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.

Sustaining the Public Value of Sacred Places”

A. Robert Jaeger

Rochelle A. Stackhouse

There is growing evidence that America’s churches and other faith communities benefit their locales and serve the larger public in significant ways, even at a time when many are experiencing declines in membership and financial resources. Importantly, if congregations communicate that benefit and invite the larger community to help them sustain and support their civic contributions, they are more likely to survive — and even thrive — in difficult times. Thus, it is important to define congregation-generated civic value and identify the tools that can be used to sustain that value over the years to come. 

So, what is the public value of a congregation and its building(s)? Of course, religious buildings are, first and foremost, places that house and express the faith of congregations that worship, fellowship, educate, and minister there. Sacred places are also known for helping define the character of their streetscapes, anchoring neighborhoods in unique and powerful ways. In recent years, several rounds of research have also demonstrated the economic impact that sacred places have on their communities. Places of worship are, in fact, for much more than worship — for much of the week, they are de facto community centers that serve and benefit the larger public. 

The cluster of benefits that sacred places bring to their communities have, in the aggregate, been termed the ECONOMIC HALO EFFECT OF SACRED PLACESSM (or “Halo Effect” for short). The Halo Effect of a congregation endeavors to capture the full and comprehensive ways in which it supports and nourishes the lives of members and non-members alike. 

The “Halo Effect” term was coined by Partners for Sacred Places and has been articulated and measured by several rounds of research conducted by Partners with the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina.  

The first two studies both focused on urban congregations and demonstrated that the average congregation provides a wide array of quantifiable resources to the programs it supports, including space in the building (often provided free or at low cost), volunteers, staff and clergy time, cash support, and in-kind services. Sacred Places at Risk, dating to 1998, focused on the value of resources that congregations provided to programs they housed or supported, and demonstrated that 81% of those served by programs housed by congregations came from outside the congregation. 

In the mid-2010s, Partners expanded its assessment, recognizing that congregations benefit their communities in dozens of ways, generating a Halo Effect that radiates from their physical locations. The Halo study included factors such as the environmental and recreational value of green space and trees, the economic impact of major building repair and restoration projects, spending by visitors to the local community, support for local business and vendors, operational and program spending, and the role a congregation may have played in incubating new businesses or nonprofits. The results were significant and surprising: the average urban congregation and its sacred place made a $1.7 million impact on its community each year. 

In addition, the study demonstrated that congregations and their leaders had an enormous impact on the lives of individuals and families. Clergy and other leaders helped people get jobs, treat their addiction to drugs or alcohol, learn English as a second language, and become healthy and productive members of the community — to name just a few types of intervention.

The Halo study also noted that the 90 participating congregations were visited by a total of almost 3.7 million people over the course of one year, some attending congregations regularly, such as those coming for worship. Remarkably, only 9% of those four-million-odd visits were for worship. Almost half of the visitors came to sacred places to participate in community-serving programs, and 31% for education programs. 

Recognizing that rural and small-town congregations were likely to generate significant value in their own right, Partners collaborated with the Duke Endowment and the University of North Carolina Charlotte Urban Institute, to plan and study the impact of United Methodist Church (UMC) congregations in North Carolina’s rural areas. The study examined who benefits from the presence of these congregations and what contributions these churches make to the lifeblood of their communities as conveners, trusted partners, and service providers.

The rural study, published in 2021, showed that the average congregation had an annual economic impact of just over $735,000. As in the earlier urban studies, the rural study showed that the vast majority of those benefiting from programs housed in churches — 72% — are not members of those congregations. Rural Methodist churches, too, are de facto community centers, just as their sister churches in cities.

These findings on the civic value of sacred places are a two-sided coin. On one side, it is clear that congregations bring great value to their communities by sharing their space and bringing economic benefits to their neighbors. On the other side of the coin, there is room for sacred places to do so much more. Their spaces are, very often, significantly underutilized, and thus the full potential of sacred places goes unrealized. First Congregational Church in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts discovered an uncomfortable fact as they assessed their building use in the midst of the third year of the pandemic: building users had not returned. In working with Partners, they made a list of all the groups they remembered using space — either for free or at less than the market rate — over the past five years. As they went over the list for an update, they realized that of the dozen groups that had used the space, only 2 or 3 had returned. The vast bulk of their historic and well-maintained buildings now stood empty the majority of the days of the week. 

Even before the pandemic, many rooms in First Congregational’s buildings remained unused by the community or the congregation most days of the week. Many congregations are in the same boat — they have become accustomed to seeing their classrooms and meeting spaces unused for much of the week. This lack of awareness — this obliviousness to the potential of the sacred places — may be the single most important reason that congregations are holding back from a serious, sustained effort to make the most of their buildings.

Although many congregations host a myriad of groups and individuals in service to their communities, much of the property in sacred places is underused — and sometimes, they’re a well-kept secret in their towns — even when many arts, education, and human services organizations are seeking affordable space. This is especially true when undeveloped land owned by congregations is accounted for in the calculations. There is a gap between the potential public value of the property and the value realized by actual space use. The reasons for this vary from congregation to congregation. Sometimes congregations are hesitant to allow outside groups to use space, but very often, outside groups have no idea these spaces are even available. 

Congregations are often hesitant to open space for community use because they are concerned about insurance, security, maintenance, taxes, and administration. Some outside groups carry their own insurance, but many smaller nonprofits — especially arts organizations — cannot afford that insurance. Congregations can work with their insurers to discuss riders or other ways to deal with this, but it can be costly and require a level of specialization not always present in the congregation. This has become especially challenging in the wake of sex abuse scandals, which have impacted both churches and organizations (such as the Boy Scouts) that have used sacred places for meetings. 

