MeTalk: In Defense of Church Property

churchIf you are involved in a more traditional church, like I am, you know there is no end of time or money that can be spent in keeping up church buildings.  The most original part of our structure is now over 80 years old.  Assembled over time, it’s a mix of 2 and 3 prong outlets, carpets, and walls that meet at odd angles.

Some might argue that the amount of energy and money it takes to keep up our brick clad building going is too much.  I’ve heard it suggested, indirectly and directly, that many of us are more interested in our buildings than we are in our faith.  In fact, bemoaning church property is starting to feel a bit tired.  If you don’t find yours of value, sell it.  No argument from me.

All of this did lead my engineer mind to ask the question, how do you measure the value of a church building?  Some say they are a burden that ought be left behind.  Others argue they are necessary to the life of the church.    How are we to decide?  They can’t all be dust filled warehouses of bygone days.

If I wanted to argue, and I do, that having property as a congregation is a good thing, how would I come up with pretty charts to convince you? [Whom do charts not convince after all?]

First, I needed to decide on a unit.  Like Miles per Hour (MPH) or Dollars per Pound ($/lb), a unit tells us what we are measuring and allows us to make apples-to-apples comparisons.  After a bit of thinking, I decided that the standard unit for measuring building value would be the Person Hour (PH).  A Person Hour is defined as one person spending one hour physically in the building doing something constructive.

Second, I needed to decide if all PH’s were created equal.  Meaning, does it matter what they are doing while they are there, or do you just want a total?  I decided it did matter, at least in broad terms.  So I then defined five basic categories: Discipleship, Administration, Direct Mission, Indirect Mission, and Community.

Discipleship is, simply put, church stuff, things like worship and bible study.  Anything that involves the “usual” people doing things that build their faith, learn, or otherwise help them grow as followers of Christ.

Administration is church work.  Answering the phone, making the bulletins, and other office and financial work required for the church to function.

Direct Mission is anything done for or with the community at large.  Its purpose is not to serve the needs of the usual people, but instead puts them to work helping those outside the church. It is “direct” mission if it offers the opportunity to learn the names of the people you are trying to assist and have a real conversation with them.  Community meals, free stores, food pantries all fit here.

Indirect Mission is also done for the community at large.  Again, its purpose is to serve the community, not the “usuals.” It is “indirect” because the work done leaves the building and is put to work elsewhere.  Making sandwiches to be delivered by others, sewing quilts for the hospital, or collecting food for an off site food pantry fit here.

Community is any time groups or individuals outside of the church use the space for their activities.  Scouting, [Whatever] Anonymous, Mother’s day out, or other civic groups all belong here.  If the group pays rent, and that is the only relationship you have, I probably wouldn’t include them.

Fellowship was another category I toyed with to cover things like potlucks and rock polishing clubs.  In the end though I decided these were more “nice-to-haves” than anything I would term “constrictive”.  Remember we’re after value here.  Potlucks are fine, but they don’t justify a natural gas bill. If you need to put it somewhere than I would put it under Discipleship

Once all this was laid out, I created an Excel Sheet (Download) to crunch some numbers.  I put all the activities that happen on a normal week on a row, entered their average attendance and average length, and viola, a pretty chart!

EUMC Building Use

So this is the actual chart for my church.  As you can see, Discipleship and Direct Mission lead the way.  We don’t have much administration because we don’t have much administrative staff.  Direct Mission is so high because we host a free store that generates a lot of traffic.  Indirect mission is basically our sandwich ministry, which is low because our ladies are machines and can do 300 sandwiches in 15 minutes! [not kidding].

So what does this tell me?   Well, frankly, I think it’s a pretty healthy looking chart.  It also helps put some numbers behind things that I always knew, but couldn’t easily articulate.

First, like most churches, my church is fully financially dependent on the “usuals,” who participate primarily in discipleship activities.  This should, then, be a large slice of the pie because it is (one way) they realize value on their giving.

Second, I also know that new “usuals” tend to come from the Direct Mission and Community slices.  Not directly mind you. But our church is known by these activities and they drive our reputation in the community.  Before I arrived, both those two slices were basically nothing, and, big surprise, no one knew who we were.  Now, we are the Free Store church, or the church where so and so goes to cub scouts.

If I were to see a chart that was all Discipleship and nothing else I’d be concerned.  I’d also be concerned if the Administrative slice was overly sized.  This would not be the sign of a church putting it’s assets to use for the greater good.  I personally don’t see how you could have a Direct Mission slice that’s too big.

Now, when I’m out in the world, and I’m asked about our building, not that it happens often, I can say that 45% of the usage benefits the wider community in some way.  And I don’t think that’s bad at all.

I do recognize that I set out to measure value but really this is a measure of usage.  Value, frankly, is just really hard to measure.  So, like worship attendance, we look for proxies.  Things that are easier to measure that give us clues about what we’re really after.  This, I think, is a pretty good one.  It doesn’t tell the whole story, but it does tell us something.

So, what do you think?  You can download the Excel file here and plug in your numbers.  I’ve left in some examples you can just delete.  When you’re done, do me a favor and send me your information.  An informal survey of what’s going on out in the world at large.  If I get good responses, I’ll post some follow-up analysis.  Don’t worry about being super precise. We’re talking in ballpark terms.