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Do we need our church property to be faithful?

Panel kicks off the two-day Pandemic & Property conference

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — Promising those attending the online Pandemic & Property conference a 60,000-foot view, the Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner opened the two-day event Tuesday with a brief talk that included how the pandemic has impacted the sale of church property.

Lindner’s talk was immediately followed by a panel discussion with three presbytery officials: the Rev. Chip Blankinship, director of operations and the congregational consultant for the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta; the Rev. Dr. Erin Cox-Holmes, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Donegal; and the Rev. Dr. Byron A. Wade, general presbyter of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.

The conference, which concludes Wednesday, is being offered by the Mid Council Financial Network.

The Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner

Lindner said the current estimate is that in denominations across the United States, $3.5 billion worth of church property will change hands this year. The reasons are plentiful, including the pandemic has placed more and more congregations online for worship and Christian education, church membership is dwindling, and many churches are experiencing declining income — including rental income. In addition, because up to one-third of American workers are now performing all or most of their work duties at home, many are now choosing to live in the suburbs or in rural areas — which alters the composition of communities and, in turn, affects church participation and membership.

By 2025, Lindner said, it’s expected that 100,000 U.S. congregations will have closed their doors. In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), congregations who dissolve “present challenges and opportunities for mid councils,” Lindner said.

To date, she said, more than 1,000 PC(USA) congregations have “sought help” from mid councils, seeking technical assistance in their time of discernment over whether to close or remain in the present form in service to God and to their community. “It would be astounding,” said Lindner, who’s honorably retired in the Presbytery of Northeast New Jersey and is trained as a sociologist, “if even 50% of the people who need help have sought help.” That means that about 2,000 congregations, or more than 20% of the congregations of the PC(USA), are in some stage of discerning what their future might be, she said.

“I hardly need to tell this group,” Lindner told those in attendance, many of them serving mid council ministries, “these trends place new demands on mid councils and lift a series of questions before the Church as a whole. It may be seen as this generation’s most acute challenge.”

The obvious questions, according to Lindner, include what does this property crisis mean for the mission and witness of the church? How can sellers of property be good stewards of the resources? Are we selling properties in areas where we’ll never be able to repurchase property if it becomes important to have property there?

“But we’re not without hope,” Lindner said, turning to the panel for what was billed as a “big picture conversation” on “the challenges of church property.” The subtitle offered a hint of what was to come: “Mission faithfulness and property: Do we need our property to be faithful?”

The Rev. Chip Blankinship

Asked to describe what he’s seeing in Atlanta, Blankinship said that while most property sales have occurred when congregations have voted to dissolve, “there are conversations in existing congregations about selling a piece of property” or selling and renting back from the new owner.

Lindner said a recent trend in her research is congregations “rethinking whether they need their property because of the success” of online worship, governance and Christian education.

Blankinship said that while he’s not involved with those congregations, the conversations he’s been hearing revolve around this topic: “It’s not, ‘Do we need this property?’ It’s, ‘Do we really need so much property?’”

Congregations trying to sell their building or buildings are sometimes hampered by years of delayed maintenance of their property, Lindner noted. “Delayed maintenance” is the delicate term, she said. “The indelicate term is, ‘Their buildings are a wreck and they have eroded the salability of their property.’”

The Rev. Dr. Erin Cox-Holmes

Some churches in Donegal Presbytery, which includes Philadelphia suburbs, vast stretches of farmland and Amish country, are doing “creative things to share their property,” Cox-Holmes said, including nesting other congregations and offering their space to ministries alleviating food scarcity and ministries to people experiencing homelessness.

The Presbytery of Western North Carolina has “a lot of rural churches,” said Wade, a former General Assembly vice-moderator who’s been on the job for 14 months. In that time span, five churches have closed, most of them in rural, mountainous sections of a presbytery that also includes the cities of Asheville and Gastonia.

The Rev. Dr. Byron A. Wade

“Some of our churches have been around since the Revolutionary War. They have long histories with people who have been there for many generations,” Wade said. “There is the fleeting thought that the five churches we have closed so far won’t be the last ones.” Some of it is pandemic related, he said, and some of it is “a natural delaying of the inevitable.”

Donegal Presbytery is planning meetings with congregations “at or near the critical mass” of considering whether to dissolve, Cox-Holmes said. Representatives from such churches meet with “clusters of congregations in similar circumstances” to “go through the discernment process for their future.”

The uptick in church property sales has placed “new demands on mid councils,” Blankinship acknowledged, adding he’s grateful for the presence of a retired pastor in the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta who’s also a commercial real estate agent with a niche market in churches.

“I have learned enough to get by with on-the-job training to manage things,” Blankinship said. “Seminary did not train me to be a property manager.”

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