A related concern is security. Many small and mid-sized congregations cannot afford to hire a staff member to be present whenever the building is in use, nor are they always comfortable giving out keys to anyone who wants to use the space. Inadequate staffing also impacts the ability of a congregation to monitor the schedule of building use and make sure groups follow cleaning and maintenance policies required by the congregation. Many congregations do not have full time administrative staff or even a volunteer with the time and inclination to become a property manager. Not all congregations employ their own cleaning/maintenance staff, which adds another cause for hesitation. In addition, some communities will impose taxes on congregations that rent space to individuals (like music teachers, for example) or for-profit organizations — or even other non-profit organizations if their work is not viewed as related to the congregation’s mission. Even though they could pass those taxes along to the renter in their fees, congregations may still be reluctant to jeopardize their tax-free status in any way. 

Most of these issues can be surmounted, especially with help from larger religious bodies (like denominations or denominational insurers) or in conversations with their cities or towns, but they require a lay leadership that has the time and resources to seek out assistance. One of the realities of post-pandemic organizations of all kinds is a level of weariness brought on by the challenges of simply keeping the organization afloat the past three years. This makes the need for partners of all kinds absolutely critical to maximize the public value of these sacred places. This is where outside organizations come into the picture.

Congregations need to understand that they don’t have to plan or implement shared uses alone. As noted above, larger religious bodies and independent organizations concerned for sacred places have a role to play in helping congregations to problem-solve, as well as encouraging them to reach out into their communities to let people know what they have to offer. For example, Partners’ staff sat in a church hall in small-town Indiana recently with a group of church members and invited community leaders to talk about how the church’s mission to serve the community and the community’s unmet needs might intersect. The church members discovered that the vast majority of these leaders had never been inside the church buildings or on the property and had no idea that the parish had a wealth of available space to offer. As they toured the property, ideas for its use flowed freely, including many that had never occurred to the congregation members. The church simply needed someone to facilitate community and congregation collaboration. As community leaders spoke, the congregation leaders realized that they had partners in the community (including the mayor!) and did not have to tackle daunting issues alone. 

This congregation explored small-scale use of their property. Other congregations, due to smaller numbers or lack of funds to keep and maintain their properties, need to explore large-scale usage, which may involve the lease or sale of all or part of their property. When a congregation reaches this point in their existence, often the membership is very small and the availability of volunteers to carry out a mission-based exploration of options is limited. Sometimes congregations simply choose the easiest route: selling to the highest bidder, often a developer who may or may not have the best interests of the neighborhood or community at heart. Congregations who do explore other options, such as the development of affordable, senior, or supportive housing, find that the complexities of dealing with zoning, permitting, and real estate partnerships are too overwhelming. This is where denominational and independent organizations skilled in pre-development can be critical partners to clergy and lay leaders. 

Although many cities and towns have a pressing need for affordable, senior, or supportive housing, not every church property or location is suitable for such development. Connecting with leaders in the community can surface possibilities the congregation had not considered on their own. Many congregations assume everyone knows about their property, but when they invite community leaders into their buildings, they discover that leaders have no idea what the buildings have to offer. At the same time, many members assume they know the needs of the community or neighborhood, but when they invite leaders in government, social services, healthcare, the arts, and education into a conversation about those needs, they learn so much more about community needs and issues. As a congregation considers how the property may continue their mission, whether or not they continue to own or worship in the property, the input of the community becomes crucial. 

Churches have partnered with arts organizations to create new performing arts spaces, with health care providers to house new neighborhood clinics, with government and social service providers to become centers for homeless neighbors. For example, Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia transformed a historic Presbyterian church into a one-stop social services center for the homeless population in Center City (Broad Street Ministry – National Fund For Sacred Places). In pursuing these options, sometimes congregations discover they can continue to use space in their building for worship and mission, on top of secular uses. Again, it is essential to build solid connections with community partners who can access funding, staff, and volunteers beyond the capacity of the local congregation. Local governments also play a critical role in working with congregations and community partners to move through the various rules and regulations which can either impede or assist creative community development. 

As the nation begins to emerge from a bewildering and traumatizing pandemic, congregations have an opportunity to reimagine business as usual. They can manage their assets differently, fund the repair and adaptation of their buildings in new ways, and open up their spaces to new possibilities. Creativity and community engagement provide the only sure route to maximizing the public value of sacred places.♦

A. Robert Jaeger co-founded Partners for Sacred Places in 1989. Previously, Bob worked with the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Corporation as Senior Vice President for the Historic Religious Properties Program. He is the co-author of Sacred Places at Risk (1998) and Strategies for Stewardship and Active Use of Older and Historic Religious Properties (1996), author of Sacred Places in Transition (1994), and editor (from 1985 to 1989) of Inspired, a bi-monthly magazine with news and technical articles on religious property preservation. Bob holds a master’s degree in preservation planning from Cornell University and an MBA from the University of Michigan.

Rev. Dr. Rochelle A. (Shelly) Stackhouse was ordained in the United Church of Christ in 1982. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, she has served churches of varying sizes as Senior, Solo, Interim and Transitional Pastor in Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, currently at Buckingham Church in Glastonbury, CT. She received a PhD from Drew University in Liturgical Studies and has taught at numerous seminaries, most recently Yale and Lexington. She and her husband, P. Gavin Ferriby, are the parents of three adult children and three demanding cats.

Recommended Citation

Jaeger, A. Robert & Stackhouse, Rochelle A. “Sustaining the Public Value of Sacred Places.” Canopy Forum, May 17, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/05/17/sustaining-the-public-value-of-sacred-places/.