Recently, a local news outlet prompted a conversation about the death of Seattle. In the docu-news piece it presented an analysis of the social issues of a “struggling” Seattle. While the piece created a whirlwind of conversations about drug abuse, mental health, policing, and other important social policy determinants; the changing geography of housing and gentrifying land seemed the obvious elephant in the room.
Every day the news is more and more difficult to hear on these fronts. Families are negatively impacted by a lack of affordable and accessible housing, not only in Seattle but King County. And while the region may be considered a creative space, solutions to housing instability and affordability seem hard to come by at the social and political levels; which is also seemingly true to some degree in cities like San Francisco, Boston, and Washington D.C.
Faith communities seem somewhat predisposed to solutions located in the charitable use of their properties. At least at a minimum, congregations continue to seek ways to utilize the church property as a tool to temporarily address housing instability. But what some may find interesting is the extremely high percentage of church buildings that are sold to cover budget shortfalls. In other words, as congregations reach the point of closing the overwhelming majority end up selling for economic reasons, and not charitable ones.
In the last year we have not only learned important statistics like what was previously mentioned, but also we have learned and continue to be mindful of church property development challenges. Here are just a few findings and ways we are continuing to engage the very important issue of church property.
The challenge and opportunity of urban spaces across our nation is for historic mainline churches to actively engage the discernment of its resources. In particular there is a need to discern the future development of church property with intentionality. Yet we must engage property questions and concerns, challenges, and opportunities with an eye on the future of the Presbyterian mission. We must not forget that we are not called to a building; we are called be a people who use all available resources as tools for ministry. As important as resources are our mission is with, for, and to people. Therefore, it is important we take a holistic view of land and buildings as a means-and not the end. In reading the theological work of our Native community, they remind us of this very fact. We have been informed by a Manifest Destiny in our understanding of land. To lose or own land means something economic and related to power. We must discern using the theological lens of Pentecost. The power we seek is not contained in what we own.
It is a Community Issue also
We are learning that congregations normally consider church property as simply a church conversation and church decision. This is to be expected as the church members seek to discern how to address property issues. What we are learning is how much this is also a community issue that impacts the future presence of the presbytery in many communities. Church property issues not only are of great concerns to the congregation but often community stakeholders are asking questions the congregation may not be asking. Therefore, it is important for there to be a thoughtful discernment process that includes community.
Inviting this type of dialogue with the community can be overwhelming and inconvenient. But in our early conversations with local communities over the last year, what is clear is each community has its own story and churches sit within those stories. Also, a one-size fits all approach to church property will not work given the story each church sits within. We are reminded in Acts 17 how Paul the Apostle entered the cities of Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens. Each had their own story and each presented different approaches.
This may go without saying for some but after Lina Thompson’s homily and presentation at our April 30th presbytery meeting, we must name this. Our discernment process must always lend itself to being WITH and not simply FOR or TO the community. This requires time and patience in our discernment process. There are no quick and easy answers and simple solutions.
Finally, this is why the presbytery is beginning to take the long view in regards to these challenges. Ten years ago, the presbytery was struggling to right its books so it could support its churches. Today however, we are looking to right our approach in order to advance our collective mission with our communities. It's time for a different approach when it comes to the challenges we are facing in our presbytery and in our community. Can we leverage our properties to support a renewed mission to engage our communities? Yes! Can we also build congregations on or around these properties at the same time? If we listen to and discern with communities and congregations, it is possible.
Grace and peace,
Director of Community Engagement & Reconciliation