As one of the oldest churches in Philadelphia, First Baptist Church has had many homes in its 314-year history. But when Reverend Peter Wool returned to lead First Baptist in 2009 (he had originally served as pastor 1983-1994), he was met with a congregation whose current location was in jeopardy. “The building was eating up our endowment,” he explained, noting that the heating costs for the massive, 112-year-old structure were astronomical. “Everything was on the table. ’Can the church even stay in this location?’ was a real question.” With a small congregation that drew about 65 people every Sunday, Reverend Wool knew he needed to be creative in finding a sustainable path forward for First Baptist.
At the same time, Kevin Glaccum of Azuka Theatre already knew what it meant for an institution to operate without a stable home. From 1999-2009, Azuka was a small, Philadelphia-based company that produced 21 shows in 11 different locations. “We were a nomadic company,” said Glaccum, the Artistic Director, who scheduled shows in a variety of venues ranging from community centers, to college auditoriums, and everything in between. For those ten years, countless hours of work in planning Azuka’s season went to managing the various locations. Time that could have been devoted to production, marketing, or advertising was instead spent on simply finding a place to perform.
In the spring of 2011, things began to change for both First Baptist and Azuka. Partners for Sacred Places reached out to the church and a consortium of small theater companies with a proposition that the two should enter serious discussion about sharing space long-term. Ultimately, two groups were able and willing to step forward as possible tenants: Azuka and Inis Nua (“New Island” in Gaelic), a company that produces plays from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England.
A year prior, Partners had worked with several local organizations to survey the arts landscape in Philadelphia on the potential for increasing its cooperation with local congregations. This pilot study found that most smaller performing arts groups in Philadelphia face a steep shortage of affordable space.
Meanwhile, many congregations with underutilized space need new revenues. Given this natural overlap, Partners set out to broker partnerships between arts organizations and congregations. Since First Baptist was one of the congregations included in the pilot study, Partners had assessed the building and found that its unused and under-used space was perfect for the arts. Reverend Wool noted this was not the first option the lay leadership had considered. “We looked into all sorts of different options,” he said, such as consolidating all congregational activities into one wing of the building while leasing or even selling the rest as office space. “But it wasn’t something we really wanted to do. We felt it would stunt our growth to simply give up the space.”
Fortunately, the arts had always been a large part of First Baptist’s heritage. The congregation already shared space with musical groups for rehearsals and performances, which drew substantial crowds to the church. “We wanted something that was more congruent with our congregation,” explained Reverend Wool. Since First Baptist already had a reputation for music, moving on to theater was an easy transition.
Like other Baptists churches, First Baptist is based on a Congregationalist polity. This means that an individual church does not answer to any higher church body, conference, or diocese, making the congregation itself the final arbiter of all property transactions. To pitch the partnership on behalf of both theater groups, Glaccum attended a Sunday service and spoke about his vision for bringing the performing arts to First Baptist. The congregation voted in favor of the space-sharing agreement and the lease was signed shortly thereafter.
However, not all parts of the process have gone quite as smoothly. For example, navigating the building’s schedule on Sunday morning, when four groups can be using the building simultaneously (the church shares space with another congregation), has been a source of growing pains.
While Azuka and Inis Nua usually use the basement to build sets, they refrain from doing so when there is worship in the sanctuary above so not as to disturb the congregation. Similarly, accommodations had to be made to allow choir members to cross through the theater, since there is no other route from the music director’s office to the sanctuary.
For reasons such as these, Glaccum emphasized the importance of being “open-minded and flexible. We’re both on a learning curve – we’re [Azuka] learning how to be a tenant and they’re [First Baptist] learning how to be a landlord.” Similarly, one of the keys to this particular success story has been the strength of the personal relationship between Glaccum and Reverend Wool, both of whom speak very highly of one another. Potential pitfalls of space-sharing, whether in negotiation, communication, or any field, were softened by the candor and friendship that the two sides had established over the process.
For any space-sharing agreement to be successful, it must be mutually beneficial, and First Baptist-Azuka-Inis Nua is no exception to this rule. “That’s what was great about it,” exclaimed Glaccum, “we wanted to be here and they wanted us here.” Reverend Wool echoed this sentiment, qualifying that while the arts is not the mission of his church per se, partnering with Azuka has complemented and enhanced First Baptist’s outreach and ministry. First Baptist has benefited from new revenues and increased visibility in the community, while Azuka does not need to spend valuable time finding venues, freeing the staff to focus on other aspects of managing a theater company. Ultimately, the arrangement has allowed both sides to be better stewards of their homes, at once strengthening their presence in the building while sharing it as well.