. Some faith institutions have formed not-for-profit community development corporations:

  • The United Church of Christ formed the Church Building and Loan Fund, a not-for-profit corporation that helps UCC and other congregations plan, raise, finance, and build projects across the U.S.
  • Wesley Community Development, an affiliate ministry of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, is a full-service real-estate firm that acts as a partner with faith-based organizations to “shepherd clients through this transformational journey.”
  • Bricks and Mortals emerged from Judson Memorial Church and helps churches reuse and redevelop their property in the challenging environment of New York City. Among other initiatives, Bricks and Mortals, working with Partners for Sacred Places, has developed the app Venuely to match New York houses of worship with short-term space users looking for a deal, much like Airbnb.
  • The Episcopal Dioceses of Indianapolis and Northern Indiana have launched a new initiative, Church Buildings for Collaborative Partnerships, to evaluate how to use the properties of all 82 of their churches in the state in new ways, supported by a $1 million grant from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment. The dioceses have brought in Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based not-for-profit organization, and Indiana Landmarks to help lead the process. The Episcopal bishop of Indianapolis, Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows is a Cornell University-educated historic preservation planner who can bridge both the religious and the real-estate worlds.

Municipal Initiatives

Often when a house of worship fails to take appropriate action, much of the burden of an empty house of worship falls on the local municipality. While a city, town, or village needs to deal with the problem of empty and deteriorating buildings, it also has the incentive to work toward a new not-for-profit use or a for-profit use returning the property to the municipal property-tax rolls. 

As uncertain as faith institutions have been about responding to the crisis, municipalities have been even slower. A few municipalities have instituted programs to expedite reuse and redevelopment of houses of worship for community purposes:

  • In California, the cities of San Diego and Pasadena have passed “YIGBY” (Yes in God’s Backyard, a counter to NIMBYism) zoning reforms. The San Diego legislation now streamlines approval processes and allows houses of worship to use parking lots for affordable housing. The Pasadena ordinance offers a variety of zoning incentives to houses of worship that build affordable housing.
  • The City of Seattle’s Affordable Housing on Religious Organization Property initiative offers density bonuses for long-term, income-restricted affordable housing on the property of faith institutions as a means to combat displacement of black, indigenous, and communities of color. 
  • The cities of Atlanta and San Antonio have instituted technical assistance programs in which city planners assist houses of worship seeking to build affordable housing on their properties. In addition to technical assistance, the programs — Atlanta’s Faith-based Development Initiative and San Antonio’s Mission Oriented Development Initiative — provide grants to fund pre-development work, often a major obstacle to getting a project under way.
  • The City of Jacksonville created an entire Cathedral District around St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in the neighborhood adjacent to Downtown. The district is organized around five houses of worship, anchored by St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral. The district, inspired by a former City Councilmember and an Urban Land Institute technical advisory panel, is managed by a not-for-profit community-development corporation. 
  • Montgomery County, MD, a suburb of Washington DC, has created a Religious Land Use Working Group of citizens to assist congregations looking to reuse and redevelop their real estate. The group originally was formed to help immigrant congregations that were having difficulty navigating county rules and regulations.

Several municipalities have funded and contracted with national not-for-profit, community-development corporations to develop cohorts of houses of worship to help them examine the potential of their properties. Enterprise Community Partners, the Local Initiatives Support Corp., and Partners for Sacred Places are among the organizations currently facilitating such groups of congregations from coast to coast.

Four Factors in Reuse and Redevelopment 

A community deciding to begin the process to reuse and redevelop houses of worship does not face an easy task. Virtually any project faces a long road with many twists and turns.

Before proceeding, a community needs to thoroughly analyze four factors — the “four legs of the stool” — to determine the best path forward for each potential project:

  1. Property (and market). What does the property consist of? What condition is it in? How is it served by infrastructure? Will a graveyard or reversionary clause hamper a redevelopment? How robust is the real-estate market for the uses being considered? Etc.
  1. Congregation (and judicatory). What are the needs and desires of the congregation? What are those of the parent judicatory? How are decisions made? Are the congregation and judicatory motivated more by mission or money? Is the congregation strong enough to survive the lifespan of the project? Etc.
  1. Neighborhood (and municipality). What is the zoning? What are the relevant building codes? What is the city’s plan for the area? What sorts of project will the neighborhood support? Do NIMBYs have the power to hold up a project? Etc.
  1. Resources (financial and human). Where will the money come from — for planning, development, and operations? What local partners — for-profit, not-for-profit, and governmental — will participate, and what will their roles be? Etc.

