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An elephant in the room

By David Wilson

As The United Church of Canada continues to struggle with ongoing challenges over mission and money, it might be useful to acknowledge an elephant in the room. It goes by the name of real estate.

We don't talk about it much but we own a lot of it. The insured value of church buildings and their contents is on the order of $3.6 billion; nobody knows precisely what the land the buildings sit on is worth, but I bet it's worth billions, too.

In fact, the church owns more real estate than it can use. Under-utilized churches dot the landscape from coast to coast. You know where they are: the little crossroads country church that used to be packed on Sundays but now attracts only a couple of dozen regular worshippers; or the big downtown church with more empty pews and vacant committee positions each passing year. Recent statistics (story, page 36) bear out what is clear to the naked eye: membership and attendance continue to slide.

Everywhere it's getting harder to make ends meet. Local congregations put off repairs and live without full-time ministers because their coffers are empty. Crumbling buildings and empty pulpits only hasten the downward spiral. At the national level, the General Council finds itself unable to pay for some kinds of mission work that have been hallmarks of The United Church of Canada for generations. Last year's controversial program and staff cuts were a wake-up call to the fact that we're living beyond our means.

Objectively, the solution seems obvious: liquidate real estate that can no longer be rationalized, and direct the proceeds to strengthen congregations and ministries that are thriving, or to fund promising new ventures. It could be done through amalgamations that would see under-used churches closed, sold and merged, either with existing nearby congregations or as part of new church developments. Amalgamation would ensure that the United Church maintains a local presence while leaving no one without a church to call home. I don't raise this scenario casually; I have had many conversations with people at all levels of the United Church who say this is exactly what has to happen if the church is going to have a future.

And I can also tell you that not one of those people is likely to volunteer to issue the abandon-ship order. They know well that church members are often as attached to church buildings as they are to their own homes, and are attached to the people beside them in the pews as if they were family. Church buildings echo with the laughter and the tears of generations; that they're standing at all is often a tribute to those who have poured their hearts, souls and sweat into them.

Amalgamations are nothing new; history has shown they can be rejuvenating or fraught with peril. Amalgamations that are mandated would be something new, untested and difficult. Maybe there are less painful solutions. Whatever the eventual outcome, the time has come for some frank talk about how to strike a balance between assets and mission. It's a discussion with major theological, pastoral and legal dimensions. It could lead to a rethinking of what the United Church is all about.

Where to start? Step one: Admit the assets exist in the first place. Step two: Look into the Bible. I'm no scholar but I think you'll find one of the over-arching messages is this: If you have gold, you shouldn't hoard it.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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