“The grass hadn’t been mowed in weeks,” she says. “There were bars on the windows.” Doors were closed. She knew the story — once a 600-member church, now home to 70 dispirited souls, but still she was shocked.
She got people outside, working on the property, interacting with neighbors, showing life. People in the area responded warmly. In fact, a seniors center asked if it could start using church facilities. A day-care center asked the same.
Members were willing to pull weeds on their lawn, but they weren’t willing to let strangers use their facilities. They voted down both requests for space.
“You’ve just gone into hospice care.” the interim pastor told them. “You’ve declared your intention to die.” She moved on.
Inherited facilities don’t necessarily make us smart. Some congregations make one self-defeating decision after another in order to “preserve” their “treasure.” They say “No” to outside uses, they complain when weekday children use the facilities hard, they charge high rents, or impose onerous restrictions.
Outsiders get the message. So do all the people they tell about this unwelcoming congregation. “We need to take the roofs off our buildings,” says the interim pastor. Let neighbors see in, let members see out.
I agree. To justify the expense of facilities, congregations must radically share their buildings and use their facilities to build bridges to outside community.
The two programs that this Queens church voted down — senior care and child care — are ideal uses of church classrooms, gyms, and kitchens. They connect the church with important constituencies. Dance and exercise classes make good tenants, too, as do community ministries like feeding, shelter, advocacy, and after-school care. Plus catering firms.
I encourage churches to outfit their facilities to be small-business incubators. In every community, layoffs are forcing men and women into self-employment and small enterprises. They need office space, Internet access, and telephone service but can’t afford the high rents of commercial space. In New York City, a single-desk office rents for $1,500 a month and up. A congregation could set up 20 small offices and rent them for $300-500 a month and have a full house of grateful entrepreneurs. (Test the market first, of course.)
Yes, there are expenses involved in any outside use of facilities. More cleaning and maintenance, better night-time lighting and security, modern restrooms, outfitting of space for new uses. They are not insignificant expenses, but well worth it, because a congregation that is serving its community will be engaged in its community, will generate positive “buzz,” and will discover more and more opportunities to serve.
Such expenses and the inevitable dislocations that come from sharing space will be a good wake-up call for a congregation. Does it truly want to serve? Or is it just clinging to memories and planning to die?