Episode 34: “It’s All about the Building” featuring Bob Jaeger

Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 34: "It's All about the Building" featuring Bob Jaeger

How can congregations imaginatively use their space? In this episode we speak with Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, about re-imagining the space in your church building.

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How can congregations imaginatively use their space? In this episode we speak with Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, about re-imagining the space in your church building.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Douglas Powe the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Bob Jeager, the president of Partners for Sacred Places. Our focus for this podcast is helping congregations to reimagine building and space usage. I want to remind our listeners to please subscribe at ITunes and Stitcher and to give us a 5-star rating.

Bob, I’m so glad you can join us for this talk. I want to begin by asking, can you say just a bit about the work and mission of the Partners for Sacred Places?

Bob Jeager: Well sure, Doug. And thank you for inviting me to talk a bit about our work. It’s exciting to do so. Actually, this month is our thirtieth anniversary. We’re excited because we have grown and changed over the years, but we have also been very faithful to our original mission, which has really been to help both congregations and their communities find ways to keep our sacred places cared for and active and useful in living out the mission of the church. We have grown and changed in some ways, because we’ve don’t a lot of research which shows how sacred places serve a larger community role as well as a place where worships happen, and where religious education is done, and where congregations are living out their life. But they are also places that serve the larger community. So, a lot of our work is hands on work to help congregations make the most of their older buildings to live out their larger mission and keep these places alive and well.

 Doug: You talk about the spaces being critical to the community. Can you say a little bit about how you try to help congregations that are in transitioning communities to stay relevant to their community when in many cases they aren’t actually reaching the individuals in the community in terms of coming to worship or other opportunities at the congregation?

Bob: Yeah, that’s a really good question. A lot of our work starts with helping a congregation understand and articulate its value — both to its members and the larger community. And we kind of help congregations develop a case for why you should care. What have we done in this community? What do we mean to this community?  What does this building mean? Who have we served over the years? So, a part of our work is training churches to develop a case statement. What are all the reasons this place and this congregation means something important to you as a member of o the community? That is kind of really fundamental – telling your story and finding ways to deliver that story to the people around you is a very key part of what we do.

But a more recent development is that we do asset thinking and asset mapping with congregations. In fact, more and more often congregations are asking us to come in and help them pull together a community advisory committee that leads to a big asset mapping event. And it’s an exciting way to get maybe 10, 20, 30 civic leaders to come into your building for 2 or 3 hours — kind of look at the building with you. See what its strength and assets are. And then think about what is happening in the larger community that could be brought into this building — that could develop new programs, new outreach, new partnership, and new funding that can make this place maximally effective as a place for outreach and ministry. So, we find this to be a really effective tool to help the congregations link up with civic and community leaders and to think together about how we use this space to full advantage.

Doug. I want to pick up a little bit more with talking about making the case. Because I think that often times, congregations in their minds believe they know why people should engage them. And I’m going to sort of rehearse this with you and see if this is what you encounter, and then how do you help them think through this. I have encountered congregation thinking, “Well, we’ve been here, so they should know we care about them.” That is their case for why people should engage them. But they haven’t really given deep thought to that you have to do more than just simply exit in a particular place for people to want to engage you. So, have you encountered that kind of thinking? If so, how do you help them to move beyond that, to actually make a case for you have to actually do more than simply exist in a particular place?

Bob.  That’s a good question. For an older, historic church, yes, you are right. There can be that assumption that “We’ve been here for 50, or 100, or 150 years so certainly people must appreciate our importance to the community. And indeed, if we need some help to take care of this place, surely, they will respond.” And that is often a false assumption. So, I think what we do is to try to help congregations test those assumption and really just get out and talk to their neighbors and get a fresh, new idea on how they are viewed and invite the community in. So, a lot of what we are doing is really encouraging congregations to interact with its neighbors and its community in some new ways. See how they are perceived. Invite the community to help them refresh their thinking on how their presence in the community could be more effective, could be bigger, could be bolder than it has been. And that does require some new conversations. So, its interesting that our work, which you might think is just about architecture, really it’s not. It’s about something much bigger. It’s really a good reason to get the congregation to get out there and interact with, to talk with their neighbors and its civic leaders, and together think about, “Well, If we have an empty Sunday School wing or a parish hall that’s not well used, and we want to serve youth, or we want to serve Seniors, or we want to serve the homeless, then how can we work with our community to together invest in this place and make it come alive again.”

