Congregations across the U.S. are searching for an answer to a fundamental question: how will they survive at a time when attendance in mainline denominations is in a downturn? It is a quandary that cuts across faith traditions, and is most acute in aging communities, particularly in urban places. Congregations are a shadow of what they once were. Places of worship and ancillary spaces –auditoriums, schools, halls, basements—sit empty for much of the week, or are used only a share of the time they once were. Meanwhile, congregations are trying to make do with less—fewer dollars in the collection plate means facilities undergo escalating stress. What is the answer?
Well, one answer is to liquidate the property and move to smaller digs. The number of conversions of houses of worship into bars, condos, and offices is growing. But that option removes the life of the congregation and its programs from the community. Partners for Sacred Places, a non-profit organization that has existed for a quarter of a century, has another answer that potentially could prove a God-send for congregations, allowing them to make better use of their buildings and preserve their presence in their neighborhoods. Partners has a national network of experts, professionals, and advocates who work with houses of worship to assess their architectural assets—particularly older buildings–and how congregations can partner with the greater community to the benefit of each.
In November, Partners unveiled iSPi, an online resource that helps match congregations and their property assets with those in need of space—such as arts groups, theater companies, food/nutrition programs, clinics, care-giving entities, job placement services. Partners’ President Bob Jaeger describes it as sort of a “dating service” for congregations with under-utilized space looking to find entities in need of affordable facilities. In any given community where local leaders want to make use of iSPi, the program can match congregations with space to spare with organizations that need a place to grow—pairing physical assets and needs to the mission of each party. The ultimate goal is a match made in heaven, so to speak.
A good example is Shiloh Baptist Church in Philadelphia, which Partners paired up with “JUNK,” a dance and performing arts group looking for rehearsal space in the city. Jaeger notes that a key aspect of the match is compatibility of mission—congregations might be challenged by a partnership with an edgy arts group. It has to be a partnership that fits, and Partners helps broker the relationship with agreements and leases that are mutually beneficial. The key to making iSPi work is to build a database of information that allows congregations and those looking for space to find each other: a veritable map of “scattered treasures.” Key pieces of info include space and equipment needs, accessibility, mission, community engagement, and heritage. More details on the iSPi can be found at bit.ly/11VdcMd
As congregations continue to change and expand their links with neighborhood groups in partnerships that raise the quality of communities, the amount of adaptive reuse, repurposing of space, renovation of existing sacred buildings, and potential development of open land held by congregations will only increase. Recognizing this trend, the 2015 Faith & Form/IFRAA Awards program will include a new category, “Adaptive Reuse/Repurpose” to celebrate the design creativity, resourcefulness, and planning ingenuity that give form to congregation/community partnerships. Look for more details on the awards website when it opens for submissions April 1.Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at [email protected]