“The Hidden Impact of Rural Churches” featuring Bob Jaeger and Rachel Hildebrandt

Leading Ideas Talks
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“The Hidden Impact of Rural Churches” featuring Bob Jaeger and Rachel Hildebrandt

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Podcast Episode 126

What is the economic impact of small congregations on their communities? We speak with Bob Jaeger and Rachel Hildebrandt of Partners for Sacred Places about their report on the “Economic Halo Effect of Rural United Methodist Churches in North Carolina.”

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Featuring Bob Jaeger and Rachel Hildebrant

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What is the economic impact of small congregations on their communities? In this episode we speak with Bob Jaeger and Rachel Hildebrandt of Partners for Sacred Places about their report on the “Economic Halo Effect of Rural United Methodist Churches in North Carolina.”

Jessica Anschutz: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Jessica Anschutz, the assistant director of the Lewis Center for Church leadership, and I am your host for this Leading Ideas Talks. Joining me are two staff members of Partners for Sacred Places:  Bob Jaeger, President, and Rachel Hildebrandt, Director of the National Fund for Sacred Places program. Recently, Partners for Sacred Places released a report about the “Economic Halo Effect of Rural United Methodist Churches in North Carolina.” (Partners for Sacred Places, in partnership with The Duke Endowment and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, studied 87 congregations over two years for its report “The Economic Halo Effect of Rural United Methodist Churches in North Carolina.”) The focus of our podcast today is this significant report and the impact of rural churches on their communities. Welcome, Bob and Rachel. I look forward to our conversation today.

Rachel Hildebrandt: Thanks for having us.

Bob Jaeger: Yes, indeed!

Jessica Anschutz: I want to start off by giving our listeners an idea about Partners for Sacred Places. Bob, could you give us an overview of the organization?

Bob Jaeger: Sure, absolutely, thank you. Well, we are proud of the fact that we are almost 35 years old now, and we’re really the only national nonprofit that focuses on helping congregations and the larger community work together to make the most of older churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques as places that serve both the worshipping community and the larger community. They obviously have cultural value and architectural value. They may come to have a major presence on our streetscapes. They are places of worship and education. But we have been learning a lot over the years about how spaces are shared and how these buildings really benefit the homeless, kids, the arts, seniors, and people who are hungry or in need. So, we try to help congregations and their neighbors think about ways to keep these places vital, full, alive, and cared for.

Jessica Anschutz: Thank you so much, Bob. I’m really excited about our conversation and learning more about your work and the report. What prompted Partners for Sacred Places to research the economic impact of rural churches?

Bob Jaeger: It started in the ‘90s when we began to ask ourselves what happens in our sacred places during the course of the week. Not on Sunday morning — we know what happens then — but the rest of the week. Who is served? How are spaces used or shared? How do congregations contribute to the health of the community? We realized, by the way, that no one knew. This was in the ‘90s. No one knew this. Seminaries did not know. Religious studies programs did not know. Preservation architecture programs did not know. Denominational offices did not know. No one knew what was happening on a Tuesday morning or a Thursday night.

That is what led us to do three rounds of research. We are talking today about the most recent round, but we really wanted to help tell the national story of how sacred places benefit the larger community and then help congregations tell their own story of public benefit. That’s the larger construct for what we’ve been doing. Rachel, I will invite you to add more.

Rachel Hildebrandt: I’ll just echo what you said, Bob. I see the goal of it as twofold.

It is both about empowering us to advocate on behalf of congregations and all the good work that they do and also about equipping congregations with the tools necessary to speak a language that is understood really widely by civic leaders. Not everybody appreciates old buildings and not everybody is a person of faith. But I feel like everybody does understand dollars and cents and economic impact. When congregations are empowered to make a case for support or why their capital campaign matters or why what they are trying to do in the community matters, it is so powerful to have that kind of information on hand.

Jessica Anschutz: Absolutely. Before we jump into the findings of your report, I want to invite you to define for our listeners a couple of the terms: the first being economic halo effect and the second being how you understood rural.

Rachel Hildebrandt: Economic halo effect refers to the economic impact that a congregation has on its community and that communities radiate out from there. We believe that the effect that congregations have is most significant close to the congregation’s building and site where the work is being done, where the congregation is meeting week after week and often using the building day after day for programming. The impact really starts with the building and then radiates out from there, forming a halo. That is why we call it that, but ultimately it is economic impact.

