Episode 70: “Leveraging Your Church’s Assets” featuring Jacqueline Jones-Smith

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 70: “Leveraging Your Church’s Assets” featuring Jacqueline Jones-Smith

Your church may have more resources than you think! In this episode Jacqueline Jones-Smith explains how Christ Church in St. Petersburg, Florida, once slated for closure, turned itself around by embracing a more entrepreneurial mindset and taking stock of its physical and human assets.

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Your church may have more resources than you think! In this episode Jacqueline Jones-Smith explains how Christ Church in St. Petersburg, Florida, once slated for closure, turned itself around by embracing a more entrepreneurial mindset and taking stock of its physical and human assets.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel, associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary, and I’m your host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. Our guest today is Reverend Jacqueline Jones-Smith who’s an ordained elder in the Baltimore Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church and is currently serving as pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg Florida. It’s a church that was in need of a turnaround when she arrived in 2016 and Jackie was instrumental in helping that church broker a real estate sale that’s giving it a new lease on life. So, we’ve invited her to talk with us about that today. So, thank you Jackie for agreeing to share with me and our listeners today.

Jacqueline Jones-Smith: Thank you, Ann, glad to be here.

Ann Michel. So, to set the stage for the conversation, can you briefly describe the situation that Christ UMC faced when you first arrived?

Jacqueline Jones-Smith: Well, let me say beforehand that I didn’t intend to work in a church. We were just visiting there looking for a church home. And they evidently needed a pastor because their current pastor was about to leave. And so, they said “We’ve been praying for you.” So anyway, that’s it. That was a surprise. Christ Church St. Pete was then a 127-year-old church, well-known for a day care it had started its in downtown St. Petersburg. Well known for its music ministry, its mission outreach. Many elders and a couple of bishops, I believe, came out of that church. And it started a number of churches in the suburbs. Unfortunately, as in most mainline churches since the 1970s, there was marked decline, of course, in membership. This church had worshiped over 1,000 people a week. It has a 1,200-seat sanctuary. By 2009, the church had less than 100 worshippers. And at that point it had been drawing on its endowment of about $2 million. By 2002, it started to draw down on the excess of its endowment of about $2 million. In 2009, it began to withdraw from the corpus. By 2013, it went from a full-time to part-time pastors. And I guess by the time I had gotten there, in three years it had maybe five pastors, in two and a half years, five part-time pastors. So, when I got there it was, from what I understand, on a list of potential churches that needed to be closed. I prayed about it. Went in and the church needed a lot of help. So that’s kind of where it was. It was at a point that it was drawing on the corpus of its endowment. It had about $500,000 left in that endowment. It had been through several pastors in the last few years. And by the time I walked in, in fact, the first question that was asked me by many of the people was “how long are you going to be here?”

Ann Michel. In think the question I have is “why did you decide to go?”

Jacqueline Jones-Smith: You know when someone looked at me when we went to that service, someone that was a former retired pastor looked at me and said “We’ve been praying for you.” And we prayed about it. And my husband said “I think God’s calling you back into the parish.” So it was purely God’s call.

Ann Michel: Well, things have changed since you’ve been there. I wondered if you could say a bit about what happened after you assumed the pastorate of the church.

