This is the first post in a four-part series. Read the next instalment here.
As social need mounts, Anglican churches repurpose buildings to provide housing and community programs
Anglican churches in Canada are some of the oldest buildings in the country. While long a point of pride for many churches, some congregations now find themselves maintaining heritage buildings, built to seat hundreds, for declining congregations.
At the same time, Canada is facing a lack of affordable housing and rising land prices in urban centres. The federal government last year rolled out a National Housing Strategy, a 10-year, $40 billion plan to create more affordable housing and reduce homelessness.
In the face of these issues, how should churches see their buildings? As a costly drain on resources? A piece of history to be protected? Or as a resource to provide something to their communities?
“Given the taxation status that faith buildings have enjoyed since the beginning in Canada, [we should] ask ourselves, as a public trust, ‘What is the best and highest use that it can be put to?’” says Kendra Fry, co-program lead for Regeneration Works, a partnership of non-profit organization Faith and the Common Good and the National Trust for Canada.
“I use those words intentionally. ‘Best and highest use’ is tax language for, ‘What’s the most money we can get out of it?’ I would flip that on its head and ask, ‘What is the best and highest use for community, for society, for social good, for not-for-profit good, that a building could be put to?’” she says.
Regeneration Works has been running workshops across the country “on how to keep your heritage building standing, how to reduce its footprint, how to connect with community to make best use of it,” Fry says. The team also works with churches on building audits, finances and mission. “Essentially it’s a triple bottom line…building sustainability and missional sustainability and financial sustainability.”
“We have, and I think all dioceses probably have, vast assets in real estate that are sitting there, and not [being] used,” says Peter Daniel, asset manager for the diocese of British Columbia. “We must use our buildings much more than eight to 12 hours a week…and we’ve got to connect with community.”
Daniel has been working with the diocese’s asset management advisory team to develop a capital plan for the diocese’s property over the next 25–40 years. The plan includes finding ways to repurpose underused church properties to serve and connect to their communities.
These types of projects run counter to the notion that the church is “inward-focused” and doesn’t pay its dues because it doesn’t pay taxes, Daniel says. In the diocese of British Columbia, “we have over 330 affordable housing units now and hundreds more needed…. We have an educational society and preschools in our various parishes…. We have helped bring 324 refugees to Vancouver Island in the last two and a half years; we’re planning for 320 more…. Generally people just don’t know that the church is out here doing all these things.”
It’s important for the diocese, he says, “that our vision to connect to community is a real catalyst for social change.”
However, he says, it’s important to note that housing projects are not a panacea to save the church. “You can’t expect that building an affordable housing project near your church is going to solve a whole bunch of problems. It won’t. It’s part of something much larger. It is part of change that compels us to use our assets more effectively by sharing them more widely, creating community partnerships.”
Congregations need to be proud of the social good they’ve done in the past, Fry says. “But the shifting nature of society is not now, nor was it ever, [churches’] responsibility.”
When maintaining a building the way it has always been is no longer an option, she says, congregations need to ask: “How can they be partners? Who is meant to maintain that building now? And how can they maintain that good in the world?”
What do we lose when we lose churches?
Regeneration Works estimates that there are about 27,600 faith buildings in Canada, based on data from the Statistics Canada business register that was included in a 2009 survey by Natural Resources Canada.
Of those, 9,000—a third—are estimated to close in the next 10 years, based on data collected by the National Trust for Canada.
The impact of these closures would reach beyond where people worship on Sunday mornings.
“At the moment it is believed that faith communities are the largest not-for-profit landlords, real estate holders, in this nation,” says Fry. “So there’s a great deal of land that, if we don’t make careful decisions, will pass back into commercial landlords’ hands.”
In this case, Fry says, rental costs will go way up for not-for-profit groups, as commercial landlords manage “for money, not mission.”
It also means losing some of the nation’s most historic buildings. “Canada doesn’t actually have a great deal of built heritage. What it does have, a lot of it is churches, faith buildings,” says Fry.
“The thing to say to faith communities is, it’s also not okay to manage just for mission, because that’s partially how we got here,” says Fry. “So there needs to be a balance of mission and money that supports the mission…. If we continually give it away, then we’ll only be giving it away, and it will be gone.”