Transitioning Older and Historic Sacred Places: A New Tool for Congregations Contemplating the Sale of Property

By Special Contributor posted 11-02-2021 08:00


by Rachel Hildebrandt 

In every city, suburb, small town, and rural community across America, congregations in older and historic properties are transitioning their buildings. This is due to well-documented trends signaling the decline of faith-based institutions. For the first time in 80 years, more than half of American adults report that they do not belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Not coincidentally, congregations are shrinking—failing to attract younger folks or young families— seeing declines in giving, and deferring the care of their buildings. 

These dynamics are leading many congregations to sell their buildings—too often to developers who either demolish the irreplaceable historic structures or adapt them for private use. This is most common in communities experiencing significant development pressure, like Philadelphia, the location of Partners for Sacred Places’ headquarters, and similar cities across the country.

An overhead shot of Jackson, Oregon where the National Trust easement staff can easily see the boundaries of the properties.

A Preservation Response to an Emerging Challenge 

In response, Partners for Sacred Places has developed a written resource for congregations beginning to contemplate the sale of property: Transitioning Older and Historic Sacred Places: Community-Minded Approaches for Congregations and Judicatories. Made possible by a generous grant from the 1772 Foundation, this resource walks congregations through self-assessment and discernment processes and also presents practical guidance and case studies. Ultimately, our goal is to persuade congregations to see their properties as more than just real estate, and to pursue preservation-sensitive outcomes.

Transitioning Older and Sacred Historic Places is rooted in the following beliefs regarding the value of sacred places:

  • Older sacred places have a character and a soul that shape the life and values of congregations that occupy them, including their worship and music, their education and teaching, and their outreach to members and non-members alike.
  • Older and historic houses of worship embody the histories of communities, congregations, families, and individuals.
  • Most religious buildings represent decades (or even centuries) of investment, sacrifice, and service.
  • Through their abiding presence, older and historic houses of worship add cultural value and architectural character to their communities.
  • Religious buildings anchor communities, providing a sense of stability over time.
  • Congregations that steward historic properties provide a significant and measurable public value to their communities through the ministries, programs, and activities that utilize their buildings and grounds.
  • Older and historic properties are uniquely positioned to serve their communities by offering a diversity of space types and sizes that allow for activities from large, community-wide gatherings to smaller classes and workshops. 

It is very difficult to change the trajectory of a building’s fate when the property owner has made up their mind. This is the core reason for the Guide, which is intended for faith leaders who have just started to recognize that they may not be able to remain in their properties for much longer and denominational officials who may be overseeing congregations that need to have tough conversations about their future. The sooner that these folks begin working through the Guide, the better—because if the conversation happens before the sale of property is an absolute necessity, the options are few. Time allows for congregations to reflect on their values and story, and to try to find a buyer that is aligned with their hope for their legacy. 

What the Guide Offers to Congregations 

The Guide begins with an open-ended self-assessment that is intended to spark internal reflection and conversation. It prompts congregations to ask themselves questions such as: What size is your congregation? What do membership and giving trends reveal? Has your congregation lost its sense of purpose? Does your congregation have a good understanding of the building’s condition and needs? Does your congregation have the capacity to maintain the building in good repair? Does your congregation have the ability to respond to unexpected capital expenses? Is your building fully utilized, and if not, is your congregation open to sharing space in new and substantial ways? 

The self-assessment is followed by an overview of a discernment process that congregations can employ. Many congregations know that they need to begin to talk about transitioning their property, but do not know where to start or who to engage. We suggest a six-to-nine-month process that permits periods for information gathering, evaluation, reflection, and decision-making and also suggests the roles for clergy, members, civic leaders and program partners, and the governing body (if there is one). 

As preservation professionals, we are aware of inspiring examples of adaptive reuse and creative models for sustaining cultural assets. Clergy and denominational leadership are much less aware of the possibilities. Clergy’s knowledge of what is possible is usually limited to what they have heard from other clergy. Denominational leadership, from what we have seen, typically do not approach the sale of property strategically or with sensitivity to historic preservation. In the Guide, we present several case studies, organized from least amount of change involved (remaining in place with new uses and/or the sale of nonessential assets) to most (transitioning to a new use). 

The case of Mt. Airy Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia illustrates a model that is likely to become commonplace, as congregations learn that it is possible to sell their houses of worship and also remain on site. In 2010, the congregation set out to sell its building to a real estate developer who would allow the congregation to retain use of the historic sanctuary and redevelop the remainder of the long-underutilized property. Ken Weinstein of Philly Office Retail emerged as the likeliest buyer. With a strong track record of preservation-sensitive projects in the Northwest neighborhoods of Philadelphia, Weinstein was the right fit. The project experienced several delays, but today, the residential units that were carved out of the former education wing are on the market, and the church leases the sanctuary and basement for $1 a year. 

Lastly, the Guide contains practical guidance related to deaccessioning property. This is where we summarize historic preservation tools such as landmarking and easements and encourage congregations to get in touch with preservation professionals. We also cover the topics of assembling a team and engaging the right kinds of professionals; appraising the property; listing the building for sale; evaluating potential buyers and uses for compatibility; negotiating a sale agreement; and relocating items of historical or artistic value. 

Transitioning Older and Historic Sacred Places: Community-Minded Approaches for Congregations and Judicatories is the only publication of its kind. Other resources deal with the topic of transitioning property, but they treat buildings as solely financial assets to be tapped in order to support a new future elsewhere or to benefit the judicatory in absence of the congregation. 

The Guide is available online here. Physical copies are available for sale.

Rachel Hildebrandt is the sr. program manager at Partners for Sacred Places.


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