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Holding difficult conversations about the future of church property

Pandemic & Property panelists share what they’ve learned about opportunities, even during the pandemic

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Colin Maynard via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — A panel on the pandemic challenges many churches face over the future of their property was quickly followed by a discussion on opportunities for said property during this week’s Pandemic & Property conference put on by the Mid Council Financial Network.

The Rev. Scott Lumsden, co-executive presbyter of Seattle Presbytery, moderated Tuesday’s second panel, which included:

The Rev. Scott Lumsden

Barrett said people at the church she serves “are realizing the future is not a given and we ought to be asking the big questions now.” Located about a mile from the Microsoft campus, the Overlake Park church building may be 60 years old, but because so many members are retired Boeing engineers, “we don’t have much deferred maintenance,” Barrett said with a laugh.

One of the central questions members ask is, “Who does the property belong to?”

Nancy Phillimore

Phillimore described Memorial Drive Ministries, which is situated in what’s been described as the most diverse square mile in the U.S., as a “faith-based property management group.” Memorial Drive Ministries is eight miles from Phillimore’s house. “When I go there, I rarely see anyone who looks like me or dresses like me,” she said.

The vision for student housing at the Madison campus has been around since the Great Depression, Elsdon said. Until 2007, the housing “never happened,” but a thriving student-led church thrived there through the 1960s, when “students stopped going to church.”

Pres House was constructed about 14 years ago, and students have remained there throughout the pandemic despite the fact they had “nothing to do but go to class online. We had the opportunity to minister to students 24/7.” Elsdon called that “a combination of holding onto our core mission” and “capturing on a long-held vision from the past and reworking it to apply to the current moment.”

The Rev. Mark Elsdon

Before construction of Pres House, “We had no students and no active ministry, so there was nothing to go wrong — only the opportunity to do something new under a new financial model. We went all in on this. … Having nothing to lose isn’t always a bad place to be.”

“Somewhere along the way,” Barrett said, “we as a church made big errors by building big churches, which have become our idols. How do you ask the people who have built this thing to let it go and have something completely different? I don’t think every church needs a building.”

The Rev. Becki Barrett

Barrett recalled a session meeting during which the vision for the church’s future was to be discussed. “There was no energy,” she said. But when the topic of how thick the new choir cushions ought to be came up for discussion, “the energy was there.” Barrett stopped the meeting to point out what had happened. “When you argue about how thick the choir cushions should be, it was the pivotal moment to have a conversation about what’s going on here.”

“One of the things we learned is you can’t over-communicate,” Phillimore said of Memorial Drive Ministries, which describes itself as “a church-based nonprofit that fosters diverse worshiping communities, innovative social services and transformative relationships.”

By communicating over and over what it planned to do, Memorial Drive Ministries helped overcome “resistance from members of the original church who didn’t know who we were or what we were doing, and from people using the space,” Phillimore said.

Elsdon noted that a Madison church is developing affordable senior housing and is considering selling its building. “They feel it is a legacy they can leave the city.” It’s “something that really matters to them rather than putting up a ‘For Sale’ sign, turning off the lights and walking away,” Elsdon said. They hope to “connect [their future ministry] to something people care about.”

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