Jacqueline Jones-Smith: Well, once I got in there, my business background and my legal background — all of our backgrounds come to bear when we go into pastoral ministry. And when I went in, I immediately saw that this is a church that had not done some serious looking at its finances. I asked as one of the conditions of my coming in that the church have the conference do an outside audit of the finances. I came in and looked very seriously at that. And immediately, I guess within the first 60 days, we were able to cut down on some of that endowment draw just based on pure spending. That was July of 2016. By the time we had our first charge conference in October, I had made a decision that we really needed to leverage the assets of this church. We needed to get some money in or else the church was not going to make it. And so, it was important that we set the tone for this church. And I actually went in developing, I’m a firm believer that when you go into a church you do some important branding. And you get people to come on board with the theme. And so, I preached my first sermon from Isaiah 43, that God is about to do a new thing. And I used a rubber band as imagery. And I said “our theme was letting God stretch us. As stakeholders in this community, we had to stretch. It was going to cause tension. We’re going to have to do some things we’re not used to. But let’s do that.” So, my 2017 priority was to leverage those assets. And so we did just that. I just looked around very seriously. What did we have? The church had a 2/3’s acre lot across the street that it was using for parking — not a lot of parking — but it was used. The church also has a building that occupies 50,000 square feet of space, which is amazing space! A sanctuary that holds 1,200 people. We’re in the midst of downtown. We’re right next door to City Hall. There’s an alley between the church and City Hall. And yet the church didn’t have relationships with City Hall, didn’t have many relationships outside. And so, the first thing we did was identify first the tangible assets, which included the property and building. Then we looked at our endowment, what restricted and unrestricted funds we had. But then the important thing also was looking at the intangible assets. Who were the people in the church who had untapped skills and abilities that the church never used? And who were potential partners and relationships that we needed? And so, at that point, I knew my Trustees would not be an organization that could help solve a lot. At that point we also looked around at the economic environment of the city. And it was clear that development was happening downtown. And property, this lot that was purchased I think maybe in the 1950s, was potentially worth a lot of money at this point. So, I formed a task force — a business development task force. And the purpose of the task force was to develop close working relationships with the St. Petersburg government, the Chamber of Commerce, other businesses and community groups, and explore and investigate business opportunities that could generate revenue for our church. And the makeup of this business development group, they included people in the congregation that had intangible assets — untapped skills and abilities. Good example. One of the retired pastors had one of the largest CPA firms in the city. He just got a call to ministry late in life. One of the members of the church was a former county commissioner and vice mayor of the city of St. Petersburg and the church never tapped his ability. So, on this task force I had a retired banker in our church who dealt in commercial banking. I had this former county commissioner, the head of the CPA firm, and the head of this business development task force, which was unusual, was my husband. In the past, he had always been a silent partner. My husband had never held any position in the church. But I made him chair of this group because he’s a nationally renowned entrepreneur and business executive who had been on several corporate boards — FedEx, Caterpillar. And so, I made him the chair of the group. The group was non-decision making. They were just advising. They reported to me. They were a non-decision making, information-gathering and analysis group that was to make recommendations to the Trustees.

Ann Michel. So to cut to the quick, what did they learn?

Jacqueline Jones-Smith: Well, they learned that certainly the church’s lot was in a highly desirable high-density development area. There was a shortage of rentable space in downtown St. Pete. There was a high level of interest of nonprofits in renting space in Christ Church which is downtown. And we’re at the corner where there’s a bus stop. So, the Business Development Task Force saw two areas of revenue. One was renting our building. And the second was selling the lot. We sold the lot first because we needed revenue to work on the building so that we can eventually rent out the space. So anyway, they recommended it. We found a partner, a commercial real estate firm to work with us. And we made recommendations to the Trustees. Of course, they accepted it. And so, on December 13, 2019 we sold the lot for $5.3 million.

Ann Michel. Yeah, I was hoping you’d give us that number because it’s an impressive number.

Jacqueline Jones-Smith: Two-thirds of an acre for $5.3 million. That’s how valuable it is. But the unique thing we did with this deal is we required easements for parking spaces — about 100 parking spaces in the new structure in perpetuity. Because if we’re a downtown church we’ve got to have parking. So, part of the deal was to have those easements for parking in perpetuity. The great thing about that is totally, when you count the easements, the deal is valued at about $6.3 million. And it’s considered at that point one of the highest per acre sales in downtown St. Pete. And some other churches have actually copied that business model.

Ann Michel. So, I have a question. If the church was sitting with an asset that was worth so much money, and had the talent within its congregation to really think about how that could be exploited, I guess I’m wondering why didn’t they think of it before?

Jacqueline Jones-Smith: Ann, that’s an interesting question. Let me say this. In my experience I’ve found a couple of things. I’ve found churches generally don’t like to sell property. That’s the first thing. They don’t like to sell. But I don’t call it selling but leveraging assets. Because we still ended up with more parking. So, churches don’t like to sell property. I think the other thing is a lot of times churches look at what I call the “church jobs.” They don’t look at people’s other life, their secular life, what they have in terms of skills and abilities. And so, I’ve found that has been pretty standard in the churches that I’ve served. And my business experience and my experience managing companies, you know you always look at what the value of what people bring to the table. And so, they were surprised. In fact, a number of people at first they were very concerned about the idea of selling the property because the church bought it so many years ago. And it was so important. And let me tell you, it was a weeded out lot. There were some spaces, but it had a section with some overgrown weeds. They wanted to start an urban garden, which in and of itself would have been fine. But the church desperately needed an infusion of cash.

Ann Michel. Right. So, as you’ve been talking, I’ve been thinking about what some of the obstacles are. You’ve talked about that attitude that the church never wants to let go of something that they see as part of their commonwealth, I guess. You talked about the fact that you’re your existing Trustees structure probably didn’t have the capacity to take on a project like this so you had to create a separate task force. But were there other obstacles that you needed to overcome to get the congregation to start to think in this way?

