Beginning with a Great Question
Unimpeded by any financial constraint, what would it look like to do ministry in your community?
Have you ever wondered, “If we could unlock the value of our church’s campus, what would it look like?” Could we pay off debt? Could we pay off debt and get appropriate facilities? Could we pay off debt, get appropriate facilities, and have funds for new and different ministry?
In thinking about transforming your ministry by leveraging your campus, how could that one decision be the key factor in accomplishing your congregation’s ministry goals? What if you didn’t need all the land you have—or any of it? What would you do differently? How would you accomplish that ministry? How would you go about leading through such dramatic change?
In two churches that I have served, we did not need to seek out these questions as they came to us. For Christ UMC in Roswell, GA, our Next Faithful Steps prescription recommended this kind of evaluation. The congregation had overwhelming debt, a 30+ year lifetime of underfunded budgets and the exquisite gift of a sizable campus.
For Druid Hills UMC in Atlanta, GA, a developer approached the church about selling the campus. For years, church leadership had made passing comments about the burden of campus upkeep. When the opportunity came, they leaned in. Their research demonstrated that utilities, contracts with vendors, and staffing costs related to keeping the building operational required $.80 of every dollar given to the church. Deferred maintenance and major system replacement alone would cost more than $1M.
Know Your Community
Many of the answers to how ministry could be lived out without the expense of our buildings are answered by looking at who lives in our neighborhoods. Who are they? What are their dreams and desires? How can your congregation come alongside and help them lead a more fulfilling life? How do your facilities help with that work or hinder it?
If you are considering doing something different with your buildings, ask what is possible in your community. How is your church property zoned. What do the future land use maps suggest? To explore this, have a conversation with your city or county planner. You might even learn what, specifically, the area envisions how your neighborhood might change over the next 20 – 50 years.
Know your Extended Relationships
Your congregation might possess key relationships that can help you dream. A Druid Hills UMC neighbor helped the church understand that revisioning the entire campus with our new ministry goals would cost $8M. Another relationship helped us discern the implication of being located in a historic district and that the most we could realize from selling part of our campus was $1M.
Develop relationships with both the local civic association and immediate neighbors to the church. Approach them early and meet with them often. Explain your circumstances and dreams. Also, listen to your neighbors. What would they like to see happen to the campus? If you plan to sell part or leave your campus, how could a new neighbor align with the goals of the broader community? You might just be able to bring in a new owner that can help you accomplish your and the community’s goals.
Find the Right Broker
If you gain the proper permissions to market your property, finding the right broker is key. Brokers all have access to the same databases of what properties are available and for how much recent similar properties sold. Questions to consider:
- Does your broker understand the needs, desires and decision timeline of the congregation?
- Does your broker understand both the real estate environment of your community and the special circumstances involved in working with a church?
- Does your broker have key relationships within the development community to bring offers to bear that accomplishes all your goals?
- Is your broker someone you would want representing you and your church in the marketplace of commercial real estate?
Establish a Process for Deciding
Have regular Town Hall meetings to keep the congregation informed. Listen to congregational feedback and share insight into how the process unfolds.
Consider creating a Real Estate Working Group composed of both elected leadership and skilled, passionate church members not currently serving in formal leadership roles. A true gift at Christ UMC was our Real Estate Working Group developing a financial model for various scenarios. The financial model helped the group quickly know whether or not an offer was sufficient to accomplish our missional goals. They also worked with an architect from a project planning perspective to help the church keep the mission—not buildings—at the heart of the project.
Where Do You Want to Go Next?
Churches might be amazed to find the value of a partial land sale funds can fund and empower your vision. Churches could also discover that the value of the land does not meet the cost of renovating or replacing the campus, even when considering a smaller facility. The dream of doing ministry differently does not have to die. There are many faithful steps forward to take, depending on your congregation’s ministry goals. New paradigms of ministry can look different:
- church mergers—traditional, vital merger and adoption models;
- space-sharing arrangements—with another congregation, non-profit or business;
- federated congregations, cooperative parishes, becoming a circuit.
For the Druid Hills congregation, we were initially dreaming of moving to a more useful space, possibly near Atlanta’s Beltline. In the midst of that process, we were invited into a conversation about a vital merger. A neighboring congregation was struggling and on an accelerating path to closure. The two churches chose to combine their financial, volunteer, and staff resources to create a truly new and different congregation. They changed their name and brand, lay fallow for a season, and received a church planter as their new pastor.
For Christ UMC, when we received word that the real estate offers did not provide enough resources to meet our ministry goals as a stand-alone congregation, we pivoted. At the beginning of this process, we projected we had 6 months of financial reserves. Good stewardship, faithful giving and the vision of a hopeful path forward extended this horizon to a year. As we were approaching the end of our financial reserves and with potential offers in hand, conversations about partnering in ministry with a neighboring congregation grew into a conversation about merging.
Dream of A New Church?
At Christ and Northbrook UMC’s, a new, shared vision that captured everyone’s imagination wasn’t simply a larger congregation, better programs or the reality that, upon concluding real estate transactions, the combined church would be debt free. The compelling, God-inspired vision that captivated people’s hearts was of these churches combining and the vast majority of the net proceeds from the land sale being used to bless our community.
For the Druid Hills congregation, the vision was not so much to be released from the burden of a building that no longer served the congregations needs but to create a community of faith that helped folks asks deep questions of meaning in a way that helped folks in the community consider—or reconsider—how following Jesus was part of the response to those questions.
If anything is following the model of life and death so that new life may arise, I pray these are two of those examples.
I’m sometimes asked, “How does it feel to have closed two churches?” My most frequent reply is, “I don’t know— they didn’t close.” These two churches have birthed themselves into a new way of doing ministry. The congregations and their leadership did not give up on their mission. They embraced their community and saw the challenge before them. Folks gave of themselves in order to live into a bold and different way of being church.
There is no great secret to leading this work. It demands diligence and patience that is open to the prompting of the Spirit. Leading through these processes requires the courage to ask the hard question about what best serves the broader community in the name of Jesus, the grace to sit with many people—multiple times—as they acknowledge an old dream dying, the vision to help them to see the light as a new vision is born, and the holy patience to wait with the confidence that God wants to do, and is doing, a new thing.
If you would like to dream further about the Great Question in the life of your congregation, I’m always open for a cup of coffee. I’d love to listen and dream differently with you on a limited basis. You can reach me at email@example.com.