More than just tuckpointing: What to do with our aging building?

April 6, 2023

By Rev. Rick King

Bob Olsen’s report reached me in an email at the end of March, confirming our suspicion: the roof and brick walls of our education wing need a ton of work to still be standing in 10 years.

Our well-used building is a source of pride to us. In last week’s Seeking and Serving column, I related what wider community members told us at a community engagement event we held on March 25 about our building and what would make its spaces more attractive to renters. And they gave us some great ideas for uses we haven’t even thought about. Our building can be an even greater community resource.

But the envelope of the building itself is in trouble. Unlike 1850s buildings, 1950s buildings like ours are noted for looking new enough to not need significant work, but many congregations have a rude awakening to the (literal) fallout of deferred maintenance.

So even with a building that looks relatively new, it’s good to have a professional inspection periodically. The FHC Sanctuary and the Court were built in 1953; the addition that includes the Gathering Room and the beautiful Garden Avenue entrance was built in 2003.

I will save the details of the masonry inspections for a fuller report by our Property Ministry Team, but the gist is this: the roof and brickwork of the education wing need major work to prevent further water damage, and this needs to happen before the more cosmetic work to make the spaces within it more attractive to community partners.

Prince Rivers, writing in the Faith and Leadership blog from Duke Divinity School near the end of last year, notes that we are not alone: As we did, many churches that pivoted to fully online programming during the pandemic reopened their buildings to a lot lower attendance at worship and congregational activities. “Even the most vibrant have not fully rebounded to their pre-pandemic attendance numbers. Many churches that once offered three or more Sunday services can now comfortably serve attendees with one or two services.”

As a result, many are in the midst of rethinking how they use their buildings—mainly, what to do with our aging, expensive buildings that we aren’t using to their full potential, or in the same ways we used them for decades?

Buildings are often symbols of local churches’ identities, some historical masterpieces from significant architectural periods that are eligible to be on the National Register of Historic Places.

But all of them are also just containers where ministry and service can happen, home bases for their congregations’ missions.

We’ve been taking baby steps in the direction of rethinking our building’s uses, both for the wider community as well as the congregation. The bottom line is, we don’t get to keep this building unless we share it, and we can’t share it without keeping it up and optimizing its usefulness.

One thing I’m going to do on my sabbatical July through September is learn all I can about exemplary churches’ use of their buildings for community-based ministry and mission. What have they needed to do to their buildings, how have they engaged their community partners in common-good endeavors that are transforming the lives not just of parishioners but citizens in their neighborhoods?

If YOU know of a church of a similar size as ours in a similar, neighborhood setting from whom we could learn how to do this better—would you let me know?