And then rural. That was tricky to define because you can find so many definitions out there of rural. Ultimately, we ended up going with the University of Illinois scholar Andrew Isserman’s typology. He has a typology that can be used to classify counties anywhere in the U.S. as urban, mixed urban, mixed rural, or rural. And that’s what we did. We used that typology to assign a type to each county in North Carolina and then only used counties that met the rural, mixed rural, or mixed urban classifications.

Jessica Anschutz: Thank you so much for that clarification. Tell us about the study. What did you find? What did you learn about rural churches in North Carolina?

Rachel Hildebrandt: We surveyed 87 rural congregations across North Carolina. We found that the average congregation has an economic impact of $735,000 per year. If you take out the top 10% and the bottom 10%, that number is about $500,000. Still, I think those numbers are super impressive.

It’s definitely a number that is higher than we anticipated. You know, we were falling victim to some of the stereotypes about rural churches, thinking they’re going to be small, they’re going to be struggling, they’re going to be focused on doing food pantries and clothing closets and not much else. But that is not at all what we found.

Jessica Anschutz: So, tell our listeners more about the economic impact of these churches. What does that $735,000 plus represent?

Rachel Hildebrandt: Direct spending is one of the things that we look at. An average congregation spends about 80 percent of its annual operating budget locally — hiring locally, hiring and supporting local vendors, purchasing goods and services locally, and in addition offering education programs. Several congregations we surveyed operate early childhood education programs: preschools, daycares, and even some K-12 schools. They attract people to the site by hosting rites of passage and arts events. Congregations are hosting weddings, funerals, birthday parties, family reunions, and also arts events of all kinds — concerts, plays, things like that. People come from all over to visit for those events, and they will spend money in the area or in the adjacent town because they’re there.

Congregations also offer and host community-serving programming — programs that benefit others in the community, not just members of the church. Those things can absolutely be measured. We found that congregations in rural North Carolina do a ton of that. They are contributing tons of volunteer time to those initiatives, tons of donations in terms of food, clothing, everything you can imagine. We found that, just like the urban counterparts, rural congregations do all of those things, too.

Jessica Anschutz: One of the things that really surprised me about the study was your finding that churches employ on average 1.4 full-time employees and four part time, with the caveat of just a little over half of the congregations being served by a part-time pastor, which tells me that those full-time employees are not the pastors. Talk a little bit about who is employed by these churches and what these employees are doing.

Rachel Hildebrandt: It’s hard to answer that question in a cohesive way because it varies so much from church to church. It depends on what the church does and offers. I think a good example of this is probably Franklinton UMC in Franklinton. It’s a really small congregation. At the time of the survey, there were 40 people attending on an average Sunday with an active congregation of about 25. Their total economic impact is $1.2 million, largely because they offer a preschool to 40 students in the community. The multipliers associated with that are really high. In that case, I don’t remember off the top of my head if they had a full-time program coordinator, but they most likely did. So, that’s a good example of the church specific staffing I saw. It’s clergy — sometimes more than one clergy, sometimes just one part-time clergy — and program coordinators, teachers, maintenance staff, treasurers, secretaries, those sort of things.

Jessica Anschutz: That’s really, really helpful, and I think speaks to the role of congregations and communities being a place of employment, reaching out to the community and supporting it that way.

Bob Jaeger: Your casual reader might think a large halo effect implies a large membership and a large staff, but often not that’s not the case. Even a small staff and a small membership can have an enormous impact that is useful for all of us. Can or do small congregations have value? If they are so small, can they have value? And the answer is yes.

Rachel Hildebrandt: The smallest congregation in the study was a five-member congregation and the largest was 365, so there’s this really wide range. I think the majority of them are on the smaller side.

Jessica Anschutz: That really speaks to the way the report sort of debunked some of the myths about rural churches being in decline and not being relevant to their communities. Your report found the total opposite and, in fact, found that 79 percent of the beneficiaries of the rural congregations weren’t members of those churches.

Rachel Hildebrandt: Yep!

Bob Jaeger: This is a point we make when we talk to folks around the country. In effect, churches are serving as de facto community centers for most of the week. It’s a little higher with urban churches but also with rural small towns — the vast majority of people served are not members. Why is that important? Well, it can help a congregation say to a donor, funder, government, or someone not Methodist, “You know we’re really serving everybody here. We are a civic place as well as a religious place. If we need help to fix the roof or replace a boiler or make our building more accessible, would you consider helping us?” It is seeing us differently. Yes, we are Methodist, but we are also more than that.