Doug: I think for congregations what you are describing is a helpful process, not only beneficial to them in making better use of the building, but it’s also really is a missional effort for them because they are actually doing the work they are called to as a congregation in terms of engaging the community. I want to switch gears a little bit, but not completely, and ask can you describe some of the creative partnerships in building uses that you have witnessed through your work.

Bob: Indeed. Well, one of our classic examples of a successful partnership is a Methodist Church in Philadelphia where we are headquartered. It’s Calvary Methodist Church. We’ve been working with them for thirty years in different ways. This is an example of an urban church that almost closed back in the early 90’s. They were so small that they tried to sell their building, which is this massive stone building with lots of great space. But nobody would buy it. They couldn’t sell it. Ironically, it was for sale at price that is half of what houses now sell for all around the church. So, it was a bargain price. But back in the 90s no one would buy it. So, they said, “Let’s think about this. Let’s approach this differently.” So, they invited the neighbors in to talk about what this place could be. And there was an agreement that it should remain a Methodist Church, but also become so much more. And the interest was in arts and in becoming a neighborhood center. And so with Partner’s help along the way they founded a separate nonprofit called the Calvary Center for Culture and Community. And that nonprofit has helped Calvary raise money to invest in the building, and to manage the building, interestingly. So, in terms of all the things that happen there now — and by the ways this is a church that is now completely full. They now have issues with managing all the things that are happening there, including a theater company in the sanctuary and a music program, and several other congregations, and the local neighborhood organization, and many other things. So, it’s gone from completely empty and in trouble, to a place that is now a true community hub. But that has taken a lot of thoughtful collaboration with neighbors, forming a separate nonprofit, raising money in creative ways, being open to some very new uses for some spaces, and inviting other faith communities in to share the space. So, they have done many, many innovative things. And now it is a healthy place in good repair that is living out the mission of Calvary in some very exciting ways.

Doug: That is an exciting story. You mentioned a couple of things in telling the store. One was that in starting the 501(c-3) or the nonprofit, that they had to raise funds in creative ways. Does your organization help them to do that? Or do you connect them with people to help them do that? Because I know a lot of congregations are interested in doing something along the lines that you’re discussing, but the concern is, we are small, I don’t have any background in doing this sort of fundraising. So, how do we go about this work?

Bob: Good question. And indeed, we have published a monograph on this very question. We call it creating a separate “supporting organization,” which is what this nonprofit is. Its charter and its purpose can vary depending on the needs of the congregation. So, we wanted to provides some guidance and samples. The nonprofit could have a very narrow purpose which could be to help the congregation raise money to help the congregation keep the buildings. It could be broader. It could be we are here to help the congregation manage the building. One or two churches have even thought about giving the building over to that separate nonprofit. But in most cases, the nonprofit serves to raise money and maybe coordinate some of the functions within the building. So we also have published that monograph and we have sample bylaws and articles of incorporation. Of course, each church will have to follow state law, but we do have a lot of good examples to follow. And we often recommend it. You know, it’s not appropriate for every single church. But if a congregation determines that some funders and donors might be more responsive to a separate secular nonprofit that is allied with the church, that might be one good reason to consider that.

Doug: Can you say a little bit more on that last statement you just made. That sometimes those who are not within the church world are more comfortable if you have a separate nonprofit. Because again, I think sometimes it seems like a very fine line that you are walking when you are sort of still in the church space, but you also have a nonprofit that is using the church space. Can you tease out a little bit about how that works and are there some rules and regulations in terms of only so many people from the church can be on the new board, that can give a better understanding of how do I walk a fine line between still living out my mission but also trying to do this new thing.

