A mid century church in historic downtown Bardstown, Kentucky.

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Beyond the legacy church building

October 19, 2023

Too often a legacy church survives, or not, because of choices made about the church building. My church’s recent journey beyond our legacy church building is not for the faint of heart, but with a third of 350,000 U.S. churches today “at the brink of extinction,” we were in good company.

No matter how much and in what ways my church grew as a congregation, time and again our church meetings revolved around the demands of the church budget and the overwhelming expense of maintaining a historic building with over 25,000 square feet of space, including a full-size gymnasium, a commercial kitchen and dining hall, multiple modernized classroom and office spaces, etc. The congregation’s most precious square footage grounded the sanctuary, with its soaring ceilings, brilliant stained-glass windows, astounding acoustics, and vibrant physical space originally designed to seat 1,200 souls.

But if the pandemic taught my congregation anything, it was the trend highlighted by Rev. Steven D. Martin when he called our aging church buildings the “mother-of-all-church-crises.” Despite our best efforts, rental opportunities had become scarce, with many of our Columbus, Ohio downtown office spaces still empty in 2023. No one wanted to rent an old church building with one of three hot water boiler systems left in the city. That said, the church building held significant accumulated value and was appraised at $2.4 million dollars.

We were left with a stark choice: choose to “die happy” and run out the remaining cash in our budget until we ultimately closed the doors, or sell to the highest bidder and design a new future for our congregation less dependent on our church building. As a United Church of Christ congregation, our local congregation owned the church building and held the authority to sell if necessary.

Our church’s journey could fill at least one book, if not two, about what it takes to truly transform a progressive mainline Protestant church these days. For example, we had already engaged in breathtaking, intergenerational, multi-year conflict transformation when the church facility then became our biggest crisis.

Too often a legacy church survives, or not, because of choices made about the church building. Fortunately, my 150-year-old congregation transformed the overwhelming burden of supporting our legacy church building before it was too late, but not without significant conflict and risk. Here’s what we’ve learned.

By the time we reached the third and final congregational meeting last year to discuss yet another deal to sell our legacy church building – after the first two deals had fallen through – the congregation’s dejected resignation had transformed into steely determination. No matter what, we were moving forward past:

– two rounds of seemingly “intractable” conflict[i] that almost destroyed the church and took years to overcome,

– interminable hyper-focused squabbles about “the church budget,”

– unreasonable expectations, chronic understaffing, and crippling underfunding for needed ministries,

– outdated notions of “keeping everyone happy” as we learned how to bless and release those who could not make take this next step with us (even showing some the exit door),

– a global pandemic that brought into stark relief our church’s historic journey beyond the church building.

We were moving toward a modern era of managing our resources with collaborative creativity in order to build a new generation of faith and practice.

Today we lease a pro-rated portion of our legacy facility from the new building owner on Sundays, and we migrated our other ministries across the city. During the week, our legacy facility is now filled with the sounds of young children served by the new elementary school and day care center operating out of previously underutilized spaces.

We would not be where we are today without our brave lay leaders who followed our consultant’s wise recommendations and put substance over form. As our church moved beyond survival mode and “doing things the way we’ve always done it,” we implemented a transformation and growth plan that is reaching a changing demographic. If you visited us this Sunday, you would find a growing congregation filled with joyful people who’ve led the church through thick and thin, along with others who courageously walked into worship for the first time.

Unfortunately, too many churches have become so emotionally tied to their historic buildings that they have created idols of the very spaces designed to warn us against such sin. Over and over again, new people leave the church, especially young people, not over the old “worship wars” about music and worship style, but over the constant bickering and budget squabbles about the church building that can spiritually devour a congregation from within. It is impossible to be effective disciples of Jesus Christ today if your church spends the majority of its time, money, and energy preserving the legacy church building.

Fortunately, my 150-year-old congregation transformed the overwhelming burden of supporting our legacy church building before it was too late. Many other churches have not been so fortunate.

But this journey to move beyond our legacy church building was not without searing conflict and jaw-dropping risk, as we were called to walk by faith and not by sight. God beckoned us to trust not in lay leaders’ financial spreadsheets and projections of doom, but in the abundant goodness of God.

So we remained faithful throughout this entire process. We grounded our lives together in fervent prayer, communal worship, effective small groups, and vibrant service to the community. By the grace of God, we gathered enough momentum to move beyond our legacy church building into a new season of generous ministry in our growing city. May our abundant future provide other local legacy churches with courage, hope, and some comfort during these rapidly changing times.

Rev. Virginia (Gini) Lohmann Bauman (J.D., M.Div.) is the senior pastor, St. John’s United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio. She is ordained in both the ABC/USA and in the UCC.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] See Dr. Kenneth C. Haugk, Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict. (St. Louis: Tebunah, 2013, 2nd ed.)

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