Co-Director of Racial Justice contributes chapter to book on church closings
Press release for Gone for Good
Coming Wave of Church Closings May Destabilize Communities —or Create New Opportunities for Church-Neighborhood Partnerships
Church closings can devastate communities with the loss of important gathering spaces and vital social services, as well as essential spiritual resources. With as many as 100,000 church buildings and billions of dollars of church-owned property expected to be sold or repurposed throughout the U.S. by 2030, this is “one of the defining current issues of American Christianity,” says Mark Elsdon, editor of Gone for Good: Navigating the Coming Wave of Church Property Transition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, January 9, 2024, $21.99 paperback). “Church buildings are going to become something different on a massive scale,” says Elsdon. “We are long past the days of ‘revitalizing’ every church in order to keep all churches open.”
Elsdon gathered a diverse group of clergy, property developers, urban planners, philanthropists, and real estate professionals to explore mission-centered transition of church property. Centering justice and creativity, examples include the YIGBY (“Yes in God’s Backyard”) model of affordable modular housing; saving sacred places as community assets; establishing rural health centers; and returning Indigenous lands.
Gone for Good calls for thoughtful intervention to prevent church property from contributing to injustice by ending up vacant and derelict, or as high-end housing, enriching developers and encouraging gentrification. As sociologist and Presbyterian minister and Eileen Lindner, one of the contributors, points out, “the closing and sale of a church building may remove the last food pantry, soup kitchen, or after-school program from a neighborhood.”
The essays explore spiritual, sociological, and practical aspects of church property transition:
- assessing the impacts of churches on their neighborhoods, and the gaps they will leave behind when they close;
- developing church property into affordable housing;
- continuing a church’s mission and legacy;
- partnering with Indigenous peoples to return land;
- fostering cooperation between congregations, developers, and city planners;
- transforming ministry in rural churches;
- working with foundations and funders.
Among the contributors:
- Jim Bear Jacobs, member of the Mohican Nation, and director of community engagement and racial justice for the Minnesota Council of Churches: “Land Acknowledgements are not justice. However, if done well they can be the catalyzing spark that can lead to real justice….Given the immoral legacy of how the land came to be ‘owned’ in the first place…land back or land return can be the only real viable option for communities that truly want to lean into the gospel.
- Kurt Paulson, professor of urban planning in the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: “…I wish I was wise enough to offer advice on how to have conversations with neighbors who oppose the church’s plans. The process will be messy and unsatisfying. That’s one of the deepest conundrums of our field of urban planning right now: we don’t have any clear rules that tell us who should get to decide these things….If every established neighborhood gets to veto a property transition in or near their neighborhood, we will never build enough housing within the city for all incomes and all families who would want to live there.”
- Jennie Birkholz, principal of Breakwater Light, a consulting firm focused on improving community health and well-being: “Resurrecting the rural church will require transformation of both the hearts and minds of the congregation to want to thrive again. The practices of isolationism, silos, hierarchical power structures, and charity-driven mission will have to be broken. Rural churches will move forward best within community networks, woven together by common threads of trust and missional alignment….When partnering with other churches, nonprofits, and community groups, they can create a larger pool of people and physical and financial capital.”
- Joseph W. Daniels Jr., lead pastor of the Emory Fellowship in Washington, DC: “A long journey of leading a congregation of fifty-five people once on the brink of closure—worshiping in a decrepit building in such bad condition the congregants had to go across the street to the police station to use a decent bathroom—now a four-hundred-plus-member, predominantly black, working-class congregation….having repurposed its church building and property to build a $60 million ninety-nine unit, fully affordable rental housing and commercial development project called the Beacon Center in Washington DC. Yes, in the nation’s capital we did this—arguable the hardest city in which to do development because of the layers of bureaucracy and politics that occur."
- Ashley Goff, pastor, Arlington Presbyterian Church, Arlington, Virginia: APC “discerned a call from the Holy Spirit to do something radical: untether ourselves form the building and do something different…. The call from God to do something about affordable housing is bigger than our church building itself, so the building must go.” About the Editor: Mark Elsdon lives and works at the intersection of money and meaning as an entrepreneur, nonprofit executive, and speaker. He is the author of We Aren't Broke: Uncovering Hidden Resources for Mission and Ministry. Mark holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the University of Wisconsin School of Business. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and lives in Madison, Wisconsin with his family
The forthcoming book is available for preorder.