Whether in rural areas or suburbs, farm towns, or urban neighborhoods, churches, synagogues, meetinghouses, and temples showcase the best art and architecture in their communities. But sacred places are not just monuments to craftsmanship, nor are they dedicated solely to prayer and worship. They are also locations for ministry and outreach where people address the spiritual and physical needs of their neighbors.
Congregations that pursue the goal of being good neighbors find that their buildings are their chief assets in ministry. After all, soup kitchens, arts groups, neighborhood associations, day-care centers, and Alcoholics Anonymous need places to meet, and congregations usually possess auditoriums, fellowship halls, and classrooms that can easily fulfill these needs.
One option for congregations that want to expand their ministry to the community is to share space with other groups. Sharing space can be as simple as allowing a support group to use one of your classrooms once a week, or it can be as ambitious as letting another congregation move in with you. Many congregations see sharing their building as part of their religious mandate, providing a home for other worthy organizations or individuals who have a vision for helping the community. Invite the entire congregation to take part in the decision to share your building.
Partners for Sacred Places has been successfully matching congregations with space to share with community groups — artists, arts organizations, food groups, social services, and more. Find out more about our space-matching solutions here.
One way that some congregations have reached out to their neighborhoods is by establishing a “center for urban life”, a non-profit organization, with an independent board of directors, dedicated to community outreach. The center assumes responsibility for the programs using the congregation’s building, such as concerts, day care, meetings, conferences, and other activities.
While creating a separate non-profit organization with its own directors takes away some of the congregation’s flexibility in the use of its own building, the “center for urban life” model can significantly enhance programming for community activities and fundraising opportunities for the building. With a center for urban life, potential funders can be asked to support not a religious mission, but an independent community resource within an architecturally significant building.
Two examples of centers for urban life:
- CENTER FOR URBAN FAMILY LIFE (FIRST UNITARIAN CHURCH, OAKLAND, CA)
- TRINITY CENTER FOR URBAN LIFE (TRINITY MEMORIAL EPISCOPAL CHURCH, PHILADELPHIA, PA)
At times, for various reasons, sacred places fall vacant. Sometimes a congregation decides to move to a new location, or two congregations merge, leaving one building empty. When this happens, a religious building can often be put to a new use, thus preserving a significant structure in the neighborhood and providing a home for a new congregation, another non-profit organization, or even a business or a family. The adaptive reuse of an empty religious building for a new purpose can change the gloomy scenario of an abandoned religious building into an opportunity for new life.
Religious buildings can be adapted for multiple uses. The simplest transition, of course, is for another religious congregation to occupy the old building. However, even this may require some changes, especially if the new congregation is of another religious tradition.
Congregations that plan to move into a building formerly occupied by another group should consider these guidelines:
Live with the adopted building for a while before rushing into hasty alterations. Many original features may be worth preserving. Form a “building use” committee to generate a coordinated master plan for the building’s uses and aesthetics. Use the expertise of architects or liturgical designers to advise on space planning for the worship environment. Retain the architectural and artistic expressions and building elements of previous congregations to the extent that they do not conflict with your faith traditions. Architectural or artistic elements that must be removed should be carefully dismantled intact and offered to other congregations. Consider also retaining these elements in place, camouflaging them with temporary screens or walls.
There are countless examples of new congregations moving into buildings formerly occupied by members of another faith. For example, Omega Seventh-Day Adventist Church in New Haven, Connecticut, was built in 1910 for a Christian Science congregation. Later it served as a synagogue for many years before the current congregation purchased the building in 1992. Each change in ownership required not only alterations to the furniture and the platform area, but also an adjustment in the overall religious symbolism.
Here are two examples of congregations that moved into buildings formerly occupied by a different tradition:
When the new occupant of a sacred place is not another religious group, the challenges can be greater. Nevertheless, there are many possibilities for the sympathetic reuse of a former house of worship, including cultural centers, businesses, and residences.
Not all reuses are created equal. In one notorious case, the Church of the Holy Communion in New York became a nightclub that was later closed down by police. But reuse can be accomplished with sensitivity toward the history of the building and the congregation that once worshiped there. In the best case, a building no longer used for worship can continue to be a source of pride and inspiration for a community as a library, home, office, or cultural center.
The Massachusetts Preservation Coalition and The National Trust for Historic Preservation published an excellent guide, PRESERVING HISTORIC RELIGIOUS PROPERTIES: A Toolkit for Congregations and Community Leaders.
Congregations that open their doors to the community are naturally interested in accessibility-providing a warm welcome to everyone, including people with disabilities. If you plan to share your building with another organization, you may be required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But even if you are not required to comply with the ADA, consider how making your buildings more accessible to people with disabilities can enhance your ministry and mission. The National Organization on Disability has many resources for welcoming people with disabilities.
Here are articles that may be of interest: