From The Rev. Dr. Dennis S. Tierney, Diocesan Property Manager:
The phrase “Maybe later” was coined by the nicest and kindest member of a tour my wife and I took to China shortly after I retired. It was her way of putting off vendors importuning her to buy their wares without offending them. It never worked, of course, as they failed to get the indirect refusal embedded in her polite speech. That phrase became a “code phrase” during the rest of our trip as a polite way of saying, “Well, that won’t happen ever.”
I use that phrase to capture the challenge and the dilemma that churches always face in providing sufficient attention and funds to maintain their physical facilities over time. For many congregations, especially those facing difficult times economically, when it comes to putting money aside for maintenance or future replacement of capital facilities, the answer is, “Maybe later.” This can work for a period of time until another popular culture phrase is invoked, taken from the Fram Oil Filter ads, “You can pay me now or pay me later.” The implication of that ad is that failure to pay a reasonable amount now in maintenance costs can result in large payments later for major repairs or complete replacements.
What follows will be a series of papers that are practical guides for clergy, vestries, or bishop’s committees to use in considering their obligations and plans for maintenance of their buildings and other facilities. This series is not intended to be an exhaustive guide. It recognizes that all congregations are different and will have different issues to confront in building a plan for maintaining their facilities for the future.
The first reality is that all physical structures, all equipment, indeed, all objects, once created, begin to deteriorate to the point of eventual failure. That is also true for human beings. Some do so quickly while others can take years if not decades but fail they will. However, proper and regular maintenance can forestall that eventual failure and ensure dependable service until the item reaches the end of its useful life. In our modern world, some obsolescence appears to be engineered into the item while in other cases, the materials used in the making of the object wear out and fail regardless of maintenance.
A second reality, important to churches, is who pays when a major item or structure fails. Without any maintenance or replacement funds set aside by a congregation, the individuals attending the church when the failure occurs will bear the cost of its repair or replacement. This puts far more of the burden and cost on them rather than on the people who passed budgets in years previous with no thought to maintenance and replacement.
A third reality is that when churches face difficult economic decisions, “kicking the can down the road” is all too often the common response. Many churches avoid making hard decisions by delaying for another year or for some rosier future – “maybe later.” It is also the case that salaries must be paid, utilities must be paid, current dilemmas demand attention, while future problems are pushed down the list of things be to funded, and, all too often, never get funded.
Finally, some congregations engage in “faith-based budgets” which combine prayer and hope with “maybe later.” Sometimes, this works; sometimes not. A surprise gift, a timely end-of-life bequest might happen but it can be exhausting for congregation leaders to depend on such outcomes.
The Board of Directors urges all congregations to devote some time and talent and treasure to thinking through the necessary research and policy development to inform stewardship groups and the entire congregation of what it will take to keep doing ministry in their location. The Board suggests a retreat devoted to this work to prepare a plan if one does not currently exist and to making said plan part of the annual goals of a congregation. This is on-going work just as congregational development is on-going work.
To support this work, the Board of Directors helped every mission congregation do a professional building inspection during 2018-2019. Those inspections provided each congregation and the diocese with a clear picture of the deferred maintenance issues across our missions. The overall picture was better than some feared. There were expensive items for some congregations but much of the work was still minor in cost but important to the safety and comfort of the congregations. Moreover, the Board maintains a fund to assist mission congregations with repairs that their budgets cannot afford. These are grants, not loans.
Parishes are expected to be financially able to maintain their structures, but the diocese does have annual funds to assist parishes when they face building emergencies. Larger repair projects can qualify for loan funds from the diocese, but these must be repaid, generally in less than ten years.
February’s paper will focus on practical steps to building a maintenance plan for congregations. March’s paper will focus on recommended actions for those adopted and funded maintenance plans.
This is rarely seen as glamorous work. Few clergy studied building maintenance in seminary. It is not often noted in the Gospels that someone had to provide housing, food, and resources for Jesus and the apostles. We lean toward being Mary, not Martha. But without a Martha, Mary, and Jesus, might well have gone hungry. To welcome the stranger and provide for the needy, churches need to be safe, dependable “third” places for the world. When we are called to follow Jesus, we should never answer, “Maybe later.”