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Rethinking the real estate

By Samantha Rideout

“Are we serving this building, or is this building serving us?” According to Rev. Scott MacAuley of Sparling United in Winnipeg, this question was the springboard for his congregation’s new vision. The year was 2004, the 100th anniversary of Sparling’s founding. It was also a time of financial crisis. Going through archival documents to find stories of the past to share, parishioners discovered that it wasn’t the first time the congregation had experienced money trouble. Journals from the Second World War period described how revenues dwindled after many members enlisted and went overseas. As the war stretched on, the remaining congregation saved on heating costs by closing the sanctuary for the winter and worshipping in the basement.

Today, all too many churches can relate to the difficulty of meeting the soaring maintenance costs of their buildings with the donations of a shrinking membership. This is one of the reasons that one-third of those who took The Observer’s survey think it unlikely that their congregations will still be gathering in their current building in 2025.

For Sparling United back in 2004, the situation had become so untenable that members needed to choose between cutting expenses, amalgamating or disbanding. During one tense meeting, an elder burst into tears and said, “I don’t care what we do, but let’s stay together.” Taking inspiration from their forebears, the church people closed the sanctuary for the winter and met in their Christian education hall.

They discovered they liked the smaller meeting room. “You can imagine what it had felt like to meet in a 500-seat sanctuary with only 40 to 50 people,” says MacAuley. “The other space was more intimate and social.”

Come spring, the congregation didn’t want to move back. They sold their building and started worshipping at a seniors’ recreation centre. For office and programming space, they bought a bungalow, which they affectionately call “Church House.” The changes freed up time, energy and resources to spend on outreach and pastoral care. Selling “won’t solve all of your problems,” sums up MacAuley. “But it will allow your church members to be more creative and intentional about what they want to do.”

Most of our survey’s respondents are aware of these kinds of benefits and open to the possibility of leaving their buildings behind. Rented space in other churches, the great outdoors and school gyms topped the list of preferred alternatives. (Not so popular: pubs and online gatherings.)

Amalgamation is another possible solution to the property expenses problem, and survey respondents say if it had to happen, they would prefer to be the ones receiving another group, not the ones moving into someone else’s space: only 36 percent feel “very comfortable” with the latter scenario.

Already, some new congregations are operating under the premise that buying or building a physical church space is unnecessary. One example is Rising Spirit United in Guelph, Ont. “I’m no businessman,” says Rev. John Lawson on the church’s website. “If God wants a physical place, God will have to provide the folks with business skills and cash. But there are already cafés to meet in, pubs in which to gather, places for conversation.”

Meanwhile, the members of St. Paul’s United in Kelowna, B.C., are trying an entirely different approach: rather than selling their property, they’re developing it. “We’re sitting on some very valuable land,” explains parishioner and survey respondent John Walmsley, 74. The church plans to build and rent out residential and commercial units for income. It will also set up community gardens, a galleria for art exhibits, and an arts and worship centre. In short, the congregation wants to transform its space into a cultural hub. “Champion of the arts is actually one of the church’s historical roles,” says Walmsley. “Our vision may not fill more seats on Sundays, but it will certainly change the way we resonate with the community. We’re really motivated by it.”

None of this is to say that the beautiful churches of yore won’t be missed. Surveyed readers highlighted these buildings’ special characteristics — from their stained glass windows to the sound of their pipe organs to the memories and history they hold — as blessings that would be tough to give up. But the church isn’t a place, as more than one respondent pointed out. It’s a people.

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