“Monetizing Church Property: Some Guiding Principles”
Occasional Paper on Property Management in the Diocese of Olympia Series
The Rev. Dr. Dennis S. Tierney
Monetizing church property seems to be a “hot idea” these days as congregations seek to off-set rising costs and flat or declining pledge bases. Mostly, the idea revolves around using the land that churches own in different ways to create an income stream for the congregation. While care must be taken to avoid loss of the property-tax exemption granted to churches, there are methods available for congregations to create significant income streams to support church activities. But such projects are not for the faint-of-heart. They require significant time commitments, pre-development expenses, and organizational skills. The pitfalls are great; no congregation should consider trying this approach without careful discernment. What follows are ten recommendations. They are not commandments, but they are distilled thinking based on the experiences of other congregations that are doing this work to support their ministries.
- To Thine Own Self be True – one key truth is that any project of this size and complexity must reflect the deep values and beliefs of the whole congregation – not just the leadership or clergy or current Vestry/Bishop’s Committee. Getting a whole congregation to that truth about itself is not easy and takes time and risk. But it is the foundation on which all else is built. This step cannot be skipped or slighted.
- It is a Marathon, not a Sprint – a second key truth is that projects of this scope and complexity take years to accomplish. Having key leaders stay the full course, having patience in the face of adversity and setbacks, having a deep enough bench to weather departures and losses of people over time, are key requirements to make this sort of project happen. Most projects take more than five years to initiate, and some can take a decade.
- You Need Help from your Friends – no project can be done solely inside a congregation. And any project that changes the property use must have allies outside the congregation. The immediate neighbors, the local businesspeople, the local politicians, the local media, all can be friends, or they can be enemies. You choose.
- Know what you know and know what you don’t know – No congregation has the expertise to do major projects. You must learn what expertise you need to hire and then you must choose wisely among your vendors and advisors. You will kiss more than one frog along the way. Do not buy a dog and then teach yourself to bark. But always remember rule #1 – To Thine Own self be True. This is your project not that of your advisors/experts.
- Early Estimates are Always Low – the cost of any project is always larger than the initial estimate. You must build in cost over-runs, inflation, change orders, and general surprises into your budget. And then add 10% for good measure.
- Location Matters – if it is real estate, location matters. Not all church property was created equal. Many churches are on land not suitable for other developments. That is why someone donated the land to the church in the first place!
- All Change is Hard and Risky – proposing major changes in a congregation reveals that its members differ greatly on matters of risk-taking (think about how congregations responded to COVID). The bigger the project, the longer it takes, the more likely there will be carping and complaining. Remember the Israelites in the Sinai. You may lose good members along the way. That is not trivial but may happen.
- Diocesan Leadership and Support Matters – in our polity, you must have the diocese in your corner to conduct any major project. Moreover, the diocese has resources and connections that can help your project. Clear and continuous communication with diocesan leadership is critical to the outcome of your project. And please remember that the diocese has other issues before it. Yours is not the only issue facing the diocese. And many of our diocesan leaders are volunteers, just like you.
- Some Events are Unavoidable – timing of the project cannot be fully controlled. Pandemics occur. Health issues happen. Wars break out. Hurricanes and earthquakes occur. No matter how carefully we plan; life happens.
- Lean on the Holy Spirit – we are players on a much grander stage. We all have small parts, but we each can be great actors. If we lean on the Holy Spirit and walk humbly with our God, we can do much to build up the kingdom. If you want to speak with people who have experienced the joys and challenges of a major monetization of church property, contact The Rev. Canon Britt Olson and/or Ms. Barbara Wilson, Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ballard/Seattle. Their lived experiences are the basis of this article. They are highly knowledgeable, excellent teachers, and great people to know.