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Mission vs. property maintenance


Stop battling over where the money goes

By Kate Kotfila | Presbyterians Today

Inside the cloister garden at the Augustinian nunnery in Iona. Euan Nelson

Iona, an island off the coast of Scotland, was home to a medieval monastic community. By the early 1900s, the community was long gone, and the buildings were in ruins. George MacLeod, a pastor in a working-class dockside congregation, was frustrated by the men being sent to him for internships from the seminary. They had head smarts but were unable to connect with the men on the docks and the families in his community. So he devised a plan. During the crushing years of the Depression, MacLeod brought together unemployed tradesmen and young seminarians and sent them to rebuild the monastic quarters and the abbey chapel. Working, praying and sharing in everyday life, they rebuilt not only a historical landmark but also a spiritual community that continues to have global influence today.

Iona is an example of how we need to stop pitting mission and maintenance against each other. Advice to stop spending so much on buildings and, instead, to spend it on new worshiping communities leads more to frustration than transformation for those of us who have inherited the massive buildings of a bygone era.

The problem with pitting maintenance and mission against each other also sets us up into camps. We see the others as “traditionalists” or “trendy.” We work against the very transformation through which established churches must be led.

There is a better way. It is in the tension between opposites that energy is released. What if maintenance is the means, not an obstacle, in building missional congregations? What if “problem” buildings become centers of hospitality and service through a strategic process of brick-and-mortar restoration?

 Seven years ago, about 35 people gathered regularly on Sundays in Cambridge United Presbyterian Church in Cambridge, New York — a building that could comfortably seat 450. Not one of its doors opened completely. A shifting foundation, rotting beams and duct tape repairs resulted in every door failing to do the one thing it was made to do.

Though there were more urgent problems, that’s where we focused our attention. We spent more than a year working with the metaphor of opening our doors. I preached about it and kept a doorknob on my desk. Our session developed a new mission statement (to love God and others in Jesus’ name) and vision (to be a center of hospitality and service in Washington County). We talked about who might come in through our open doors and who can’t get in now. Albany Presbytery supported us with seed money as we invested in each of the four entrance doors. As we worked on “opening” our doors, we also welcomed new ministries onto our campus and into our awareness. A food pantry moved into the lower part of the building. The village’s summer children’s program took over the upper building.

I preached that open doors invite people in but also send us out, and so we focused on going out into the community to serve in practical ways.

While transformational journeys involve two steps forward and one step back, we are now growing into a community that loves God and others by being a center of hospitality in Southern Washington County. We are being reshaped by mission by offering ourselves and our facilities to all of Cambridge. And, as we continue to hold mission and maintenance together, we are discovering ways to make our buildings support themselves. Hosting other organizations that make regular donations makes it possible to keep our spaces up to date.

We realized, too, that we didn’t have to add yet more events to the church’s life to be relevant. Instead of focusing on the details of a dinner or a craft fair, we invite other organizations to use our space. Our goal is each time an organization is on the premises, we have greeters ready to help with their logistics. This isn’t about renting church space for money. This is about partnering with people who are working to make a difference in our community. And, as a church, we are now developing practical, generous relationships with the people who would not normally set foot in our sanctuary.

Kate Kotfila is the pastor of Cambridge United Presbyterian Church in Cambridge, New York, and vice moderator of Albany Presbytery.

Learn more

For more information on how to update or refurbish your church’s property, visit PC(USA)’s Investment & Loan Program at



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