Congregations sell their deeds in order to survive
Some congregations are selling off all or part of their properties, and using the financial windfall not to relocate but to stay put — as tenants, or as owners of smaller sections of their original church buildings, or as business partners.
On Dec. 9, six days after 3,500 devotees of Bob Dylan pack the grandly renovated Met Philadelphia, another audience, one carrying Bibles and holy oil, will gather in the North Broad Street concert venue to worship an even higher power.
The congregation of Holy Ghost Headquarters will be returning for its first Sunday service in the refurbished building — a historic, former opera house that had been church-owned for 60 years. Members had saved the 39,000-square-foot structure from demolition and labored to maintain it, only to have the burden grow too onerous for the Pentecostal flock of a few hundred.
So, in 2012, Holy Ghost Headquarters sold a 50 percent stake in the property to developer Eric Blumenthal for $1, a share in rental profits, and the right to continue worshiping there. The deal opened the way for a $56 million makeover of the old Metropolitan Opera House, built in 1908 by theater impresario Oscar Hammerstein I. For the church, it meant survival in the transfigured Francisville neighborhood at a time of life-threatening crises for congregations nationwide.
Holy Ghost Headquarters' strategy of giving up property ownership in order to keep a roof over its head is catching on with other churches whose aging, often oversize buildings are draining their budgets dry. Some are selling off all or part of their properties, and using the financial windfall not to relocate but to stay put — as tenants, or as owners of smaller sections of their original buildings, or, in Holy Ghost Headquarters' case, as business partners.
"This whole area has changed, and this new generation [of young people] is totally different," said the Rev. Mark Hatcher, the pastor. "You can't keep up with changes in your neighborhood with a raggedy building. It becomes financially necessary to change [your approach]. We chose to stay and work it out with a developer."
Holy spaces might be transformed into condos, apartments, community centers, concert venues — mixed-use secular and divine.
>> READ MORE: Here's what the new Met Philadelphia will look like
Mount Airy Presbyterian Church has sold its buildings to developer Ken Weinstein, who is turning the former education wing into 19 condominiums. The church can remain in the sanctuary for at least 10 years.
Kensington United Methodist Church, known as "Old Brick" church, has an agreement of sale to Rabbi Elliot Kopel, of Aish Philadelphia synagogue in Bala Cynwyd. He plans to turn it into condos and renovate a section of the property as a small sanctuary where the congregation can continue to worship.
In Atlantic City, Asbury United Methodist Church is exploring selling part of its property to developers for a 15- to 20-story affordable-housing apartment building.
"If the congregation decides it wants to remain together at the same location, [these arrangements] make perfect sense," said Rachel Hildebrandt, senior program manager at Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia nonprofit that helps struggling congregations and is creating a resource guide for those considering a transition in ownership.
Although most buyers are developers converting properties into residential complexes, Hildebrandt said, the new owner could be a senior center, or an early-childhood education business. Sometimes, the ownership change is from one religious group to another, from the struggling to the strong.
In 2016, Congregation Hesed Shel Emet (Mercy and Truth) synagogue in Pottstown sold its then 54-year-old building to the growing Bethel Community Church, which had been renting space for a year. Now, the synagogue is the tenant. The same thing happened in Center City with First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, which swapped ownership with former-tenant Liberti, associated with the Reformed Church in America.
New Spirit Community Presbyterian Church sold its Kingsessing building in 2013 to Wayne Presbyterian Church, which turned it into the Common Place, a community center that now not only houses New Spirit but also an after-school program, social service agency, neighborhood advocacy group, and spiritual direction center.
Such multi-use occupancy has a biblical basis, said Bishop John Schol, of the 550-congregation United Methodist Church of Greater New Jersey. The first Solomon's Temple not only was a place of worship, but also had a market around it and other gathering spaces. John Wesley, cofounder of Methodism, used his first building, an old London foundry, as a sanctuary, a library, a home for widows and orphans, and the headquarters of a feeding program.
"From the earliest times, where people worship was much more than a place where people gathered for worship," Schol said. "It was a gathering center or economic center, where people bought and sold things."
The Greater New Jersey Methodist Church has started an initiative called the Nehemiah Properties, which helps congregations explore repurposing their properties in ways that benefit their neighborhoods. In addition to the proposed Atlantic City project, a 25-story affordable-housing apartment building is being developed at a church in Jersey City, Schol said.
Ideally, the transition helps churches reimagine their role in the community, Hildebrandt said. It can be the shot in the arm if done by a still-viable congregation.
Freed from the weight of building upkeep, Mount Airy Presbyterian Church has been able to focus more on outreach and ministry, and is seeing renewed interest from neighbors in their 30s and 40s, said the Rev. Anna Grant-Borden, the pastor.
Hoping its sale will be a lifeline, First Baptist Church in Center City is looking for a new pastor and viewing the transition as a start-up. It passed on a deal with a developer to convert the first floor, including the sanctuary, for retail and reserve space in an upstairs chapel for congregants. Instead, the church chose to sell to its tenant, Liberti, which has attracted young believers First Baptist lost.
"It was important that [a church] presence remain at 17th and Sansom," said Roy Harker, First Baptist's executive director.
The congregation has had to adjust to life as a tenant. Instead of the main sanctuary, members worship in that upstairs chapel. It's heart-wrenching to walk by the "beautiful sanctuary," Harker said.
A church that elects to sell and stay must engage in serious self-examination, Hildebrandt said. Is it strong enough to survive and reconnect with the neighborhood? Or is it just postponing a sad demise?
Kensington United Methodist Church is asking itself those questions as it plans a sale.
On a recent Sunday, a group of about 10 worshipers gathered for a sermon by their pastor, the Rev. Marcia Lincoln-Heinz, who divides her time between Old Brick and Fox Chase United Methodist Church in Northeast Philadelphia.
"The congregation has an assignment to pray and discern about who we are, what we are, and why do we exist as a congregation?" Lincoln-Heinz said. "Why would people want to come to be a part of us? What do we have to offer? We have to know that before we can build and grow."
Lincoln-Heinz is holding fast to a belief in the church's future.
"There's a lot of work ahead," she said, "but I believe the Holy Spirit can do anything."