‘Now is the time to dream big, trust God, tear down our barns and put our grain to work’ says pastor and author Mark Elsdon
December 8, 2023
Joining the recent Polity, Benefits and Mission Conference via Zoom, the Rev. Mark Elsdon delivered on the message of his 2021 book of the same name: We aren’t broke.
Elsdon, a Presbyterian pastor who’s executive director of Pres House Campus Ministry and the Pres House Apartments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-founded RootedGood, told the nearly 300 people in attendance he’s “well aware of the narrative of scarcity” commonly heard in churches struggling with shrining membership and budgets.
“The pandemic accelerated all those trends, leaving us feeling broke, exhausted and powerless to do anything,” he said. “We continue to try to do more with less, but I believe there is hope and a future.”
Elsdon traced the 116-year history of campus ministry on the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus. By the time he and his wife, the Rev. Erica Liu, arrived 19 years ago, “it was a beautiful building in need of an update.”
The ministry borrowed $17 million to construct a new apartment building and renovate the chapel. After two years of planning and a year of construction, they opened the Pres House Apartments in 2007 for 250 residents.
The Synod of Lakes and Prairies “has been one of our most important partners,” Elsdon said. Twelve years ago, with Pres House Apartments debt that required refinancing, the synod joined a regional bank as a partner in investment. “We reframed our scarcity, and found out again we are not broke,” Elsdon said. With that “impact investment,” the ministry secured favorable financing terms and paid back the synod. Last summer, “we refinanced all our remaining debt,” using the Presbyterian Investment & Loan Program and others. “The synod was a key catalyst and partner at a key time,” Elsdon said. “We pay a return and they in turn use it to loan to other entities. The money is going back to the church,” he said. “It stays with the family.”
“Donor funds are still essential,” he said. “But earned income has changed our calculus. Success in mission leads to success in finance, and the reverse is true as well.”
Elsdon’s next book, “Gone for Good?” is set for publication in January 2024. One contributor to the book predicts 100,000 church properties will be sold by 2030, nearly 30% of the nation’s churches. “After the wave of selling and repurposing, what will be left? What will neighborhoods look like? What will be lost and gained? What will we have done to encourage good when churches are gone?” Elsdon asked.
“The reality is, it’s not our fault. It’s not anyone’s fault,” he said, likening the situation to what video chains including Blockbuster went through about 20 years ago when people changed the way they accessed the movies they watched at home.
“People still want to be involved in causes that mean something, but fewer and fewer want to explore that in a Sunday morning worship service,” Elsdon said. Too many churches have too many buildings with too much space, “and the spaces we have aren’t useful anymore,” he said. “It’s like telling the Blockbuster manager to try harder or telling Blockbuster to hire a younger, hipper manager. Nothing can be done to keep that Blockbuster store working.”
The good news is while church budgets may be shrinking, “God is not,” Elsdon said. “We still have enormous resources. We know how to build community and do community organizing. We’re still rich with wonderful, committed people, and we still have wonderful, varied assets.”
If all those churches are indeed sold over the next seven years, “there will be grief and sadness” as so many churches close, Elsdon said. “At the same time, it’s an incredible opportunity to reimagine how church properties can be used for innovation and transformation.”
Shifting properties from Sunday services to, say, co-working spaces “is not failure. It’s innovation. It’s rebirth,” Elsdon said. “We may grieve the changes and we should definitely celebrate the past, but we should look forward to what God is doing next.”
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Author Mark Elsdon guest speaker at the Polity, Benefits and Mission Conference
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Natalie Smith, Product Manager, General Reader Books, Presbyterian Publishing Corporation
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Let us pray
Awesome God, we thank you for giving each of us a place to belong in community with one another. Help us to learn and grow from others within our communities so that we may bless others in return. Amen.