Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis

Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis
Photo: Lucas Carter

Partners for Sacred Places has had a long, almost 30-year relationship with Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, going back to the days when she served as an intern at Partners while completing her Masters degree in historic preservation at Cornell University. In more recent years, after she was elected Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, she joined Partners’ Board, bringing her years of wisdom and experience to Partners’ work.

Bishop Baskerville-Burrows sat down with Bob Jaeger, President of Partners, to discuss her love of ministry and the church, and her enduring interest in historic preservation, and how these two passions intersect and reinforce each other.

Bob Jaeger: What influenced your early interest in historic preservation back in the late 1980s?

Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows: I started off as an architecture major at Smith College, having gone to high school in midtown Manhattan where I developed a love for the incredible buildings I saw everyday on the way to school. Before long I moved toward related fields such as landscape conservation and preserving the built environment. My first job in the field was at the Riverside Park Fund, whose office was—prophetically—sandwiched between the American Guild of Organists and Church Women United at the Interchurch Center in upper Manhattan!

BJ: What a symbolic place to be! Were you also moving toward your vocation in the church at that time?

JBB: I was drawn to the church in college, and when I started to work in New York, I attended Trinity Church, Wall Street, and was baptized there. At one point I remember experiencing a crisis of vocation, which led me to talk to Arnie Klukas, who later taught for years at Nashotah House. We exchanged letters for months, and as he got to know my dual love of architecture and faith, he encouraged me to get to know the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture. [Editor’s note: IFRAA’s journal, Faith & Form, has just been merged with Sacred Places magazine]. I went to IFRAA’s conference in Boston, and it struck me: “I don’t have to choose! A whole new world opened up… a world where people were doing interior design, historic preservation, and ecclesiastical design.”

I was a seeker, and was in the discernment process when going to Cornell and interning with Partners. I decided to get my preservation and divinity degrees back to back, and go into the ministry while keeping a hand in preservation.

BJ: And do you think your preservation knowledge and values have impacted your conversations with parishes that are dealing with underused buildings and scarce resources?

JBB: Absolutely! I say to parish leaders that their buildings do not have to be an albatross. Shared space and being a partner with the community should be the de facto position of churches, even in small towns. Whenever I go around the Diocese, I’m asking parishes how they are using their buildings, what’s their footprint, who are their partners. We discuss their opportunities to use buildings in new ways. I assume that some kind of collaboration is possible.

BJ: When you share this point of view, how do parish leaders respond?

JBB: Leaders respond well here in this diocese, because they are doing some of this already. However, I think one of the reactions I get is surprise. “Can we really do that?” My feeling is that a parish should do this not because of the money that is generated, but because that is our mission.

BJ: We also find that churches almost need permission to do things. We say “you can do this. You may be surprised at the welcoming reception you will get!”

JBB: And it goes beyond typical ministries, such as food outreach. You are not giving up something when you share space with another nonprofit or service organization. It doesn’t make you less of a church.

BJ: We say to a congregation that everything you host is important. If you invite another group to do outreach in your space, because they have greater expertise, that is a good thing. You don’t have to do it all yourself.

JBB: One of our success stories is St. Stephen’s in New Harmony. Although they were saddled with debt from building their parish house, when I went to visit them I said how much I loved the space! When I mentioned that I would love to do yoga there, they said “that’s exactly what we are doing!” The New Harmony community really valued the building, so the parish asked itself, “What if we approached the community to help us with this debt?” St. Stephen’s generated handwritten letters to many in the larger community to ask for help in retiring the debt. They received enough support to burn the mortgage not long after!

I say to my parishes that if this small church can do this good thing, any church can.

For me, there are three principal things a parish should do: First, be clear about your relationships in the community; second, make those relationships strong; and third, make a case to the community on why you matter. There is lots of hope if you do these three things.

BJ: Let’s move to the macro level now. Your peer bishops, many of them worried about overwhelmed parishes, can be tempted to close a parish and turn the building over to a realtor without a plan or goal for its future. What are you hearing from them?

JBB: There was a sense that we are approaching a cliff even before this pandemic. Now that the virus has turned everything upside down, it’s even more necessary to discuss how to handle the impending crisis of closing church buildings. We need to think even more seriously about how we engage the community. We should be looking for program partners who might take on a building that we have to give up.

BJ: This topic is the focus of our upcoming Guide to Transitioning Religious Properties, for which you are a reader. Church leaders know they cannot continue owning so many buildings. What is our responsibility to preserve the civic value of sacred places when ownership changes?

JBB: Leaders in the church are urging us to be smarter when we make these decisions. We need to respect the legacy of those who gave their lives to build our sacred places, we need to honor their public value.

BJ: It’s hard to know what the pandemic’s longer-term impact will be. Congregation members may give more or less. Fewer people may come back to worship in the building, or perhaps there will be more. Some dislocated outreach programs may never come back. Arts groups and others are losing other spaces they once had, and might want to come to the church to make a home. Is it possible that civic leaders may take a fresh look at churches at partnering places in the wake of the pandemic?

JBB: When I made a recent parish “visit” via Zoom, their most pressing question seemed to be “when can we return for worship?” I suggested that the focus should also be on how we can make our buildings the center for ministry, especially in an era with massive unemployment, dislocated outreach programs, etc. How can we use as much of the space as possible to meet ministry needs?

BJ: You are raising a larger, more fundamental question. Society has been shaken up, so we have an opportunity to make our buildings the center of outreach like never before.

JBB: When I was at Grace Church in Syracuse, which was working hard to figure out how to serve the community, I pointed out that the church’s sanctuary was just the right size for arts programs sponsored by Crouse College at Syracuse University, just a few blocks away. We reached out to the university, and the school began to feed arts programs to Grace, and the church became a hub for music recitals and other programs.

The lesson of that experience for me was: Every church can do something. It’s just a matter of being discerning about what the needs of the community are, and what the assets of the building are, which can be shared.