Bob: Good question. You want to make sure that the bylaws reflect and respect the purpose and mission of the church and indicate that we’re there to support the congregation and its work, we are not attempting to control it, but simply be helpful to the church. So, designing and writing the text for the bylaws is really important. And indeed, though, the board does needs to have both church leaders as well as community leaders present. Because you want a donor to be able see it’s not simply a creature of the church, that it’s really, genuinely a church-community collaboration. And so, they might say, “well this is clearly a secular group, but they want to help preserve this building, or help use it for programs that serve people in need in this community, so we are comfortable giving to that nonprofit to help invest in the building.” So, the board composition is really, really important. So, a lot of thought needs to be given to that. But it really can make a difference for government agencies, for secular foundations, for other donors who may not share that faith tradition but want to be helpful.

 Doug: If I go down this path of creating a nonprofit and wanting to think about creative possibilities, how is it that I can have a conversation with those who are in my church who may be a little leery of this, that we’re not just going to become a landlord, but that what we are actually after is living out our mission? So how do we help the people inside the church really to buy into this, that we are not just becoming a landlord to try to increase our bottom line, but we actually are going to be living out our mission, and possibly living it out in a way that flourishes more than if we had not made this move?

Bob: Really good question. And in fact, we don’t even like the word tenant when it comes to the people who share space with the church because that implies a landlord/tenant relationship. And that is sometimes the case with churches, then that is all it is. I really believe that when a congregation thinks about sharing it’s space that it’s really about shared space users who share the values and commitments to community that the congregation has. So, it often does make sense, especially for a smaller congregation, not to attempt to run everything in the building. But everything in the building should reflect the mission and purpose of the church. So, I think that’s another reason for conversation between the congregation and the community. For example, if the congregation has a long-term commitment to serving kids and youth in its building, but a lot of the building may be empty, and they are considering a daycare program, or an afterschool program, or an afterschool feeding program, or whatever — having that conversation with the community might lead to a nonprofit that would be a natural partner with the church in serving a population that the church really cares about. And so, I think it’s really about thinking with the community about, well here is who we want to serve, how can we maybe use our space in new ways to serve that population? And maybe that nonprofit should run it, with our help and with our guidance, of course. But maybe they are better at it than we are. So, let’s think together about how best can we serve the population we care about, living out our mission, but perhaps inviting another group to come in and do their good work in our space. But always in conversation, always in agreement that this is the way to live out our mission.

Doug: As you are living out this mission – and as you mentioned with Calvary, I think it was 30 years — often times the mission alters or changes a bit as you move along. How is it then that with the nonprofit you are able to adapt? Because I can imagine a scenario where the nonprofit can fall into the same sort of challenge that congregations do. That they start off. Things are going well. But as you go along, things start becoming rote, and you end up in the same place. So, how do you guard against the nonprofit not just becoming a mirror image of why the church created a nonprofit in the first place.

Bob:  I think it is partly about reassessment and communication, and always being aware of what’s happening and talking about it and maybe pausing every three to five years and say, “How are we doing? Are we really in keeping with our original mission and purpose? Are we really focusing on the populations that we all agreed that we cared about?” And so, I think it does require ongoing conversation. You know it’s funny. Just in this past week, in a couple of cases, I’ve been talking to churches that have major preschool or afterschool programs in their building. And I’ve heard that they don’t even talk to each other!

Doug: I know many churches like that. But keep going, this is going to be an interesting insight from you.

 Bob: Right, so you’ve seen this too. And it’s astonishing. There may have been a good relationship 15, 20, 25 years ago, but that board and the church’s board may they may have drifted apart. It’s a real danger that the close relationship would have drifted, and changed over time. And it’s very awkward. There is no relationship, even though they share the same building. So they have to really find a way to reengage each other. And talk about, are they still in synch? Does it still make sense? Are they still sharing the same values and mission, or not? If not, then that becomes and awkward situation. Well, do we reassess our shared space arrangement? That is hard work. But I think churches need to go down that path and sort of re-begin that conversation.

Doug: You’ve already given some insight into what congregations can do in this situation, but there are many congregations that have some form or nursery, daycare, preschool in their building. You’ve named the challenge, that what often takes place is, for whatever reason, is it becomes that word you were talking about avoiding — a tenant relationship — no longer living out the mission of the church. And in many cases the school doesn’t want to get trapped by religious clothing or people to think that you have to be believe a certain thing to come here. But by the same token it seems to me that to live out the mission of the church, there has to be some kind of relationship. So when you have that challenge before you, how can the church work with this other board — whether it started as a ministry of the church or whether it’s now a nonprofit — if you can’t get it to move in the right direction, how do you work to resolve this issue? Because there are many congregations that face this situation and they have no clue what to do at this point.

Bob: And I think it begins with some conversation at the leadership level. And because it may be awkward if there hasn’t been much conversation over the years, and there hasn’t been comparing notes on mission and purpose, or even the logistics of what kind of rent are we paying, and is that an adequate amount. That’s by the way another interesting topic we might want to touch on. But if it is really awkward, if there hasn’t been good communication, a facilitator may be helpful. Someone who is really skilled at bringing two groups together to talk about what they do have in common and then get into the difficult questions of where they might have diverged. And also a related question that I touched on a minute ago is, has the church really assessed what it costs them to provide that space? And is the program fully covering that cost or not? That doesn’t mean that every nonprofit that shares space should fully cover its costs. But at least both the church and the other group should know want the cost is. And if the church is subsidizing the nonprofit, that nonprofit should know, and so when it comes time to invest in the building, that group, that daycare center, or that arts group, or whatever, should be a little readier to say, “Alright, let’s help you do that. We understand that you have sacrificially opened up your building to help us, so when you need to fix something or invest in the building, we want to help you.”

Doug: That’s helpful. I like the idea of a facilitator. Do you think there comes a point in time when a church, and that has a nonprofit, the nonprofit says “You know, we just believe that we are going in two different directions” And you basically say, “We need to start over? “ And that can be really hard for a church because then it feels that you’ve gotten trapped into a secular way of thinking — to put it bluntly — kicking somebody out of your building. But do you think that there comes a time and place where you have to say, “No, we really need to make sure we are living out our mission and so we need to part ways and it’s time for us to rethink how we go about this?”

Bob: Yes. I think the answer is yes. But doing that with a lot of thoughtfulness and care, of course, is so essential. Because you may after going through some thinking about who you are, and what you have, and what you want to do, and who you want to serve, you may conclude that a different kind of partner and shared space user is much more appropriate. But of course the existing shared space users has own its board, and donors, and perhaps parents, and supporters. And so it can be very difficult. And a lot of anger and resentment can come forward if they are asked to leave. So I think it’s really important for everyone to understand that the church has gone through a lot of careful thinking and planning and assessment. And it’s still going to share its space in a way that benefits the community, but it’s just shifting what that kind of user would be. So trying to find ways to smooth that transition, and to ease the way, and to be supportive of that nonprofit as it finds a different kind of space, I think are all essential components of that transition. And the community needs to understand that the church is still committed to serving and using its space in ways that benefit the community, but just in a different way.

Doug: Right, that makes sense. You mentioned about rent. I’m United Methodist. Within the Methodist tradition, you technically can’t rent space in your church building. There is a formula for covering what they consider to be costs. So do you help churches navigate – because I know you work with different denominations and every denomination has their own way of doing this – so do you help congregations work through this and come to a conclusion about what is fair in terms of space usage?

Bob: Indeed. We try to help congregations understand how to go about that thinking. For example, one that is difficult is how do we assign heating and cooling costs to a given space. So if a program serving the homeless is using the parish hall two days a week in the wintertime, then how do you assign a certain heating cost to that space for those days of the week and come up with an overall cost? Now that again, doesn’t mean that that full cost needs to be assigned to that user or included in the rent, but just understanding what that is. So we do try to help congregations figure that out and then have a conversation with the users of the space to say, “Well, how much of this can you afford? Do we subsidize this? Do we help you because we really want you here? But in five years’ time, if we need to replace the furnace, perhaps your donors and your board will help us do that.”

