In my church’s case, there is (or rather was) a lot of stuff in our building. We’ve filled a dumpster with trash, donated to area non-profits, recycled more paper than seems possible. And we are not done!
Ashburnham Community Church (MA) has chosen to sell our building. It was a big decision, years in the making, and a very tough decision right up to the vote. The unanimous vote. We are excited for the Arts Center that will fill our space. We are anxious about the new way we will be church by renting back our sanctuary. And we are exhausted by going through our stuff.
For the most part, the 9,000 square feet of space (plus balcony! plus attic!) is not overly full of clutter. For the most part, we’ve kept up with repairs and maintenance. For the most part, we are a people willing to imagine having less stuff. And yet there is so much history, so many connections to people, so much of our heart in this stuff. But who needs meaningful, but broken, Royal chairs? Hundreds of feet of mahogany pews? Choir robes that haven’t been used in twenty years?
I remember as a teen being horrified by my church arguing so long and passionately about what colors to use to paint the sanctuary. And the cost! “Why don’t we spend that money on food for people who are hungry?” I asked. My father asked how we could do ministry if we didn’t maintain the building.
I’ve remained skeptical of buildings. The first church I served met in a restaurant. The church I started meets in a church parking lot in Worcester. Buildings are not essential to church. And yet buildings matter. My dad’s question was right on.
For small churches especially, and in small towns, a church building can be a beacon, marking the center of downtown—both the center of the buildings, and the center of town life. People know our food pantry by the red doors facing the street. People know our welcome by the rainbow flag. Everyone in town recognizes the Christmas candles shining into the darkness of winter through our very congregational clear glass windows. For many churches, a steady flow of renters, 12-step meetings, and children’s programming presents a vitality much greater than the attendance on Sunday morning. The building isn’t the church, but it certainly is a marker of what church is.
Sometimes a worn-out building is a sign of a worn-out congregation. Sometimes an un-repaired roof is a sign of unwillingness to change with the times, or a hint of the battle over which repairs are necessary or cosmetic. Sometimes the clutter inside matches the inability of a congregation's members to let go of the way the church used to be. The building isn’t the church, but it might point to something about the struggles the church is facing.
What is most important to remember is that the question “What shall we do with our building?” is a mission question. It often feels like a money question, but as a church, the first question is about God’s mission in our town, at this time. What is God calling us to do as the body of Christ, and what role does our building play in that? In the small church collaborative, each congregation will engage the community to find their mission. They will work to figure out what people in town know about their church besides the fact that it is the building with the white steeple. Once we know our mission, we will explore how our building helps or hinders that calling.
There are churches that have discovered that a well-kept building can be rented, loaned, and filled with services your community needs. Others have discovered that that requires more work than your congregation can handle. There are churches that have found new life by selling their building—the increase in funds and decrease in work freed them to engage the community in new ways. Others found that the loss of the building felt like a death in the family of God—it could be the final step before ending a ministry.
What is in your building? What can you do to get rid of the old and make space for the new? What can you do to wrestle with how it is costing you too much, or full of potential? Can you figure out your mission first, and let the decision about your building follow that mission, rather than forcing the mission to fit the building?
In the end I was right as a kid—the church is about the ministry, not about the building. And my dad was right, too. God is calling us to a particular mission in our community. With God’s help we must figure out how our buildings fit into that mission. We have to either paint the ceiling or let go and find ministry in a new place. Either way you’ll probably need a dumpster.
For more ideas about innovation and transformation, visit The Center for Transformational Leadership - Southern New England Conference of the UCC (sneucc.org)
Photo by Harry Miller on Unsplash
The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Mae Magill (Liz) is a writer, pastor, and workshop leader living in Berlin, Massachusetts. She is the author of Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Growing Relational Food Ministries and the founder of Worcester ...