‘Can you help us find money to take care of our building?’

Volume 51, Issue 3 :: Chad Martin

Judson Memorial Church NYC

The central meeting room of Judson Memorial Church in New York City is a place where the entire community of congregants and neighbors cross paths.
Photo: Michelle Thompson

For over 25 years, senior staff at Partners for Sacred Places have been fielding the question in this article’s headline from congregations across the US, showing varying degrees of experience or capacity for stewardship of their buildings—from strategically planned restorations to desperate states of emergency. Indeed, this question was at the forefront when Partners began working with Broad Bay Church in Waldoboro, Maine. Broad Bay owns a 19th-century building designed and constructed by Samuel Melcher, a well-regarded regional craftsman at the time. The white clapboard siding and modest bell tower of this church building is not unlike hundreds of others scattered across New England’s bucolic landscape. Yet Broad Bay stands out as a countervailing story amid broader narratives about declining membership and antiquated church life. Broad Bay is a young congregation by New England standards, birthed in the 1980s, and adopted its building from a shuttered congregation in 2002.

Broad Bay’s community of hearty Mainers has brought the building back to life in recent years and has begun chipping away at deferred maintenance and overdue updates to re-establish the building as a hub of community activity on Waldoboro’s Main Street. Local building experts volunteered to conduct a thorough assessment of the building in 2016 and found a growing need for major structural repairs to the steeple tower and for numerous upgrades to make the building fully accessible. Once these needs became clear, the congregation realized they had to find resources from beyond their own community. The congregation was committed to the careful stewardship of this asset, and that meant seeking financial help from beyond their own means. At that point, Partners invited Broad Bay to apply for the newly established National Fund for Sacred Places.

After more than a quarter century of wrestling alongside congregations with the question of where to secure the needed funds to appropriately care for aging historic buildings, Partners achieved a long-sought dream to establish a national funding source for such projects itself. Thanks to nearly $14 million in grants from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., and a partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, for the first time Partners has had the opportunity to provide major grants on a national scale to historic houses of worship in need of restoration, repair, and upgrades to better serve their communities.

Now halfway through these funding cycles, the National Fund is demonstrating a positive impact on the feasibility of dozens of capital projects. And the technical assistance provided by the program is helping congregations like Broad Bay raise funds from many stakeholders beyond their memberships and to oversee the complexities of major capital improvement projects.

The Program

Staff from Partners and the National Trust use five funding criteria to select a geographically and religiously diverse group of congregations for the National Fund each year: A property and its congregation has to have a national/regional significance; the congregation has to demonstrate community engagement and impact; there has to be an achievable scope and for the project to be eligible; the congregation has to have a capacity for raising funds; the overall health and vitality of the congregation has to be strong. Keeping all of these criteria at the forefront has helped ensure that projects funded by the program are important buildings reflecting America’s religious legacy as well as vital centers of community life today.

Through the National Fund, Partners provides technical assistance in the form of training, small planning grants, and a package of customized services ranging from capital campaign expertise to developing best practices for sharing space with community partners. The National Trust for Historic Preservation provides advice on architectural considerations as needed. The program culminates in capital grants of up to $250,000 for congregations that can raise matching funds and plan an eligible project scope.

The Case of Broad Bay

For Broad Bay, these services have provided multiple benefits. Partners provided resources on interviewing architects, contributed to the congregation’s written request for proposals, and reviewed proposals submitted by two firms. In the end, Broad Bay has contracted with Barba + Wheelock Architects, a Maine-based firm with extensive experience in both historic preservation and working with small churches.

In the same way, Partners has worked alongside the congregation as Broad Bay prepares to launch its biggest fundraising campaign ever. Resources from the National Fund oriented the congregation to best practice for capital fundraising, contributed to testing the feasibility for a major campaign within the church and its community stakeholders, and connected the congregation to consultants for the campaign—another regional firm, Full Harvest Fundraising.

