Church without building

Moving on. Minister and twitterer — I keep hearing blogging is so old; no, she blogs too — Naomi King has noted congregations that give up or do without their buildings here and here.

These are often do-or-die decisions, but I can imagine how many churches die under the weight of mortar or mortgage. Certainly, from my unscientific review of Universalist churches that suffered economic shocks of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the survivors had modest, paid-for buildings or participated in union (cooperatively owned) meetinghouses, and either had long, long pastorates or a series of intermittent (I wonder if we’d call them part-time today?) pastorates. Some also relied on preaching circuits, which survive today in an informal way but are little discussed. The take-away: affordable capacity and flexibility.

Consider one unsinkable church that died and left an exquisite corpse: Third Universalist, New York. More church than they needed. Mortgaged to the teeth. Economic downturn. The coup de grace: Fourth Universalist, formerly downtown, moved nearby five years after construction. Dead within fifteen years in their new building. (The building is extant, now Baptist.)

Next: how much space do you need?

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9 Replies to “Church without building”

  1. When we lived in Rapid City, South Dakota, our small Unitarian Universalist congregation rented meeting space in the Senior Citizens Center (the other renter was the local Unity congregation).

    There were some very charming aspects of being in a congregation with no mortgage and no payroll. It was the only UU congregation that I’ve attended that didn’t have serious money concerns.

    When we moved to Shreveport, Louisiana back in the mid-1990s, I joined the pledge/canvass committee. They were looking for new ideas and they asked about the Rapid City pledge campaign.

    I replied that we didn’t have a pledge campaign because passing the basket each week seemed to work fine.

  2. Thank you, Scott, for linking over to my tweets & one of my blogs! I’ve been thinking about this issue for as long as I’ve been studying ministry. But it was like admitting Unitarian Universalist blasphemy. For so long, Unitarian Universalists have accepted this business that congregations without buildings aren’t as real or doing the good work. But since budget is policy, reflecting implicit or explicit mission, the question is: what do we really serve? A building? I would hope not. I hope that a building is simply a tactic in pursuit of a larger mission. Your examples are saddening & compelling. Some congregations reflecting on their calling are finding that the tactic of building ownership neither reflects their congregants’ lives nor their primary calling. What does your community’s budget serve? How’s that meeting your congregation’s calling?

  3. The building question is complex. I can cite an example of a Universalist church that had a paid-for and modest building, but still went under in the Great Depression of the 1930s — First Universalist in New Bedford, Mass. Even a paid-for, modest building represents fixed costs that must be met each year (heat, basic maintenance, etc.), and in an economic downturn can push a congregation into bankruptcy.

    I can also cite an example of a Universalist congregation that got rid of their building, went without a building for several decades while renting space, went through a renaissance and recently built a new building — First Universalist Society of Franklin, Mass. The lesson from Franklin is that the congregation need not be equated with a building. However, the reality is that the majority of congregations that lose their building do go out of existence.

    A larger point can be made here. Any congregation’s budget represents a statement of how it prioritizes its ministries (I’m defining anything a congregation does as a kind of ministry). A building is a type of ministry. A building can serve as a symbol to the larger community. James Luther Adams also pointed out that voluntary associations need both metaphorical and literal space to survive, and a congregation can use its building (offering both metaphorical and literal space) to help nurture other voluntary associations with missions aligned with its own; this too is a ministry, and in some communities a very important ministry.

    Another larger point to be made is that we really need a variety of models for congregations, with a variety of ideas about physical space needs. A congregation can have powerful ministries without owning a building (and without a planning horizon that extends outwards three or more generations). I’d argue that we need different types of congregations to inhabit different niches in society: In an urban setting the big powerful congregation with two ministers and a gorgeous big building could exist down the street from a congregation of the same denomination that operates out of a storefront and has one part-time pastor and a different style of worship; and both those congregations could co-exist with another congregation a few blocks away that was focused on ministries to children and youth; along with the short-term congregation that came together over a social justice issue; and a few house churches scattered here and there. (And before we get to talking about rural areas, remember that something like 4/5 of U.S. residents live in urban areas now.)

    Steve @ 1 — I find the story of the Rapid City congregation moderately depressing. Not having a building just so the congregation doesn’t have to raise money is kind of sad — when I look at the priorities in such a budget, what I see is a ministry of ignoring the world. It seems to me the point would be to raise the same amount of money, and put that money into another form of ministry: e.g., maybe a storefront church with a major homeless ministry.

  4. Dan wrote:
    “I find the story of the Rapid City congregation moderately depressing. Not having a building just so the congregation doesn’t have to raise money is kind of sad — when I look at the priorities in such a budget, what I see is a ministry of ignoring the world. It seems to me the point would be to raise the same amount of money, and put that money into another form of ministry: e.g., maybe a storefront church with a major homeless ministry.”


    I think you’ve missed the point in what I posted.

    The purpose of a UU congregation isn’t to support the commercial real estate market. Nor is the purpose of a UU congregation to provide employment for ministers, DREs, etc (and I’m a partner of a DRE who is writing this).

    The Rapid City congregation didn’t make a conscious decision to rent or use just volunteer staff as a goal (or “end”) for themselves. Nor did they forgo obtaining a building as a goal either.

    From my experience with this congregation from 1992 to 1995, being lay-led and renting is a realistic approach for a small group of 20 to 30 (the UUA’s web site reports their certified membership of 32).

    A building and a payroll in and of themselves don’t provide ministry. They are not the “end” but simply a “means” to reach an end. And in some cases, they may be an inappropriate “means” for smaller congregations.

    This congregation was founded in the early 1980s and some of these early 1980s members belonged to an earlier 1950s-1960s “fellowship era” Rapid City UU congregation that had faded away.

    However, the resurrected Black Hills congregation that was founded in 1982-1983 is still providing ministry for children, youth, and adults today.

    On their web site, they have a notice about collecting toiletries, clothing, etc for the poor and homeless.

    It looks like their current congregation is still doing good work inside their walls and within the wider community in a sustainable fashion.

    And I don’t find that “depressing.”

    I do find it frustrating to be in my current congregation where the obsession with money and budget leads people to do rude things to other members because “the survival of the church is at stake.”

    As a member of my current congregation who was associated with a past effort to promote the Welcoming Congregation program in my congregation, I was accused of trying to hurt the congregation.

    These allegations worked because of the perception we were in a financially precarious condition.

    So … there are advantages to being financially realistic and ensuring a congregation is healthy and sustainable for the long-haul. If that means renting space and no payroll, that should be OK too.

  5. Given the recently released video for our times from UUA on a well-done building campaign for a good reason, what are your reflections about that video?

  6. Oh, I was afraid that video was going to come up. I hate the look (our time? what, 1983?) and tone (all about insider issues) of the series.

    The compelling cause seemed to be based in fear and inconvenience, and there was something mean-spirited about how other religious people in Elkhart were described. (If I was a Mennonite, I’d be offended; doubly so if I identified with this article.)

    And I’m not sure how the news of a $50k matching grant — unavailable to any other congregation — is supposed to encourage anyone outside Elkhart.

    Good for them for having a new building, I guess.

  7. Buildings or no buildings, our religious communities have to answer the questions: who do we serve? why are we here? what are we doing to offer ourselves to the world’s needs?

    And so I find the video curiously honest about where a lot of our congregations and a mainstream voice in our Association is about the questions. I may not share that particular manifestation of a calling, but it is refreshingly blunt and out-there.

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