Negotiating the Coming Wave of Church Property Transitions: An In-depth Interview with Mark Elsdon


Is your church facing the difficult decision to sell or repurpose property? This interview with Mark Elsdon, editor of Gone for Good?, focuses on how congregations can resell or repurpose church property in ways that avoids common pitfalls and propels their missions forward. 

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Ann Michel: Your entrée into the field of real estate transactions and how faith institutions can use their property more creatively came when you were serving as a campus minister at the University of Wisconsin. Can you share your experience in that context? 

Mark Elsdon: Twenty years ago, my wife Erica Liu and I were called as campus pastors at Pres House, the Presbyterian affiliated campus ministry center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It’s a private entity, not university affiliated. But it’s located right in the heart of the university. The ministry had a very storied hundred-year history, but when we arrived, zero students were involved. The ministry was essentially empty, dead, in a fallow period. So, we set about rebuilding the program and raising some money. To vastly simplify the story, we developed a $17 million, seven-story student housing facility that is home to about 240 students on the parking lot that was connected to the historic chapel building.  

Ann Michel: We have all seen dire projections of how many churches might close in the coming decades and how many other churches have property assets that no longer fit the current reality of their ministry. Just how big do you think this phenomenon of church property transitions is likely to be?  

Mark Elsdon: There are projections that a hundred thousand churches or properties related to churches could close or change use in the next decade. Even if it’s just half or even a quarter of that, it’s a huge number in the tens of thousands. It’s sort of inevitable when you look at the trajectory of involvement in church activity or at least traditional church activity. The Pew study indicates that by 2070, less than 50%, maybe even 30%, of Americans will affiliate with the Christian faith. That’s going to ripple into the real estate related to churches. I’d be happy if these projections are wrong, but I think it’s going to be a massive, massive sea change.  

Ann Michel: It seems this is not just a matter of declining or dying churches. Even in healthy, thriving churches, ministry is becoming less place based, with groups meeting on Zoom, or staff working from home for some part of the week. The way churches use their property is changing even if they are in a healthy place.  

Mark Elsdon: Yes. I always encourage healthy churches to think about this while they can do exciting, new things, versus crisis management or closing management which is also important. I think in addition to what you’re describing, there are also just different ways of engaging the Christian faith. For many decades, people would come on Sunday morning for worship and then go down the hall for Sunday school and come for a Wednesday meal or something midweek. That kind of pattern has changed a great deal. Some of that’s gone online, some of that’s gone remote, and some of it is just people wanting to engage in a different way. 

Ann Michel: So, in high-priced urban real estate markets, a lot of churches (at least forward-thinking churches), have been engaged in creative redevelopment or creative use of their property for several decades. Your book, Gone for Good?, compiles perspectives from a very diverse group of church leaders, civic leaders, and real estate and planning professionals in a variety of different contexts. How do you see the lay of the land broadly, not just in urban areas but in suburban and rural areas as well?  

Mark Elsdon: This transition is happening across the entire nation and across denominations. There may be pockets where things are different, and obviously any one individual church might be growing, thriving, changing, or not. But broadly speaking across denominations, across theological lines, and across geographic areas, the general trend is the same. I hear stories that are very similar in Washington, D.C., in Seattle, and in San Francisco, but also in rural Wisconsin, rural Texas, and rural Alabama. Everywhere. Literally everywhere. The implications and the possibilities are a little different in an urban center where property values are very high, or the needs might be of one nature. You end up with projects that lend themselves to that situation. In a rural setting, those things might be very different. In a rural community that has been in decline for a long time, property does not have the same financial value. But a church still plays a central role in a community. You end up with a different set of outcomes and uses of that property.  

One of the chapters in Gone for Good? addresses the ways rural churches are using their properties to meet community needs. It highlights the importance and the centrality of churches in rural settings and essentially invites that to continue in different forms. So, for example, churches near interstates have been putting electric car charging stations in their parking lots. Other churches have been partnering with healthcare providers that might want to come provide three hours of healthcare three days a week with a nurse practitioner. They don’t have the means or the need to build an entire standalone clinic, but a church’s unused education wing could be perfect for that. This starts to rebuild the space as a center of gravity. Maybe a small farmer’s market pops up once a week. You kind of start from that and build a sense of community again around that space. Some more rural churches are looking at doing small, senior housing — not huge ones but maybe a handful of units of senior housing to allow seniors in their community to stay and age in place rather than moving to the city. I think as people get creative, they come up with really great ideas. 