The story at Broad Bay continues to unfold, as there is yet much work to be done to complete the project there. But thanks to the careful and diligent planning described here, Broad Bay will soon be ready to receive a major grant from the program, and is positioned to raise nearly double their original funding goal for the project. Not every congregation receives the same level of support, but in every case the National Fund works alongside them through the long haul of planning thoughtful projects aligned with national best practices for historic preservation and of conducting successful capital campaigns.

The Need

First Church of Christ Hartfort CT

First Church of Christ (also known as Center Church) in Hartford, Connecticut, occupies an historic site at the center of the city.
Photo: Rochelle Stackhouse

Given the question Partners has fielded throughout its history—“Can you help us find money to take care of our building?”—perhaps the need for the grant-making work of the National Fund is self-evident. Partners’ research over the years has documented the extent to which America’s older religious properties are certainly at risk and further resources are needed to sustain them.1

Two years into the work of the National Fund, the program is adding to the understanding of this need. Over the course of three application rounds in 2016-18, more than 400 congregations have submitted a formal Letter of Intent seeking grant funds. The geographic spread of these inquiries is nationwide, with applicants from 47 states, including Hawaii and Alaska, as well as the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. A wide swath of faith traditions is represented among these congregations as well: Roman Catholic; Greek, Coptic, and Russian Orthodox; every major mainline Protestant denomination; and Reform and Orthodox Judaism.

Every applicant has demonstrated the need for some level of financial support beyond the capacity of the congregation’s membership in order to appropriately care for its building. Some are facing urgent repairs such as crumbling masonry or significant water infiltration. A few are currently uninhabitable due to extensive damage by fire or hurricane, forcing congregations to occupy temporary locations for years at a time. Yet the vast majority of applicants report programs serving their broader communities, arguing that the stewardship and care of these facilities is vital to the common good of towns and cities across the country.

The Projects

The National Fund is designed to support a wide range of “bricks and mortar” projects. To date, the National Fund has awarded 31 congregations into the program reflecting a broad mix of projects. A few examples highlight the program’s scope.

The First Church of Christ in Hartford, Connecticut, also known as Center Church, is one of the oldest institutions in the state, founded in the 17th century. Its building, constructed in 1807, is an iconic presence not far from the historic Old State House. Over the last couple years the congregation successfully raised about $2 million for a project to stabilize and restore the cupola and spire, restore and repair wooden architectural features at most levels of the tower, reinforce the structural integrity of the tower, and restore the tower clock. Earlier this year Center Church completed this project, led by TLB Architecture, with the support of a $250,000 grant from the National Fund.

Another example of core historic preservation supported by the National Fund is the installation of a fire-suppression system at the Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of Christ in Unalaska, Alaska. Holy Ascension, a wood-frame structure built in 1896, is the oldest cruciform Orthodox church in America. In addition to housing religious artifacts dating to the origins of the parish in the early 19th-century, the cathedral also has an extensive collection of icons, some believed to date back to the 16th century. As such, a modern fire-suppression system to protect the building and its artifacts and artwork is a vital preservation project for this isolated fishing community. A capital grant from the National Fund will support this project, estimated to cost over $1 million and require two full building seasons.

Other congregations are working on projects that improve accessibility to their facilities, enhancing the spaces for shared community use. Judson Memorial Church in New York, New York, exemplifies this kind of project. “The Judson” has opened its building for use as a venue for music, theater, and dance for decades—recognized as the birthplace of postmodern dance. And the building features one of the most significant collections of John LaFarge stained glass windows in the country. Yet the various levels have only been partially accessible by elevator, and in recent years the aging elevator breaks down from time to time. So, Judson is working with Kouzmanoff Bainton Architects to design an elevator modifying the existing elevator location to service all levels of the building, including the balcony that serves as a community theater venue. While the full project scope is still in development, the National Fund anticipates supporting this project at a maximum grant level.