Doug: I think that makes sense. And I think a lot of times congregations don’t think about that last piece that you mentioned. In five years, we know we’re going to have some building or facilities improvement, and when we get to that point, we want you to partner with us in making that happen just as we have partnered with you to make sure you have affordable space.

Bob: Exactly. And by the way, underlying a lot of this thinking – we haven’t touched on it yet, Doug – but we’ve done some research nationally, that can also be replicated locally, that can help a congregation communicate its larger community value in a way that can help it with transitions like this or when it comes time to raise money for the building. We call it the “halo effect” of a church. What is it’s larger impact? Who are really the folks we are serving during the week? Our research has shown that almost 90%, on average, of the people served in the programs housed by a congregation are not members. And we can do that research for any given church. And that’s powerful. Because it can say to local leaders, “Hey, most of the folks we are serving here, whether it’s the homeless, or it’s a concert, or it’s an afterschool program, most of these folks are not even our own members. So when we are looking to invest in our building, and keep this place going, and keep it alive, can you help us? Because we are really a de facto community center for much of the week. In addition to our worship and our fellowship, for much of the week we are doing these other things. So we are really are a public asset. So can you help invest in this building when we need some help?”

Doug: We mentioned that these partnerships seem very common in urban areas where the property values are high and community space is at a premium. But what would you say to congregations that are in exurban or rural areas where of course the property values are much lower or they face other kinds of challenges?

Bob: It’s a good question. In fact, we are working right now with Nordic heritage churches in the upper Midwest that are often in very rural areas and often feel very isolated. So we have worked with rural and small town churches. The principles are the same. The halo values may be less. There’s less population density. But what we have learned is that the principles of telling your story and inviting your community leaders in to just talk about this place and how it might be used to full advantage is still the same. So I’ll give you an example. We were working with a Lutheran church in Minnesota, a Danish Lutheran Church which has a marvelous building, with folk arts and architecture and many assets. So we helped facilitate with them a conversation with people from the county social service agencies, the local bank, the neighborhood associations to talk about how this building could be more fully used and cared for. So even in this very small town in Minnesota it worked. People came to the church. They had not been invited before. We had Danish food, by the way. It was great. We had a little Danish lunch spread. And then we had a conversation about what was special about this place and how the church might share its space and work with the community in some new ways. And it was great. There was a lot of energy. A lot of new ideas. So I think the principles really hold pretty well, whether urban or rural.

Doug: Bob, as we get ready to conclude, I want to end with this question. What do you see as the future trend for congregations, particular in terms of space usage? Obviously, more and more congregations are struggling just to make if off of tithes and offerings. So, if you were looking into the future, what do you think is going to happen in the next five or ten years?

Bob: One thing I think will happen and must happen is that churches don’t “go it alone” as much as they have been “going it alone” before. Meaning, that even though they can be discouraged that they are a small fraction of their old size, that they can and they should reach out and invite the larger community to talk to them, and come into the building and show then around. You know some of the easiest things we’ve seen you can do, which is a variation of what we’ve just discussed, is have a breakfast conversation with three or four civic leaders. And just show them the building and have a conversation about what did they see that was kind of special. And maybe there are some things you can do together that can lead to some new support and new interest in this place. So basically, what I’m saying is, getting out the front door, to talk to people, and invite them in, and think about doing things collaboratively and not alone.

Doug: Bob, I want to thank you for your time. This has, I believe, been helpful for congregations and the leaders of congregations. This is an important subject particularly in a time when buildings are not as full as they used to be. And trying to find ways that they are still relevant to the community is important.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, we discuss innovation, entrepreneurial ministry, and leadership with Kenda Creasy Dean, the Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary.

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About Author

Bob Jaeger

A. Robert Jaeger is co-founder and president of Partners for Sacred Places. He is the co-author of Sacred Places at Risk (1998) and Strategies for Stewardship and Active Use of Older and Historic Religious Properties (1996), and author of Sacred Places in Transition (1994).