Jessica Anschutz: I want to invite you to share some of the ways that congregations are impacting their community. What are they doing? You’ve mentioned childcare centers, food pantries. Was there anything that surprised you over the course of the study?

Rachel Hildebrandt: Yes, I discovered that some of those congregations in North Carolina are just so unbelievably creative. They are really attuned to both the opportunities and challenges in their respective communities, and they develop programming based on those particularities.

Like, for example, one comes to mind — Swansboro United Methodist Church. It is located in an area of North Carolina that has a thriving regional economy because it is coastal and every summer people come and stay a week and golf, go to the beach, whatever. At the end of the week, they tend to leave groceries behind — fresh unopened groceries, untouched. The congregation realized this and thought, “Aha! There is an opportunity here to take advantage of.” So, they reached out to the resorts, developed a partnership, and now when people check in, the resorts give everybody a paper to sign that says: “The congregation can come and take the food at the end of our stay.”  So, that’s exactly what they do. They send volunteers at the end of the week every week all throughout the summer. They pick up the food, and then take bags of food to local food banks, which I think is just incredible. Not only are they contributing to local food banks at no cost to themselves at all, they’re also saving food from being wasted altogether.

Jessica Anschutz: That’s a really creative answer to a seasonal situation. But also how resourceful in getting the food to the people who need it most. Rachel, I know you’ve touched on programs for children and youth and also the food programs that rural congregations serve. Can you lift up some examples that caught your attention?

Rachel Hildebrandt: Almost every congregation we surveyed does food programming of some kind. And that can be a food pantry or a monthly meal. Those are the more typical type of programs. I did encounter one congregation that started a hot dog social program. They just call it the Hot Dog Program. It started back in 2005, I believe, initially as a fundraiser to raise enough money to buy a church van, but it was so popular in the community that it became a permanent mainstay program. Before the pandemic, it was every Saturday, and it was so widely known and appreciated that everybody in the community would come.

Congregations often do benevolent giving. When somebody shows up at the doorstep in need of money for a meal or money to help pay a utility bill, the congregations are all — almost every single one is doing that, stepping up and meeting the need time and time again.

A lot of them do ramp building, too, for the older members of their communities. That was a really prevalent thing that I saw. As folks get older, it gets harder obviously to go up steps in their homes and the homes have to be made accessible. Groups of congregations will get together and build ramps at no cost whatsoever to the members of the community. I saw a lot of that as well.

Jessica Anschutz: It’s really incredible when you take the time to think about the impact that these congregations are having on their communities. I’m sure that if we were to expand the study beyond North Carolina, we would find small congregations impacting their communities all over the country.

Rachel Hildebrandt: For sure!

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Jessica Anschutz: I know from my experience serving in the Hudson River valley of New York and serving smaller congregations that many of them are facing questions about their futures — whether they should close or merge with another congregation. In the report, you lifted up some questions about community impact that should be considered. What would you hope church leaders would consider regarding their impact on the community when they are in the midst of these conversations about closing or merging?

Rachel Hildebrandt: I think this is especially important for denominations that are hierarchical, where the judicatory itself has a lot of power in deciding whether a congregation stays open or not or merges into another or not. They tend to focus on worship numbers, membership numbers, budget, whether they are meeting their annual apportionments, things like that. I get that those things matter, but they are definitely not the only things that should be considered. You also have to consider: What is this congregation doing in its community? What is the impact that it is having in its community? If this church goes away, what programs and what people will be impacted by the absence? You know you can’t just displace important programs or leave a community hanging. It’s not a good look.

Bob Jaeger: Another way to look at all this is, if a denominational leadership is thinking about a church that’s small but there is some evidence of impact, another approach is to work closely with that congregation to help it articulate that value in new ways and develop new sources of support. One thing we learned nationally is that most congregations are not terribly good at articulating their larger value. They don’t even know it. They haven’t learned how to document and tell that story. Once they do, they can be working with local donors and funders, the community foundation, the city office to help them sustain their presence and sustain that building, even if it’s still somewhat small.

Now, of course, that’s not possible everywhere. We know some congregations will have to close and buildings will have to transition to something else, but I think there are cases where congregations, with some help to broaden fundraising and to gain new sources of support, can sustain themselves, and those important programs and outreach do not have to be dislocated.  I think that’s something for denomination leaders to think about.

Jessica Anschutz: Thank you, Bob, for lifting up the importance of telling the story behind the ministry and what congregations are doing and also the importance of partnering beyond the denomination or beyond the congregation to really become a resource for the community.

