Church Real Estate: Blessing or Curse

Surely you know the hand game, ‘Here’s the church and here’s the steeple, look inside and see all the people.”  It has hand motions that are not hard to imagine with pointers making a steeple and hands opening up at just the right time.  As a girl that constituted my full and complete theology.  It also was the beginning the mind/body and matter/spirit split that still plagues me.  There is an outside and an inside or, as we say more frequently now, “the church is not just a building.”  That last line becomes increasingly lame as experience contradicts it.  My people are thriving, my congregation is growing, has tipped to people under 40 — and we will never be able to afford the new roof or new elevator that we need.  We will be forced to think outside the box and to “sell” and “rent” parts of ourselves to others.
Also, you couldn’t prove the ditty by what most pastors say in “things they didn’t teach me in seminaries.”  Nor can you prove it when you look at how often urban churches just get too small in people terms to maintain a steeple and a “church”, meaning in the ditty, the building.  More churches go out of business because there is too much month left at the end of the money.  They may have thriving people inside, may be doing thriving ministries but will probably never be able to heat the inside, repair the steeple or keep the roof from leaking.  The ratio of people to “church” or people to the building has to be much larger than it usually is, especially in urban congregations which are overbuilt.

By overbuilt I mean too fancy in architectural terms to do anything but intimidate the buildings committee.  There are also just too many churches in places like Brooklyn for the number of people who want them.

So what is a girl to do?  Obviously we hope for a theology that matures beyond the ditty.

First we can understand that indeed our buildings are our largest asset and our largest deficit, both a blessing and a curse, at the same time.  They make possible our gathering, they are beautiful, even if overbuilt, they give us a way to ride the wave of “I am spiritual but not religious.”  They also drive that “none” crowd away because sooner or later if a newbie or an innocent gets involved, they are going to be asked for money to fix some part of the building.  The body or the temple will move in on the spirit right early.  Our only hope with the SBNR or NONE crowd is to have a theology that connects body to spirit, building to religion and more.  We have to internalize the presence of blessing and curse, both, and not either or.

Secondly, we can learn to live with others.  I don’t mean just day care centers, a brilliant intervention in aging Sunday Schools.  I mean full tilt boogie use of all space all the time as a matter of the green. Indeed why would we heat or cool something as big as most sanctuaries just a day a week?  I also mean maximizing space use on behalf of mission.  Other churches may want to worship with us, dancers may want to rehearse, artists may want to paint and more.  Churches aka buildings can’t really rent but we can surely have a sliding donation scale.  Yes, such a practice will make us the minor shareholder in our buildings.  Such a residence is not only green, it is also missional.  By that I mean golden rule sharing of the wealth, particularly the wealth (and curse) of real estate that we have.

Finally, it is not a crime to sell a church building and find a slimmer way to live.  Many churches are so dowdy that they aren’t even fun anymore.  They look too dusty and probably can’t improve aesthetically.  They often give the message that this is the perfect place for perfect people as opposed to being the perfect place for imperfect people.  The word fortress comes to mind, especially if the congregation can’t afford to keep the doors open during the week.  Why not sell the real estate and use the “make under” as a way to fund ministries? Here is the church and here is the steeple, look inside and see all the people.  You could also look “inside” in a rented space from another church aka building which might really enjoy having you around.  Plus, don’t ever tell me you want young people and continue to worship at 11 a.m. on Sunday.  Duh.

Church real estate is very real. It is a blessing and a curse.  It moves more towards blessing the more theologically blended we can be about mind and body, spirit and matter.  It moves a lot toward blessing when we think about it as real estate as opposed to it being the “church.”

by Donna Schaper

  • Mary Austin

    We started to rent part of our too-big building, in northwest Detroit, out of necessity, but it turns out to be great for the church. We rent to a non-profit group which has offices in our building, and the connections are delightful. Also, more people in and out makes the building safer for everyone. What started as a “must” has become a gift.


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