Jacqueline Jones-Smith: Couple of things. The other thing is with my Trustees. If you know most church committees, my husband always said “God so loved the world that God didn’t send a committee to create it.” Trustees meet on a monthly basis. They take minutes. I needed a group that could act quickly. Task Forces have a tendency to meet when necessary. They communicate constantly. They don’t worry about minutes and Robert’s Rules. They get to the heart of the matter. We needed to do this quickly. And I think my Trustees would have taken a while. And many of them did not have the expertise. So that was that was one barrier. I think the other barrier with Christ Church, it had been in such a preservation mode, and there was a lot of paranoia and concern that the conference was going to close them, that they did not have good relationships with the conference either. And so, we had to reestablish some good relationships with the conference. It really took a lot of discussion with the with members. It took a lot of convincing that “Yes, we’re not trying to harm the church. We really need to get some money.” The other thing that we had to do was to educate the congregation. Many did not know the real financial state of the church. They give their offering. The church just kind of sits there and runs. And many people believe the church is going to be there forever. We did a series of important educational things with the leadership and with the members. PowerPoints etc., explaining our financial condition — the folks, our weekly offerings do not fund the budget, that we have to draw down an endowment. And we used a lot of simple examples. You know, if you earn a certain amount every week and you are paid on a weekly basis and you spend more than that, you’re going to have to go into your savings account. So, it took some time and some discussion. And also let me say this. Because so many pastors had come and gone just before I got there, the longer I was there, you gain some credibility. I accepted a part-time appointment. But I didn’t come in as a part-time pastor. Because to do a turnaround you have to make a commitment and it takes a lot of time. So, besides the convincing in the education, over time many of the members started to see that I was very serious about wanting the church to survive. And so, you know all of this is kind of working together. Also getting my leadership to have meetings. We had a new district superintendent that came in I guess when I came in. So, we have an opportunity to educate her. She was a great thinker. She’s good at out-of-the-box thinking. And so, she liked the ideas. We presented it to the to the conference so they could understand. No, this church is not trying to pull a fast one. This is where we were going. So, we were gathering support from within the conference and within the community for this. We joined the Chamber of Commerce, the church did. We tried to do a lot of things to build relationships within the church and outside the church.

Ann Michel. Yes. I would imagine that you see this infusion of a rather significant amount of money as the starting point of some new opportunities for the church. But I also think there would be a lot of churches in the situation you described that this church was in, that would say “Oh, Phew! Now we’ve got money in the bank!” and would be happy to just to go on as they’ve always gone on. And so, this obviously has given rise to a new vision for how your congregation can be in ministry. And I wondered if you can describe how you plan to use these assets to develop the ministry.

Jacqueline Jones-Smith: Well, the first thing we did when I created the goal of needing to leverage assets, it became part of an overall Christ Church Vision 2020 – interesting now we are in 2020 — of what we needed to do in terms of expanding some of our programs, etc. Let me just say this. We closed, and this is by the grace of God, we closed the real estate deal on December 13, 2019. And thanks be to God, our deal had a requirement that we get our money up front. Because you know what happened in March of 2020, right? COVID happened. So, thank God we’ve had some funds and that allowed us to quickly pivot and do some things like have the equipment to do virtual worship, etc. Because really there had been no money. But one of the things that we are looking at doing is expanding some of our current outreach ministries. The church has a unique ministry called “laundry ministry.” Believe it or not, we go we go to laundromats in some of the more economically challenged areas. And before COVID, our folks would go in and just pay for laundry for people. And that’s expensive. If you’ve ever didn’t have a washing machine and you went to the laundry, the difference between paying for your laundry and buying diapers or formula. It’s a big deal. And so that was a big ministry in our church. We’ve now restructured it and we’re doing it under COVID. We’re providing bags, safe distancing, and masks, and things like that. But one of the goals of Vision 2020 was to expand that further throughout the city. We also had an after-school For the Arts Program. Our plan is to bring that back just a number of outreach things that we were going to do in addition on the other side. We hadn’t finished the business development. Some of the funds we wanted to use haven’t done that yet. Some of the funds we wanted to use was to upgrade our current facility so that we could rent it. As I said, we have a 1,200-seat sanctuary. Christ Church’s sanctuary is bigger than many of the performance venues in St. Petersburg. And so, part of our goal, and that’s been stopped now because of COVID, because many of these places are not open, part of our goal was to become say the less-expensive avenue, partner with one of the performance venues, and say if they had a nonprofit or a school that wants to do a graduation, we would become the say the “B” venue, the less expensive venue. So, the business development plan is still active, just in terms of redoing our space and using it. We are a small church in a big building. Renting out to nonprofits. Much of that now has been put on hold because of COVID, unfortunately.