Bob Jaeger: One of the things we do is encourage congregations to invite the community in, even if it’s a simple cup of coffee over an hour. Walk them around the building and talk together about ways that the building can be more fully used and fully supported. The thing that we see time and time again is that civic leaders are delighted to come in and talk. They have just never been invited. If they come in, they will often have their own ideas and connections they can make to help the congregation make the most of their building and also sustain it.

Jessica Anschutz: The power of invitation cannot be overstated as far as welcoming visitors into the congregation or community partners. When we think about church buildings, I know that there are any number of church buildings in this country that are underutilized. They are great spaces that could make an impact on their communities but perhaps need to be reimagined. What are some creative ways you have seen congregations reimagining their space in order to better meet the needs of their community?

Rachel Hildebrandt: I have thought long and hard about this. In North Carolina, among the rural churches in particular, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think they’re doing the best job of that at the moment. I think it’s a huge opportunity in front of them.

Bob Jaeger: Both in North Carolina and elsewhere, we really believe in asset thinking and asset mapping — seeing the building as a cluster of opportunities and strengths and inviting the community to come in, as I was saying before, to think together. We often bring architects in too. Architects can help a church reimagine how spaces could function, still respecting the beauty and the character of that church but allowing spaces … maybe not the sanctuary; it may be the parish hall, the fellowship hall, the kitchen, the dining room that could function in new ways. Architects can be a part of it, too.

One good example is not in North Carolina but in New Mexico. There’s a Presbyterian church that is much smaller than it was, and I think they might have wondered if they could survive the next 10 or 20 years. But they started this process of engaging with their community, and what is emerging now is likely that they will become the home for the state’s most important orchestra that was looking for a home, a place with good acoustics that had the right size. So, the church will probably use a different space as their worship space and partner with the orchestra to make better use of this building. Now, that is a dramatic case because it’s an orchestra. Not every town has an orchestra. But it came out of a community engagement process, and the ideas didn’t exist at first. They emerged from this community engagement process. Whether it’s a large process or a small process, it’s something that almost any church can do.

Rachel Hildebrandt: I have found that the process of being there on site with the congregation and asking the questions that are part of the survey — Do you share space with other organizations? How about this kind? How about that kind? — will jog their memory and make sure we are covering every base possible. Doing it that way seems to inspire congregations to give some of those things a try. Bringing up ideas they may have not heard about before has that unintended side effect, but it is like a very real thing that I hear from congregations again and again. I will finish up the survey, and they’ll say, “Wow! You gave me some really good ideas about things we could try or things we might want to do in the future.” Space-sharing was one that was very common in North Carolina. I can think of two congregations of the 87 that, after the process of being part of the study, have been very intentionally exploring the possibilities for underutilized space on their properties, so really we inspired a little bit of that.

Jessica Anschutz: What a wonderful unintended outcome of the study!

Rachel Hildebrandt: Yeah.

Jessica Anschutz: When we think about community engagement for congregations that perhaps haven’t really thought about engaging partners or potential partners in conversation, how might a congregation get started with that conversation?

Bob Jaeger: I think the place to start is to bring together a little task force of leaders from the congregation — lay people and pastors or staff — and start to brainstorm a bit about the people they already know who may not have been in the building. Somebody may know the mayor. Somebody may know a leading civic activist or donor. Someone may know someone active in a neighborhood association or a county arts agency. You can start with some of the people you know and then branch out from there.

It’s just starting with this: the two or three degrees of separation between the church folks and those in the community. One person can lead to another, and you might say, “Okay, here are the six people that make sense for us. Let’s invite them in for an hour and reintroduce them to the church and begin to talk about what they see.”

Rachel Hildebrandt: I think congregations should be inventorying what they have, trying to step back and look at their properties with new eyes. Sometimes when you are there week after week, you just don’t quite think about what’s right in front of you, right? Maybe for the most part the congregation thinks the building is really well utilized. But perhaps it’s not, so I think that, in parallel to doing what Bob described, it’s important to take a new look at your property and what you have before you can start really envisioning new possibilities for it.

Bob Jaeger: We’ve been doing this work in Indiana, as I was saying. We will walk around, trying to get people to think in this fresh way, and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s the women’s group — that’s where they meet.” Or “That’s where the third graders are.” When you really probe, you find out the women’s group uses it for an hour a week.

Jessica Anschutz: Right.

