Philanthropy has an extraordinary opportunity to help religious institutions in crisis

Written by: Donna Schaper

Date: January 25, 2018

Religious buildings, often at the center of communities, are in danger. Deferred and expensive maintenance along with membership decline has put them in a precarious position. Economic disparity and gentrification in major cities are common threats to congregational membership and overall justice work.

However, like malls that have disappeared into boutique or online shopping, or banks that no longer need tellers, religious buildings are ripe for adaptive reuses.

In this complex crisis for religious institutions, there is an extraordinary philanthropic opportunity. Grantmakers would be wise to see the asset in the crisis of buildings going out of business, city by city. Imagine a town or city without an anchoring building on every corner – and then see the opportunities in adaptive reuses.

Many congregations have elected to sideline themselves in their own buildings, which have become shared working spaces or theaters or restaurants.

Some seminaries and congregations have resorted to adaptive reuse, such as Union Seminary in New York City — which has been recreated as luxury housing in Harlem — so that it can repair its campus and continue its mission of educating religious leaders.

Partners for Sacred Places in Philadelphia actively recruits artists who can use low-cost or free space (or even market-rate space) to perform, rehearse and more. It also produced the Arts Market Study, a state-of-the-art adaptive reuse, and the “halo report,” showing how much cultural and economic value will be gone if religious buildings disappear.

The Newport Rhode Island Congregational church is removing its 1200 pews and enticing a half dozen arts organizations to adaptively reuse its large and artistically important space. Funded by local foundations, the project is a win-win. The congregation gets to stay alive to pray another day. The arts organizations find large, beautiful and public space.

Movements of all kinds use religious space to gather, organize, train and lead. Occupy in New York City made its home in multiple congregations, who gladly saw the alignment of some of Occupy’s goals with their own.

Other congregations are teaming up. Mine has four other congregations worshipping within its space.

Keeping public space alive, even before adaptive reuses appear, is a public virtue. It takes communal infrastructure seriously and understands the threats to all philanthropic purposes if more space is privatized or gentrified.

But developers are already approaching many congregations. They would love to put in luxury housing, restaurants or galleries in prime real estate and on prime land with prime location and convenient parking.

Foundations could provide the training that beleaguered religious leaders need to plan a halo kind of future instead of a hollow one. Congregations need planning help in what to do with their assets.  Their governance is often another casualty of their lost membership and broken infrastructure. It is often weak and in need of the kind of smarts foundations can provide.

In addition to helping with capital needs so that public (and parochial) space is not lost, foundations can be very useful in helping congregations transition to stronger governance systems.

Many foundations will say that they don’t want to fund “religion” or “parochialism.” And separation of church and state is an important value. But many foundations don’t see the public, non-parochial benefits that religious institutions provide to communities.

Philanthropists and religious bag-holders have at least these things in common: desperation for public space, love of beauty and a sense of the center – and not just the center of town but the kind of moral center that holds great diversity together.

Foundations could begin by seeing the asset in the deficit religious institutions face. Grants to help people remove pews would be strategic. Such removals open space. They also empty space. They create room for the imagination to soar.

I and many other religious leaders often feel like somebody’s dead butterfly in a collection that mightily needs dusting: Pinned. Wings spread. Beautiful but useless.

I often tell the story of opposing one of my members’ gifts in Riverhead New York. She wanted to put a carillon in the steeple. I wanted to feed the 150 people who came for a free lunch every day. She prevailed. The first night the carillon rang, the head of the methadone clinic next door approached me in tears. “Thank you for the music.” “Now,” she said, “I can get through another day.”

If religious buildings can get through another day, they may be able to help many people do the same.

Donna Schaper is senior minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City.

Image by David Merrett, used under Creative Commons license.