Other congregations have seen the National Fund as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to embark on extensive building projects encompassing a range of activities. Trinity United Methodist Church in Idaho Falls, Idaho, has taken this approach. With encouragement from Partners for Sacred Places, Trinity contracted with Myers Anderson Architects to conduct a thorough building condition assessment prior to finalizing their project scope. The congregation knew that they needed to attend to some roofing and masonry issues, and wanted to upgrade some interior spaces. Trinity opted to continue working with Myers Anderson to create a wholistic scope of work based on findings of the building condition assessment, including masonry and roof repairs, renovation of ADA compliant bathrooms, window repairs, and a remodel of the commercial-grade kitchen. The National Fund has awarded Trinity a capital grant of $190,000 toward their $600,000 campaign, and the project is scheduled to be completed late in 2018.

The Learning

Cathedral of Holy Ascension Unalaska AK

The Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of Christ in Unalaska, Alaska, is sited amid the region’s natural wonders. Photo: Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites In Alaska

As noted above, we are just beginning to glean lessons learned about these congregations as we conclude the first two program years of the National Fund. Comprehensive evaluation will continue as each project concludes. In the meantime, we have observed several key insights thus far.

Even congregations that rise to the top of a competitive grant program like the National Fund have mixed track records of working with architects experienced in historic preservation. Many have earnestly worked to assess the most urgent repair needs for their buildings. Yet of the 400 Letters of Intent received to date, upwards of half do not have an established relationship with an architect or other preservation experts in their community. For congregations like these, the technical assistance and professional support provided by the National Fund has been critical to designing a successful project.

Yet the value of professional expertise, both for development and management of the building project as well as for the capital fundraising needed, cannot be overstated. Readers of this publication surely agree. But our experiences in the program thus far reinforce this reality. The expertise provided by architects with experience in historic preservation is invaluable for maintaining a holistic approach to the project, keeping the project proceeding on time, and demonstrating adherence to best practices in preservation.

Congregational health and capacity is one of the most vital factors in project success. This may be hard to assess from a distance, beyond surface measures like membership and annual budget size. But we have already adopted some tactics for deepening our assessment. We have learned to inquire about recent conflicts and transitions, and congregations are typically quite candid in sharing about their struggles. We have learned that clergy tenure matters. A new priest or rabbi, no matter how strong a leader, typically has too many competing priorities to effective lead a successful campaign and major building project.

At the same time, membership size is not the primary determinant for capacity. United Baptist Church in Poultney, Vermont, is an outstanding example. Though the church membership is only a few dozen, under the thoughtful and determined leadership of a young, new pastor the membership and annual budget have steadily grown. The pastor and lay leaders have worked effectively to build partnerships with local organizations and make the building available for a variety of community uses. This goodwill is translating into an effective capital campaign to restore the envelope of the building and add ADA-compliant restrooms to enhance community use. United Baptist is showing that small congregations can manage significant projects by cultivating relationships with a broad set of stakeholders beyond the membership of the congregation.

Finally, we are learning how vital a community of praxis is for encouragement and success. Providing opportunities for leaders from congregations across traditions and scattered across the country to gather for shared learning builds confidence and real capacity. And while projects like these cannot succeed without patience and hard work, congregations often emerge stronger, more dedicated to their mission, and more deeply connected to partners in their communities.

Despite the many challenges congregations face today, including caring for aging facilities, programs like the National Fund contribute to the thriving of vital congregations and help ensure their buildings continue to serve as anchors of common life for decades to come.

  1. See Diane Cohen and A. Robert Jaeger, Sacred Places at Risk: New Evidence On How Endangered Older Churches And Synagogues Serve Communities (Partners for Sacred Places: Philadelphia, PA, 1998). Online at: http://bit.ly/ff-spar. Accessed July 5, 2018. For an example of a complete survey of one city’s historic religious properties, see “Philadelphia’s Historic Sacred Places,” at The Pew Charitable Trust (2017). Online at: http://bit.ly/ff-phsp. Accessed July 5, 2018.

The writer is Director of the National Fund at Partners for Sacred Places. For a list of religious buildings participating in the National Fund and other information, visit: fundforsacredplaces.org.