Ann Michel: Is there a particular story or example of a church’s creative property redevelopment that you find most interesting or most inspiring? 

Mark Elsdon: I love the story of Rev. Joe Daniels’ church in Washington, D.C. They created 99 units of affordable housing on their church property. Ashley Goff’s church in Arlington, VA is another great example. Those stories of affordable housing are super, super exciting to me. One interesting example came up recently in the Portland area. A church that closed recently was given to a coalition of Indigenous leaders that are going to develop tiny homes on the property to support women and children in the First Nations community experiencing homelessness. To me, that’s not only a beautiful example of property reuse, it’s also an act of restoration and recognition of who lived on that land many, many years ago. The church had lived its life. Its property had lived its life. It was time to think differently about it. To hand it over in a generous way to some other community leaders to use for real community needs is a particularly inspiring story.  

Ann Michel: What are some of the common factors that underlie the success of churches that make good decisions and navigate well the often very unfamiliar and complicated terrain of selling or redeveloping property? 

Mark Elsdon: The number one thing is listening. Good, intentional, thoughtful listening to the community. To be totally frank, as a member of the church and as a clergy member, we often think we know more about what people need than we actually do. We often think, “Hey, let’s give them this. Let’s do this, it’s what everyone needs and wants.” We might be right but very often we’re not, or we’re not quite right. There’s a lot of listening needed to understand what’s happening in a community, what the true needs are, what the true opportunities are, where God is already at work, and how to come alongside where God is already at work in the community. Definitely do not just read an article or a book that says build affordable housing, and then go and build affordable housing. I love affordable housing. But you don’t take something off the shelf and plop it into your setting. That does not work. So, you really have to listen to what’s going on in the community and try to respond. It might be affordable housing, but it might not be. So, a listening posture is the number one thing.  

Ann Michel: Are there some common pitfalls that need to be avoided as churches walk down this path?  

Mark Elsdon: There certainly are pitfalls. I’m always a little reticent to talk a lot about them because many of us in mainline settings automatically jump to the pitfalls. My tendency is to try to encourage experimentation and trial and to not be afraid of failing. Because in some ways, we will fail or make mistakes if we do this work.  

That said, it’s important to be aware that there are a lot of other players involved in church real estate questions that have a great deal at stake. For example, developers in the area who want to access property at low cost and want to make some money on it. Lots of churches, unfortunately, are taken advantage of regarding the value of their property. I’m not at all for dollar maximization, however, I’m also not a big fan of churches being taken advantage of by for-profit developers who just swoop in and take their property at very low prices and then make a ton of money on it for themselves. Unfortunately, that does happen. Avoiding that pitfall requires careful understanding of those dynamics and those relationships. The church needs to be aware of the other players in the mix whose interests may or may not align with their interests. And the church is going to have to hold out a bit for its own interest.  

Another major pitfall is waiting too long. It’s amazing how often I have somebody reach out and say, “We’ve got 18 months left. What can we do? We need some help.” Eighteen months is not long enough, certainly not long enough to do a big development project. It took Rev. Daniels 10 years to do what he did at Emory Fellowship. Ours was an 80-year thing at Pres House. The first dream came around in 1927 and we opened in 2007. The [mindset of]“Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Can we make it? Oh no, we can’t. Now we should talk about this,” is not very helpful. I’m not saying it’s going to take 80 years every time, but 18 months is not long enough. It’s much more productive and life giving to start that conversation earlier, even if you’re not thinking of closing but are just thinking more creatively about the use of property. If you can start earlier, that’s very helpful.  

Ann Michel: Thinking about this from a leadership perspective, it takes an extraordinary amount of leadership capital and expertise to do this successfully. Yet most clergy serving our churches today don’t have extensive training in real estate transactions, community redevelopment, or affordable housing. Where does the leadership impetus come from, the vision, and the skills required to do this successfully? 

Mark Elsdon: That’s a great question. It is probably the question in many cases that leads to moving forward or not moving forward. I’m going to give three brief answers. First, when we created our Good Futures accelerator at Rooted Good, we initially thought we were going to screen churches to determine which were ready and which were likely to succeed. If we had done that, we would have really messed up. Because COVID happened, we didn’t screen anyone, and we just let everyone try. We were amazed that the successful churches were not always the ones we thought would be successful. There is a church in California that has very few members, very few leaders, and has had no pastor for years. It is doing an incredible affordable housing project. We would have thought they weren’t ready for that, but they were. It often just requires somebody or some bodies that are willing to work the process and take the steps. To do the listening, to do the learning, to build the partnerships and the relationships, and to go from there.  

