Urban Sacred Places: What Are They Worth?

Volume 47, Issue 3 :: by A. Robert Jaeger

St. Paul's Cathedral

Religious buildings, such as St. Paul’s in London, are part of every city’s fabric, adding spiritual and economic value. Photo: Duncan Harris/flickr

What is the value of an older church, synagogue, or temple to its neighborhood or town? If that value is significant, can we use it to persuade the larger community to help preserve the building and all the public good it houses? In an era when so many congregations are declining, can our message about the enormous “public value” of sacred places generate new resources that will help to sustain and stabilize sacred places that otherwise would become vacant and endangered?

These are the questions that have propelled Partners for Sacred Places, a national nonprofit organization, to undertake a new research project documenting how our older churches, synagogues, and other religious buildings contribute to the economic health and life of communities. We are affirming something enormously important: that sacred places constitute a significant and irreplaceable community asset—not just architecturally, but also in terms of the arts, human services, and community vitality. Sacred places can and do provide space for the performing arts, and resources for efficient, high-impact programs that respond to hunger, homelessness, poor nutrition, and other societal needs. Furthermore, with a helping hand sacred places can do much, much more.

We are convinced that this new understanding will persuade civic leaders and funders to take an interest in preserving and making the most of religious buildings, including the reuse of space that may be sitting empty much of the week—a phenomenon that today is all too common.

Partners’ work to assess the public value of sacred places builds on an important study we conducted with the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1990s. The results, published as Sacred Places at Risk (SPAR) [bit.ly/sparstudy], quantified the role that historic sacred places play in hosting community-serving programs. Among the key findings of the study:

More than 80 percent of those who benefit from the community service programs housed by churches and synagogues are not congregation members;

On average, congregations house four ongoing community service programs;

The average congregation brings more than 5,300 hours of volunteer support to its community programs each year;

The dollar value of the subsidy provided by the average congregation to outreach programs housed in its building was close to $150,000 (and much more in today’s dollars).

Since the late 1990s, Partners began to realize that sacred places contribute to community life in many other ways. We conferred with several leading scholars and research professionals to develop a new methodology to calculate what we call the economic “Halo Effect” of older religious properties. By documenting dozens of factors that contribute to overall neighborhood health, we are able to demonstrate:

The dollar value of social services and cultural programs sponsored by congregations, including the value of clergy, staff, and volunteer time; space provided; in-kind support; and the environmental and public health value of outdoor open space, recreational facilities, parking lots, gardens, etc.

The impact of congregational spending—both operational budgets and capital projects—on the local economy, including local jobs and local businesses.

The value of sacred places as gathering places and convening locations, including the spending of visitors to congregation-hosted events and performances, and the incubation of small businesses and nonprofits in affordable space.

Of course, sacred places contribute to community health in other ways that are not so easy to quantify. For example, what is the impact of active sacred places on the formation of social capital, i.e., their influence on attitudes, behaviors, and social cohesion among those who serve, as well as on those who are served?

What are our findings from this research? The overall economic value of a sacred place exceeds, on average, $1 million each year—far more than we calculated before. Clearly, sacred places make an important contribution to the health of neighborhoods, undermining the argument among some that congregations have no value because they do not (as a rule) pay taxes.

One of Partners’ goals, now, is to help congregations tell the story of their economic and community value to their local leaders, paving the way for new partnerships and new funding. We also need to tell this story to leaders in government, philanthropy, the arts, and social services across the nation. This story is important, both locally and nationally.

The other part of this story is that the “Halo Effect” of sacred places can often be even larger, if congregations are given a helping hand. Yes, congregations house many important programs serving the community, but often they have considerable space that is unused or underused. If that space is put to use, the civic and economic value of sacred places will grow.

Thus, Partners has pioneered several programs to provide that kind of assistance. Our first venture was “Making Homes for the Arts in Sacred Places,” a program which “matches” sacred places with performing arts organizations and provides support to help clergy, lay leaders, and arts leaders develop a sustained, mutually beneficial relationship. We will help both parties develop trust and good communications, and we will help them configure the space, develop a lease, and adopt best practices for the management of shared space.

Similarly, our “Food in Sacred Places” program helps congregations make best use of their green space, kitchens, and other spaces to host programs that can grow food, host cooking classes and nutritional education, support food entrepreneurs, and promote good health in the community.

In addition, Partners is developing, with the support of the MacArthur Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, a new Web site that will facilitate the two programs described above, and other space-sharing partnerships. Organizations and artists interested in working with sacred places will complete profiles outlining their space needs, mission, work style, organizational capacity, and interest in working with houses of worship. With information from both parties, potential matches will be identified based not only on compatibility of space needs and square footage, but also on a marriage of mission, vision, and values.

Because large numbers of congregations of all faiths are struggling to remain in urban areas, with buildings that have often been seen as a drain on their finances, many will close or merge in the coming years. At the same time, new congregations are being born and are finding places in the city to worship and serve, and they will increase their economic value in the coming years. Whether congregations are declining, static,   or growing, we need to communicate the larger value of sacred places widely and quickly in order to have an impact on their preservation and sustainability.  We have always loved America’s older religious buildings, but now we also understand the enormity of the role they play in making our cities livable and economically healthy–and the urgency of supporting that role–for the good of all.

The author is President of Partners for Sacred Places, based in Philadelphia (sacredplaces.org). Prior to cofounding Partners for Sacred Places in 1989, Jaeger worked with the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Corporation as Senior Vice President for the Historic Religious Properties Program. He can be reached at bjaeger@sacredplaces.org.


  1. Thank you for posting this. On Buffalo, NY’s East Side there’s a long list of heritage religious buildings that are off the local preservation radar and under the threat of demolition.

    St. Gerard’s was going to be de-constructed and moved to Norcross, GA and that move is off (after the statuary was moved) as the parish in GA has failed to raise the funds necessary.

    Last Saturday, Buffalo NY’s oldest synagogue was demolished and sent to the landfill. Here’s the story: http://fixbuffalo.blogspot.com/2014/10/today-on-jefferson-avenue.html

    The list is long, very long actually. If you have real strategies to share, please get in touch.