A frequent mistake is that an entity will focus on the area most familiar to them, e.g. a real-estate firm focuses on the property, a faith institution on the congregation, a municipality on the neighborhood, a financier on the resources, with little heed paid to the other three. The result in such a case often is a stalled project. Legal action by unconsulted parties can delay a project being implemented for years.

A Caution on Reuse and Redevelopment

Given the surplus of faith properties and the deficit of affordable housing across the U.S., the strategy of municipalities to focus on reusing and redeveloping houses of worship for affordable housing is understandable. However, it is not a good fit for all projects.

The locations of some houses of worship do not lend themselves to affordable housing. Some properties are not near mass transit. Others are in neighborhoods where NIMBY lawsuits are likely to stall a project for years and years. The unique architecture and local market needs sometimes call out for a solution other than affordable housing, e.g., retail, office, recreational, or arts.

Some houses of worship would prefer the cash that a market-rate sale of their properties to a developer would bring. First United Methodist Church of Seattle sold their downtown property to a developer in 2008 for $30 million. A decade later, First United Methodist Church of Miami sold theirs for $55 million. Two years ago, First Presbyterian Church in Tampa sold theirs for $4.8 million. All three of these sales were for capitalistic property ventures. Critics can question whether “holy ground” should be dedicated to community use. Supporters can note that fungible cash may be more useful than illiquid real estate.

Five Things Municipalities Can Do to Prepare

The reuse and redevelopment of houses of worship takes an inordinate amount of work in all four areas — property, congregation, neighborhood, and resources — through taking steps such as the following:

  • Municipalities can collect and analyze data on the number, types, and conditions of houses of worship in their community.
  • They can build relationships with area houses of worship and judicatories — act as convener, collaborator, mediator, translator, matchmaker. Not only the goals, but the vocabularies of church people, government officials, neighborhoods, developers, and financiers are so divergent, they almost require an interpreter to help each party understand the other.
  • Municipalities can review and update zoning, building code, and property-tax policies to see which hamper development for faith-based organizations. Cross-departmental collaborations between and among planning, engineering, transportation, housing, law, and finance are necessary. 
  • They can work with houses of worship to identify potential sources of funding for pre-development studies, development project, and operational costs. They can include financial institutions for private loans, as well as grants, subsidies, bonds, and tax incentives available from multiple levels of government. Most projects require funding from a number of sources.
  • Municipalities can consider creating capacity-building programs, such as those outlined above.

Examples of New House-of-Worship Models

Rev. Graham Singh, co-founder and CEO of Trinity Centres Foundation in Montreal, suggests that while Christian churches often ask the question, WWJD? — What Would Jesus Do? — they more often need to ask the question, WWJJD? — What Would Jane Jacobs do?

Jacobs, revered planner of the late 20th century, in her seminal book, The Death of Life of Great American Cities, offered four characteristics that great U.S. cities need to have: mixed uses, short blocks, old buildings, and high density. Applying her characteristics to houses of worship, most fail on three of the four (many are in old buildings).

Just as retail and commercial real estate has moved more and more to walkable, higher-density, mixed-use developments, so the future of houses of worship may move in that direction as well. Following are three houses of worship that do just that:

  • Centre St. Jax, Montreal, originally an Anglican church, now hosts the original congregation, other church groups, and a number of other organizations, including a circus cabaret and school. The center was developed by Trinity Centres Foundation, which now works with other faith institutions throughout Canada and the U.S.
  • The Village @ West Jefferson, Louisville KY, the property of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, is a new 30,000-square-foot mixed-use office and retail development in a historic neighborhood. The development hosts organizations that bring vital services and amenities to the underserved neighborhood. The project was managed by the United Church of Christ Church Building & Loan Fund.
  • Beacon Center, Washington DC, was developed and opened in 2019 on surplus property owned by The Emory Fellowship, a United Methodist congregation. Measuring 180,000 square feet, the development features arts spaces, state-of-the-art affordable housing, a gymnasium, classrooms, a food pantry, and immigration clinics adjacent to the church sanctuary.

While municipalities are beset by a number of community and economic-development issues, providing leadership on reuse and redevelopment of houses of worship — or at least showing support for those who lead them — will help restore a city, town, or village’s social, economic, and brand capital. ♦

Rick Reinhard is associate of The Lakelands Institute and principal of Niagara Consulting Group in Rockville, Maryland. After three decades leading community economic-development corporations in the United States and the United Kingdom and serving as chief of staff to a U.S. mayor, he worked in leadership of agencies and conferences of the United Methodist Church. He was a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Recommended Citation

Reinhard, Rick. “For Whom the Church Bell Tolls: Congregations, Of Course, but Municipalities Too.” Canopy Forum, May 5, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/05/03/for-whom-the-church-bell-tolls-congregations-of-course-but-municipalities-too/.