Second, partnership is key. It’s important to realize you can’t do it all yourself and to think broadly about who’s involved in these projects. We in the church are great at taking it all on ourselves. We shovel the snow. We cut the grass. Especially if we’re in a tough spot financially. But this is not going to work with social enterprise projects or development projects. You aren’t going to do it yourself. You won’t be signing leases with residents or maintaining a building that houses people. Even just a smaller social enterprise is going to require partnership, legal support, accounting, potentially other staff, and so on. Thinking broadly about who’s involved in the project is a great opportunity to extend the reach of the congregation and to involve other people.  

Third, start with something small. A 99-unit $60 million affordable housing project doesn’t need to be the very first thing you do. It’s a worthwhile undertaking for sure, but it’s also pretty daunting. If you’re trying to get back into shape you don’t have to go to the gym for five hours on the first day. Many of us in the church haven’t exercised the muscles for this kind of work for a very long time. So, start with a little something first. If you’re interested in a new venture that involves food entrepreneurs, maybe start with a food truck in your parking lot three Fridays in the summer. That’s the beginning. Begin to exercise that muscle around innovation and social enterprise, and learn what’s required for that little thing. Are there permits required? How do we account for it? Then move to the bigger project. Starting small and then building some momentum and some excitement is a great way to get going.  

Ann Michel: What are some of the very first steps a congregation might take to assess their options? You’ve already talked about listening, but are there questions related to understanding your assets or the value of your building?  

Mark Elsdon: In the process we take churches through, we typically save questions of the building and the financial assets for a bit later in the process. We start with the mission questions. We believe the practical questions can work themselves out if the mission questions are clear. So, yes, listening is probably at the beginning.

The other thing that’s often helpful at the beginning is thinking about where the church has done this before. In most cases they have done it before even if they feel like they haven’t. Maybe a church has never built affordable housing or a commercial kitchen venture before, but have they done something new, something innovative? Is there some legacy to build upon? Rarely do I see projects come completely out of the blue. They often have some tie to something that the congregation has done in the past. In the case of Emory Fellowship, they had a history of housing people on that property and of addressing housing issues that goes back centuries. I’ve seen churches convert a beloved food pantry ministry into a community owned grocery co-op. They’re building on the legacy of something they already know how to do, rather than just dragging something that’s totally foreign to them off the shelf and trying to adopt that. So, we start our accelerator with churches reflecting on what they have already done. What stories can we tell about where we have innovated in the past? How has that given us life? How has God shown up in that? That is a wonderful starting point. Then, move from there into listening in the community and into the following steps.  

Ann Michel: I appreciate that your book looks not just at the financial aspects of property transactions but also the moral and theological considerations as well. Can you speak to how a church can remains faithful to its values and its beliefs in this process?  

Mark Elsdon: Both of my books are a call to reflect on our role as stewards of what we have been given. In my view, all of what we have is really a gift from God to use for the time we have it. That’s true of our financial resources, our investments, and our property. Particularly when we recognize where that property or that money might have come from in the past. How can we steward those resources and to use those resources for the good of God’s work in the world. That’s fundamentally the question that I think is most important. The other questions flow from there, and they can get worked out from there. Returning to this core each time is really important. That we are driven by this belief is what separates the church from any other entity. There is something bigger than us, bigger than this congregation, this congregation’s building, and this congregation’s land. We are a part of a much bigger story. I’m not just talking about a denomination, but I’m talking about the whole story of God’s people. That to me is really vital and life giving and a hopeful place to start. 

Mark Elsdon book, "Gone for Good: Negotiating the Coming Wave of Church Property Transition"

Gone for Good?: Negotiating the Coming Wave of Church Property Transition, Mark Elsdon, editor (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2024), available at Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Cokesbury, and Amazon.

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About Author

Mark Elsdon is cofounder of RootedGood, which supports catalytic and innovative church leaders working on property development, money and mission alignment, and social enterprise. He is also executive director at Pres House, the Presbyterian campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus, and of Pres House Apartments.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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