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Aging Church Buildings Face a Growing Maintenance Crisis

August 16, 2003|From Religion News Service

CHICAGO — Preacher, counselor and social service provider are part of the job description of the Rev. Jerry Wise of First Presbyterian Church of Chicago. So, too, is physical plant supervisor.

His historic church, built in 1928, covers 60,000 square feet. Its soaring tower incorporates stones from Westminster Abbey, Reims Cathedral and other famous religious structures.

The church is lovely to behold but a burden to maintain.

For too long, the roof leaked, the boilers malfunctioned and the paint in the sanctuary peeled. Wise had to not only nourish souls on Sundays and feed people on Mondays through his church's food pantry but also constantly fix up a multimillion-dollar building.

Ministers throughout the country face similar problems. They must keep up church property that is often aging and in decline. Some ministers ignore the problem and pass it on to their successors, leaving the congregation in a deeper hole. Others cut back on community services to fund building repairs.

The maintenance crisis for churches has worsened in the last decade as urban populations shift and congregations decline, said Diane Cohen, co-director of Partners for Sacred Spaces, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving historic religious buildings. Many former Roman Catholic or mainline Protestant churches have changed hands, saddling the new congregations with grand but decrepit buildings.

The ability of church leaders to maintain their properties took a hit earlier this year when Chicago-based Inspired Partnerships ceased operations.

The group, founded to keep churches open and neighborhoods functional, could not save itself. Support from foundations and private donors plunged after the downturn in the stock market and the economy, as has been the case with other nonprofits. Inspired Partnerships tightened its belt and cut staff before finally closing its doors in February. "It's a tremendous loss," Cohen said. "There's very little assistance available out there for churches."

Partners for Sacred Places serves as an advocate for preserving houses of worship and as an information clearinghouse, providing video- and audiotapes and photocopies of articles and reports on church maintenance.

Fewer than 10 cities nationwide are served by nonprofit organizations that help congregations preserve their buildings, said Cohen. Pittsburgh, Boston, Denver and Kansas City, Mo., are among them. Even rarer is a group such as Inspired Partnerships that offers hands-on technical advice and training.

The Lilly Endowment and the National Trust for Historic Preservation founded Inspired Partnerships in 1991, after a rash of church closings nationwide. The premise was that saving churches saves neighborhoods. "The churches are more than just a place of religion," Wise said. "They are the soul of the city. These are not just lovely old buildings. They mean a lot to the neighborhood."

Inspired Partnerships was successful in getting parish leaders, more concerned with saving souls than buildings, to direct their attention and resources to brick-and-mortar matters.

"We were almost therapeutic for them," said the Rev. Susan B.W. Johnson, the last president of Inspired Partnerships and senior minister at Hyde Park Union Church in Chicago. "Lots of pastors are overwhelmed by their large, older buildings. We let them know it's not hopeless."

Churches often defer maintenance in favor of social service. They quietly go about catching those who fall through the safety net, but their service role has gone largely unrecognized and unrewarded, Cohen said. "Legal barriers restrict government funding. Private philanthropy has followed suit, whether out of habit or tradition. They're not comfortable about giving to local churches," she said.

In many towns, most food pantries, homeless shelters and youth and senior citizen programs are at churches, according to an Inspired Partnerships study. A broken boiler can imperil a soup kitchen at a church strapped for cash. Pastors face choices that would vex Solomon: Redo the roof or keep the senior citizens outreach?

Compounding the problem is that ordained and lay leaders often do not know a portico from a pillar. No seminary in the country teaches property management.

First Presbyterian is a classic example of a church that fulfills a large social-service role despite its own internal needs. The church feeds 20,000 people annually through its food program, tutors youths and oversees a community garden.

Wise turned to Inspired Partnerships a couple of years ago to find out "how deep the swamp was." For a below-market fee, the nonprofit provided a 110-page analysis of the church's physical plant, a list of reputable contractors and technical advice that enabled the congregation to repair its building and continue its ministries.

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