Sell the Buildings, Call the Tentmakers

Updated:  After Tobias’s Comments, I’ve changed this post so that it doesn’t refer to ACNA.  I think he is right in his analysis.

I believe that ACNA, the new convocation of traditionalist, anti-gay sex churches might be offering the Episcopal Church a gift.

I do believe that TEC’s immediate response toward the new province is justifiable.  In an atmosphere of mutual hostility and recriminations, the suspicion that TEC is on its way to irrelevance and ACNA wants to take all the property, our conflict is placed in the hands of secular law.  It is ugly.  And it seems necessary.  But it need not be.

If we want to grow as a church, we should sell our buildings.  Not all of them, but ten percent.  Let that ten percent endow tentmaking ministry in the church.

Money that could be spent on mission is now used to maintain buildings with decades of deferred maintenance.  Congregations often place a higher priority upon a building’s beauty than reaching out to the spiritually bereft, without taking care of them effectively.  Their pledges, instead of being used to bring people into the light of Christ, are used for building projects.  Although not all building maintenance is useless, it misplaces resources that could especially used for church growth.

I don’t mean this to be a universally applicable sentiment.  Maintaining buildings is effective after a church can afford the staff that helps the laity do the work of ministry.  A building may be a church’s ministry.  But too often, it sucks the energy and resources of struggling congregations who should be spending money on sending people out into the world.

A good example are congregations in Manhattan.  New York City has several million inhabitants.  There are dozens of churches on the island.  However, few of the churches are growing.  The well endowed don’t have to.  But the rest, what will come of them?

It can’t be because there aren’t people.  Redeemer Church, for example, a PCA church, has more than six thousand members and plants communities.  Times Square church has thousands.   People are surely eager for the Word.

Some argue that the reason is because of the type of Christianity being peddled.  Conservative Christianity has stronger appeal.   It demands commitment that pusillanimous churches won’t have.   They are better organized and are more entrepreneurial.  Theologically modern churches, in this view, are simply destined to pass away.

If this is true, then we should sell our buildings.  Sell them to ACNA at a little less than market value.  We’ve been poor stewards of many of our churches.  Time to let them go.  Sell them to churches who will care for them.    We’ve implicitly given up the belief that a progressive church can thrive, justifying our mismanagement by worshiping the ideal of the small church and country parson.

There are good objections.  We’ve sold properties before, without any sense of how we should use the income.  Instead, we continued our poor practices.  We should not sell our buildings merely to create an income for spending irresponsibly on the 1950’s niche model of doing church.     But we should recognize that we’ve mistaken mission for maintenance.  We’ve poured our money into buildings rather than building relationships.  We must stop.

Sell ten percent of all our buildings to endow varieties of tentmaking ministers and clergy.

I’m not sure which buildings we would sell.  I might start with the ones in the worst shape.  I would analyze the demographics of all the churches in the local diocese and see which ones can support paid staff effectively and have congregations who want to grow.    Yes, there will be some places we’d sell that might seem like bad choices.    However, if a congregation lacks resources to care for a building, is uninterested in church growth, and lacks leadership to do either, sell that piece of property, or offer it to a developer for 20 years.    Put the money into triple rated bonds and take out just a few percent a year.

The endowment would subsidize the tentmaker’s vocation.  It may include insurance, pension, continuing education, transportation, housing allowance and $10,000 in hospitality (this would be a necessity).   Some may work other vocations for their stipend, but are liberated from requiring a day job that has benefits.  Perhaps tentmakers would conduct morning or afternoon services in a partnering Episcopal church, providing support or collaborating with overworked full time rectors who never have enough time to write a decent sermon.

Some may be people seeking ordination.  Others might be lay people who have other professional jobs.  Others might be interns in big companies or chaplains at universities.  And a few might be paid, full-time tentmakers whose only job is to bring the gospel to the people.

Tentmakers will have to be special sorts.  In Malcolm Gladwell’s terms, they will be “connectors”  and “mavens” of spirituality.  They will be eager to make friends, build community, and organize.   They will meet groups in bars, movie theaters, providing opportunities for people to serve.  They may invite people they meet to church, or they may also encourage rectors, and continue networking.  They will be ready when people have questions about spirituality, Jesus and God.   I suspect that they will be extroverts of a sort, good at music, with a sense of jouissance.

Such a position would have to have clear expectations and a way for people to be evaluated, encouraged and trained.  But an endowment would give such people freedom to experiment and be creative in their ministry.

Selling 10 churches in NYC could an endowment of about $50 million dollars.  That would allow us to fund anywhere from 30 to 70 people willing to be the church in the world.   Selling an additional 100 (or even 1000!) churches throughout the country for the purpose of funding people, rather than buildings, would show some audacity and foresight.  We would be the first denomination to fund the leadership of the next wave of churches, the emerging church.

ACNA might just be offering TEC that opportunity.  Sell them the buildings.   God bless them if they can do better.

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4 comments on “Sell the Buildings, Call the Tentmakers

  1. seashellseller says:

    Great idea- we have the tentmakers in Wyoming – now to sell the buildings – at least all those with high maintenance.

  2. I like to see thinking out of the box… but I’m also resistant to one-size-fits-all solutions. I’m particularly leery about selling a church in an area that isn’t populous at present. We made that mistake with Holy Communion — once a thriving church, then stuck in a garment district area, and lost for a pittance (and where’s the money now?) And now, as that neighborhood becomes populous again, and lofts and sweatshops are converted into pricey condos, there isn’t an Episcopal Church at the heart of a whole new neighborhood.

    I think there are circumstances where closing a church is a good idea — if there’s another two blocks away that’s doing well, for instance. But there are a couple of practical flaws here too:

    ACNA is not rich — that’s why it’s trying to take the property rather than buy it. I know there are exceptions, but in the really big well-off dissident churches they are not going to turn around and give the diocese 12 million if they can get if for legal fees.

    I’m a little concerned about just how successful a house church can become. Sometimes having a beautiful building — with a parking lot — can be a big factor in a church’s survival. I can testify to that on a personal level at my own parish. Although the maintenance to the “plant” is a chore, I think having the plant is a plus.

    Then there’s that temptation to a kind of ecclesiastical gnosticism that ultimately might lead to the final question, why do we need the church at all — building or congregation — if it’s really all about people just doing good for each other. My experience is that people say they are going to “do good” but need the periodic battery charge that only communal worship can give.

    So, some good thinking here, but a lot of unanswered particulars — those details where both devils and angels stomp about.

    • padremambo says:

      Thanks, Tobias for your response.

      I think I should just let the ACNA part drop. You’re right about that.

      Although there are good reasons to be leery of selling buildings, I think that our maintenance of buildings is much like the way some churches manage their endowments: not well.

      The core problem is that paying for church buildings and paying for church growth, while having a full-time rector, is impossible with scarce resources.

      The unanswered particulars, I think, are in the job description of “tentmaker.” I imagine some of them will be ordained clergy. Others may not. But I think they would be connected with one (or two or three) congregations with churches. They would support the rector occasionally, and also lead seekers into church if they seem so moved.

      One way to look at tentmakers is that these would be diocesan “evangelists” who are taking the church out into the world.

      I think there are people interested in being a part of the church that would prefer to start with ensuring their money and time does not go to the institution. But as the organization gets stronger, the church becomes a revealed source for giving more effectively. These house churches would eventually become more integrated into the life of an existing community.

  3. Oh, the tentmaker part is fine. Actually, I think it would be worth the diocese’s money to specifically ordain or employ (and stipend both) a dozen of so tentmakers to help struggling parishes that limp by on long term supply (i.e., a Sunday service at the “plant” but nothing going on the rest of the time — which I think is certain death). The Congregational Support Plan seems to be working, too. What doesn’t work any more, is the same old same old — in a post-post-Constantinian world where churchgoing is far, far from the norm, just opening the doors and hoping isn’t going to cut it.

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