Property Stewardship virtual conference envisions ‘A New Thing’ on its opening day

December 15, 2020 by Gregg Brekke

The Mid Council Financial Network (MCFN) held the first day of its two-day virtual seminar Monday, focusing on the trends, tools, and resources available to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) synods, presbyteries, and congregations as they care for their physical property.

With the theme “Property Stewardship: 21st Century Mission Challenge,” the December 14-15 virtual conference is especially engaged in looking at trends in property ownership, shared ministry models, and the effect COVID restrictions – and the resulting growth of online fellowship opportunities – has had and will continue to have on Presbyterian congregations. The conference is sponsored and organized by the Presbyterian Foundation and the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Opening the session, Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, recognized the tension between in-person gatherings and online church presence and its effect on stewardship, “holding them in tension” and yet somehow continuing to keep a focus on the God “who has granted us grace amid this pandemic we are facing.”

“Let’s all be pastors and preachers of God’s creation and God’s understanding of stewardship in the life of the church,” he said. “We ask that be a prayerful journey that helps also to get us through this pandemic we are navigating… Our work is important, the Lord still loves a cheerful giver.”

The first day’s events were moderated by Stephen Keizer, Vice President of Ministry Relations for the Presbyterian Foundation and the Rev. Aisha Brooks-Lytle, Executive Presbyter of the Greater Atlanta Presbytery, offered a devotional that delved into creative means of property stewardship with a presentation called “A New Thing.”

Brooks-Lytle highlighted the work of The Common Place in southwest Philadelphia, a partnership with Wayne Presbyterian Church that became “a safe space for children and families.” The Common Place developed as a network of partners working to connect residents of the area with services they need including child care, education and mentoring opportunities, and short-term mission projects.

Calling the work “a necessary model for ministry in the 21st century” coordinators of the ministry say its goal was to keep the facility filled and active seven days a week, as many hours as possible.

Addressing the mid council executives regarding possibilities in their areas, Brooks-Lytle encouraged them to look at The Common Place as “a witness and influence for shared ministry spaces” they could imagine for congregations looking to partner locally with social service agencies and other ministries serving community needs.

Taking up the main theme of the day, the Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner provided data and insights from an ongoing project looking at trends in facility use, sustainability, and management in the PC(USA).

A joint project of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Presbyterian Foundation that began in 2018, the project asked Lindner to lead a team to explore trends related to “increasing numbers of congregations facing financial stress due to declining membership, diminished giving, due in part to the deaths of older and more consistent donors, escalating costs of building maintenance and inability to attract groups willing to share space and costs.”

Lindner said the denomination had not yet, but hoped to, work on strategies to help congregations manage the increasing number of facilities that are sold or repurposed each year, citing a 10-year trend of over $100 million in property sales annually by PC(USA) congregations and entities.

Although no data has been collected nationally by the PC(USA) or other denominations, she hoped this work would be a good start at understanding the options available to congregations when they realize maintenance of their existing facility is no longer a viable path toward future ministry. And while selling a building is one option, she joined with Brooks-Lytle in affirming other uses of the property – including leasing space, selling to a social service agency, and selling to a hosted congregation who then hosts the seller – as ways for congregations to continue their ministry legacy.

“Europe is ahead of us by 20 or 22 years,” she said. “[Churches there] had no single model for retaining or repurposing their property.” As a result, Lindner reported that 40 percent of all church property in Europe was lost and congregations closed. This, she believes is a trend that can be avoided with a concerted strategy.

As for the consequences of the pandemic on church decline, she had dire predictions. For a variety of factors she believes up to one-third of all churches will not recover or even reopen after the pandemic, there will be lower values for churches wanting to sell due to a glutted market, rental revenues will decrease or stop, and the 10-year trend of annual property sales in the PC(USA) will probably grow to $150-$200 million in the years ahead.

Yet, despite the hard news, Lindner believes ministry and mission will go on, but with greater focus for churches willing to adapt. “What we will be, and how we continue to do ministry will never be the same,” she concluded.

Following Lindner, three speakers offered various perspectives on the day’s topic.

The Rev. Craig Howard, Executive Presbyter of Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery, talked about “congregational hospice,” or when you know a church is no longer thriving, but on its way toward death. He said the signs are lack of finances, lack of energy, lack of hope or vision for ministry, and that it had “aged out” where there is no generation coming after the current generation of leadership.

“Even though a congregation may have all these signs of hospice, they do not want to close,” he acknowledged. “They do not want to quit on their ancestors. They do not want to fail as a church. They do not want to give up all their assets to the Presbytery.”

Helping congregations find a way to continue their legacy through mission giving, investments in new worshiping communities, and other means of supporting the presbytery were a few of the suggestions offered to help ease this transition.

Jim Rissler, President and CEO of the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, gave an overview of the many financial tools ILP has to help congregations and presbyteries make decisions about utilizing or retooling the use of their facilities.

“There are many churches that have grown smaller or there’s been a split in the church that’s left a remnant congregation,” he said. “Either way, there’s more building than the current congregation needs or can afford.”

Believing the missional call of the Presbyterian Church includes how best to use facilities, Rissler spoke to the power of partnerships, loans, and improvements available to extend the reach of the congregation. “We’ve seen more and more where a building extends the mission of the church.”

The day’s final speaker was Paul Grier, Vice President for Project Regeneration at the Presbyterian Foundation. He agreed with Howard and others on signs of decline that would indicate a church should consider selling its property while holding onto the congregation’s experience in the community. Project Regeneration works with churches to help them envision their congregation, including selling buildings, combining with other churches – and a myriad of other options.

“What do we do about church properties while we honor the legacies of churches whose visible ministry is coming to a close,” he asked, noting the unbiased third party approach the Presbyterian Foundation takes in the various consultations it provides for property sales and other legacy giving opportunities.

The second day of the conference continues December 15 with Lindner promising the “nuts and bolts” discussion of the opening day would lead to the group “dream[ing] dreams worthy of believers. We will take a look at what’s happened in Europe and Canada, and around the world, and what might we do as Presbyterians to deal responsibly with our property in the 21st century.”

Gregg Brekke is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, photographer and videographer. He is the former editor of the Presbyterian News Service. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula at robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.