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Giving It Up For Rent

We’ve talked about how clarifying your congregation’s mission and identity, combined with intentionally re-connecting with the community around you, can reveal new pathways toward thriving ministry.

As we move down those pathways, we may need to leave behind past patterns, and think in new ways about how we steward the legacy of our church property and assets. One of those patterns is something a lot of congregations have taken on over the years: building rentals. We’re all familiar with how it works: churches who no longer use all their space, and who can’t afford the upkeep on their own, decide to take their space and make it available to anyone who will pay for it. And in this way, congregations begin the shift from being in the “mission” business, to being in the “landlord” business - whether they want to or not.

There are at least three reasons why I don’t like to see churches become landlords on any kind of large scale:

A. Rentals form a crutch of financial denial: Increased rental revenues allow congregations to mask the financial realities that arise when donations and mission capacity start to decline. We can pretend we’re still viable, even thriving, because the operating statement seems to balance. But underneath, the disconnect between our ministry priorities and the mission opportunities around us grows larger.

B. Rentals can make change more difficult. For example, a congregation I know in a new, growing community rented out a large portion of its recently-constructed facility space. A large, paying tenant moved in, helping the church pay down its mortgage. The trouble arose when both the tenant and the congregation needed to expand their utilization of church space: the only path for the congregation to grow lay in kicking the tenants out. In the process, a long-term lease as well as a good deal of community goodwill were sacrificed, simply in order to allow the congregation to grow into its own space. Further, the congregation suddenly faced a cash flow crunch, as the rental income evaporated before regular givings rose to fill the gap. Surely this wasn’t the intention behind building the facility in the first place!

C. Renting is not a Gospel value: this is actually the biggest reason I would like to see congregations get out of the landlord business. Churches, pure and simple, are not meant to be in the business of setting up commercial landlord/ tenant agreements. Churches are intended to be places where people develop genuine, caring relationships with one another first and foremost. And exchanging rent cheques for use of space is actually a way we set an arms’-length distance between one another.

In my experience, thriving congregations don’t make a practice of depending on rental income from their facilities. Thriving churches avoid the trap of relying on rental revenue to compensate for mission weakness.

Instead, thriving congregations focus first and foremost on their mission and direction in response to the Good News. They do ministry that matters within their community, and they deploy their facilities and their resources to support those things that really matter.

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