The Economic Halo Effect

Volume 51, Issue 3 :: A. Robert Jaeger

An update on the value of historic sacred places and their impact on communities

woman looking at stained glass windows through binoculars

In 2016, Partners for Sacred Places published the results of a national research project that documented the larger impact of congregations on their communities, and the results were stunning. For the first time in our 29-year history, we were able to comprehensively measure and substantiate the economic and social benefits that America’s older churches and synagogues bring to their communities. More than ever before, we are able to demonstrate that sacred places are de facto community centers, housing and serving the larger neighborhood or community in significant, often irreplaceable ways.

Based on a close study of 90 congregations with older, purpose-built properties across three cities (Chicago, Philadelphia, and Fort Worth), the research findings included these highlights:

The average annual economic impact of an urban sacred place is more than $1.7 million. This impact includes the value of a congregation’s operational and program spending, the value of schools and other educational programs, the local spending of those participating in congregation-sponsored events and programs, and the value of space that is shared for community-serving outreach.

Almost 90 percent of those benefiting from programs housed by sacred places come from outside the congregation. Affirming the conclusion of earlier studies, the Halo research proved that the vast majority of those benefiting from congregation-hosted programs come from the larger community.

Of the visits made by people to these sacred places over the course of a year, 89 percent were for non-worship activities, ranging from community programs to special events. Church and synagogue worship accounts for a small percentage of overall traffic to and from a sacred place.

In sum, the Economic Halo Effect research has affirmed and upheld Partners’ message that sacred places have enormous civic value, serving populations in need, hiring and spending locally, attracting visitors, and strengthening towns and neighborhoods.

Since the publication of the Economic Halo Effect two years ago, Partners has focused on extending our knowledge and using Halo to help sustain and build the community value of congregations. For example, we are helping congregations make a better case for their value, both to their own memberships as well as the larger community. Partners has measured the Halo impact of several congregations participating in the National Fund for Sacred Places, for example, helping them tell their stories of community value. (See related article on facing page. -Ed.)

One National Fund congregation noted that “the economic value of our charitable work is the most valuable outcome.… Our lay leaders are impressed with the numbers…. We are right in the city, basically on a university campus, and sometimes our leaders question why we are letting groups use the space for free. But now they are proud of that because this shows the value in real numbers of what we provide.”

Partners is also guiding congregations on how to use Halo to make a stronger case for financial support from outside their memberships. The economic language of Halo can be especially powerful for member giving, and with non-traditional funders, such as secular foundations, government agencies, and businesses.

We are finding that Halo can be very useful to new community programs that aim to support the civic value of sacred places. One good example is Sacred Places/Civic Spaces, a collaboration between Partners and the Community Design Collaborative in Philadelphia. (See related article on page 14. -Ed.) Halo laid the groundwork and helped to justify this groundbreaking project, which is pairing three faith communities (Baptist, United Methodist, and Muslim) with architects and community groups, using design to reimagine and open up sacred places, bringing them into the civic plaza in significant, welcoming, and mutually beneficial ways.

Given the wide utility of Halo, Partners is extending its research to new populations. Recognizing that the original Halo research focused on urban congregations, Partners has been working to apply its knowledge of the Halo impact of small town and rural churches. This research will be public in the coming months, but already we know that the economic value of rural churches is significant, including their impact on the lives of families and individuals in their communities

The groundbreaking Halo study has substantiated something that we have always known intuitively, deep down: the bonds between faith communities and the towns or neighborhoods they are part of is real. These connections have economic impact, and they add layers of social support that communities need to thrive. Sacred places give back to their neighborhoods, whether the folks who live there are members of the congregations or not. All the more reason to sustain and preserve them.

The writer is President of Partners for Sacred Places, which he co-founded in 1989, and is the author of several publications on the stewardship of sacred places in transition.

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