Bob Jaeger: That’s it. And the third graders don’t use it anymore because there’s no third-grade class anymore. They are relying on their memories, and it’s very affectionate because they love the memories of how these spaces have been used. But when you really get into it, you realize that most of the building is used very little. I think, as Rachel says, that organized rethinking and reminding them of what spaces are used now is a good place to start and suddenly realize, my goodness, most of this incredibly resource is vastly underutilized, so we have a huge opportunity here.

Jessica Anschutz: Opportunity and tremendous potential to make an impact in the community in a positive way that can fulfill the mission of the community of faith.

Bob Jaeger: Exactly.

Jessica Anschutz: As we think about the report, I want to invite you to share how listeners can find the report. What did you hope congregations would glean from the report whether they are in rural spaces or more urban or suburban?

Rachel Hildebrandt: You can find the report on our website, sacredplaces.org, under publications.  It’s pretty easy to find if you follow that path. It’s an important study, so we’ve raised it up and made it really visible on our website on purpose.

In terms of what congregations can glean, I hope that congregations and their leaders will see themselves in the work and be encouraged by it. I’m the director of the National Fund. It’s a grant-making program helping congregations undertake significant capital projects. And in that role, I so strongly believe that the building is an asset for ministry. The building is important to your congregation, but it’s just as important to the community and those you serve. So, when you are raising money to support your building or become sustainable in some way or another, invite the community to be a part of that. I think that’s really what I want congregations to take from this — to be inspired to reflect on the impact that they have, and then ask others to support them in their work.

Jessica Anschutz: Rachel, you mentioned the work of the fund. I want to invite you to take just a moment to share with our listeners a little bit more about what the fund is and also how it may be a resource for them.

Rachel Hildebrandt: Yes, thank you so much. The National Fund is a program of Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust. It’s a grant-making program. We offer grants ranging from $50,000 to $250,000 for significant sacred places across the U.S. We fund core preservation projects like your roofs, repointing, things like that. But we also fund projects that make space more usable or accessible for congregations and communities. In addition to the capital grant, we offer a range of services to ensure that our projects are successful, including training, group training in person, technical assistance, and small seed planting grants, planning grants.

Bob Jaeger: It’s available to rural and urban, to all denominational traditions, and it can be a modest project, or it can be a major project. But, as Rachel says, we want to provide a whole bundle of services to help ensure that every project is well planned and well executed.

Rachel Hildebrandt: Yep, and there’s a separate website for the fund if listeners are interested in learning more about the program. It’s fundforsacredplaces.org. 

Jessica Anschutz: We can link to those on our podcast page once this is released so folks will have easy access to those websites. As our time draws to a close, Bob and Rachel, I want to invite you to just offer words of wisdom or hope for struggling small church leaders out there. What words of encouragement do you have for them?

Bob Jaeger: One thing is that there is reason for hope because you can do this if you don’t do it alone — by this I mean keeping your building active, keeping it well cared for, doing your good work, worshipping, educating, serving in this building, which may be facing some repair issues.

What we say to congregations is: Don’t do this work alone. Connect to your community, invite them in. Think together about how to make the most of this building. Think together about how to invest in the new furnace or replace a roof or fix the windows, because generally we see that communities respond when congregations call for help. Talk together. There’s just no reason to feel alone or to do this alone.

Do it with your community. There are lots of tools and techniques and approaches. A lot of what we do is offer resources and tools, because we want small congregations to last and to be healthy. So, I think there is a lot of hope to offer.

Rachel Hildebrandt: Small does not necessarily mean struggling or unhealthy. Small can be healthy, vibrant. Small congregations do really vital, important work, so don’t fall into the trap of playing the numbers game and being obsessed with those numbers.

Jessica Anschutz: Thank you so much, Bob and Rachel, for your work on behalf of Partners for Sacred Places and for your work on behalf of congregations and your support of congregations as they strive to thrive.

Rachel Hildebrandt: Thanks for having us.

Bob Jaeger: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

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“The Economic Halo Effect of Rural United Methodist Churches in North Carolina” by Partners for Sacred Places and UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. This 2021 report is available through Partners for Sacred Places.

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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).

Rachel directs the National Fund for Sacred Places and has played a key role in Partners' economic impact research, which focuses on congregations across the United States that are stewarding older and historic properties. She co-authored a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Religion and Cities as well as Partners’ guide to transitioning property, Transitioning Older and Historic Sacred Places: Community-Minded Approaches for Congregations and Judicatories.