Ann Michel. Did you get pushback from your church when you used the word “business?”

Jacqueline Jones-Smith: No. I did it first. Let me just say that because many of the folks don’t believe that the church is a business. And one of the things I do believe, that I tell people is that “The church is a business. We’re in the business of making disciples for Jesus Christ. But we are a business.” Under state laws, we are a 501(c) 3 nonprofit corporation. And you know yourself, Ann, from your research and experience, if churches don’t pay payroll taxes, then you know the IRS is going to get to you. So, the government treats you as a corporation. Also, we don’t want to admit this, but the church is evaluated and measured by decision-making structures that use business metrics. For example, the number of members that you have, the number of people that you worship, are you paying your apportionment? In fact, those are some of the reasons that the conferences decide to close churches. And so, let’s be real,

Ann Michel. Right. The church is not immune from the laws of economics.

Jacqueline Jones-Smith: The church is not immune from the laws of economics. Nor is it immune from what I call accountability to higher corporate structures, because they know within our United Methodist Church, churches are evaluated by metrics and they are numbers. Period. Though the church as a business, that took a while of explaining and talking about it. But I think our congregation understands that, I think a little more than most. They just didn’t want to see it that way because they were concerned about being closed.

Ann Michel. I’m so glad that you introduced the concept of leveraging assets. Lovett Weems and I have a new book coming out in a couple months. It’s on stewardship and finance. But we devoted one of the major sections of this book to how congregations can rethink their economic reality by taking stock of their financial assets. And we give a lot of emphasis to thinking about physical assets. But I also know that not every congregation is situated in such a prime location where their land is so very valuable. But I do still think there are ways that every congregation can start to take stock of its resources. So how would you recommend that a church begin the process?

Jacqueline Jones-Smith: I think you have to have some objective people first look at look at your physical building, look at what you own. You own your building. You may own some vehicles. Look at what I call real property. The second thing, and I alluded to it earlier, the second thing you have to look at is your intangible assets. You know, don’t just look at your gift surveys, you’ve got singers etc. Maybe it requires doing another kind of survey. Get to know your congregation. Who are the people in your congregation? You may have some intangible assets in that congregation such as attorneys, teachers, political figures. The other part of your asset base includes from a business standpoint your good will. How are you perceived in the community? What are the things that the people, if you’ve been there a while, what do people know about you? What do you know in terms of your reputation? Good example. At Christ Church, even though the church had over time diminished in membership, its daycare or CDC (child development center) which was formed over 20 years ago has an incredible reputation. So many people downtown, including people at City Hall, had their children in the child development center. And yet there were no relationships. So, who were your neighbors? Who are the people in the community? What’s your reputation? And then you can try to build on that. You know those become assets that you can leverage, not necessarily selling, but you can leverage those relationships. Who in the community can you team with? Are there are organizations you can team up with? Nonprofits such as the Boys and Girls Club. Good example. I told you we want to restart at some point our after school For the Arts Program. Well, when we restart, one of the things we want to look at is teaming with say the Boys and Girls Clubs or the YMCA, because they do have an after-school program every day of the week, five days a week. We may want to do just part of that, or one day, one afternoon for the Arts program. You have to look for new partners because that helps. Those are those are extra hands, extra people, possibly extra resources. So, when I say leveraging assets, it’s not just what are the four corners of the building around you, what you own, and the people in your church, but also “who are the people in the community?’ and “who are the organizations who can you team with?” “Are there other churches?” Just a number of things. So that’s what I mean by leveraging assets.

Ann Michel. So, I’ve heard you speak about this before in terms of “thinking outside the box.” And I think you’ve just given a whole list of examples in which it’s coming at some things and situations in your context with a different angle of vision so that you can think outside the box about what possibilities are. Jackie this is a tremendous story. And I am just so admiring of what you’ve been able to accomplish at this church. I know it’s going to be an inspiration to lots of our listeners and lots of people who hear about this, to think about how they may be able to think different differently and do things differently in their congregations as well. So, I’m just so grateful that you’ve been willing to share from your experience, not only in terms of the strategies that you recommend, but also, I think the inspiration of the example of what you’ve been able to accomplish. So, thank you so much, Jackie, for sharing with us today.

Jacqueline Jones-Smith: Thank you, Ann. It’s been a pleasure.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we speak with Scott Cormode about recalibrating the church to innovate for a changing world, plus his new book “The Innovative Church.”

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About Author

Jacqueline Jones-Smith

Jacqueline Jones-Smith is an ordained elder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church who recently retired following her service as pastor of Christ UMC in St. Petersburg, Florida. She had a distinguished career in business and law prior to heeding God’s call to ministry.

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.