God’s question for the church: ‘Are you ready?’

"Next Sunday, I will be joining the Zoom parish town hall for St. Paul’s Church [city removed, but fill in your own]. We will be asking three questions about the future of their church site: 1) What is your wildest dream? 2) What is your deepest fear? 3) What are the assumptions we have that might need to change?" Photo: Alex Brylov/Shutterstock
Published April 29, 2020

As a pandemic rings in dramatic changes across the world, Canadian churches will face long-deferred decisions about property, worship and attitude—but some signposts point us to glory, argues the Rev. Graham Singh

“I don’t like your style of worship. Frankly, I’m not sure I like you!”

That’s what said Doreen to me one morning. I had been sent by the bishop of Kensington (Church of England, Diocese of London) to re-open Doreen’s closed church, following a period of parish meltdown involving the bullying of the vicar by an elderly ex-convict. The 1860s church building was boarded shut, and a neighbouring housing development sprung up, disabling the church drain—the one connected to the solitary toilet.

Toilet paper was not the problem. This was no pandemic, but to the faithful and their pastor, it was a deep wound. The congregation moved to another building. The one with toilets. Now, 10 years later, a bunch of “happy-clappys” (like me) were supposed to be able to help, but at what cost? At times, offering help into a situation like this means that one is swept up in the emotions—of hurt, of pain, of betrayal—regardless of which way you lead.

Prior to COVID-19, many Anglican congregations around Canada were already experiencing similar upheaval. In my own parish of St James the Apostle, Montreal—St Jax—one of my predecessors died a tragic death, in post. Millions of dollars were spent on various important items, too few of which involved the roof, which by then had chronic leaks. The memories are still raw, and the parish was left to consider its future. Perhaps this once-proud building should be sold to fund other churches in the diocese? Or perhaps there would be a new day of hope for a new kind of congregation?

Yet new days require new ways. Calling for a new way comes at great personal cost. In your congregation, you know those vestry members who have been asking for change, for years. You are keenly aware of those who have left. What if they were to come back? What if those ideas could be given new hearing, in light of COVID-19? Could hatchets be buried, Scriptures read carefully and new unity come from a collective melting of golden calves?

The Rev. Graham Singh. Photo: Contributed

First into the crucible could be the idea that evangelical styles of worship and Alpha Courses are a magic bullet. Personally, I am as lovingly critical of this erroneous claim as I am of church pews. I do not believe we have one definitive new model for church in Canada. Over the past five years of my leadership of and in Canada’s church planting community, I don’t really think anyone does. One of the most beautiful signs of online worship in my Facebook news feed comes from our Montreal Diocesan College, where online video-liturgy consists of a single candle burning. No faces. Just prayer. One of the most resilient congregations in our diocese is a very straight-down-the-line, traditional Anglican church. They are a few dozen on a normal Sunday. They were over 100 for their online Easter.

God’s people have held on through the ages, and we’re going to hold on now! Our buildings, however, might not make it. We’ve known this for about 40 years. Of Canada’s 15,000 churches with buildings, some 5,500 reported financial operating deficits over at least one of the past few years. This number is set to triple in 2020. And with the arrival of COVID-19, one must (and we are obligated to) wonder: What about 2021?

What can you hold on to, what should you let go of and what is the shape of what might be coming after? How as parishes and dioceses will you respond to the swarming property ravens ready to claw up vulnerable churches? Herewith are several areas of thought. Call them musings. Perhaps we should all write more about them in detail later—but for now, I pray they are both salt and light:

Our buildings must serve today’s Canada

First, our buildings must be deeply shaped by more than our current forms of worship. We know we need to “share our space.” What we have not done is radically redesign our buildings for those new charitable users. Universal access ramps are not enough. Quality heritage studies (ones that focus more on community history than stained glass) will show that these buildings have changed in every decade of their sometimes 150-plus year story. We need more radical heritage interventions, in favour of de-emphasizing ancient European worship space and refocusing on usability by today’s broad Canadian community —and the related revenue!

Inside St Jax, Montreal. Photo: Contributed

The Ontario Non-Profit Network, the National Trust for Canada and Faith & the Common Good recently published a study of 1,000 charities and non-profits that use church buildings as their primary location. The study showed overwhelmingly that these organizations use churches because of their central location near other amenities, including transport. It also showed that they pay next to nothing in rent. The study concluded that these groups saw few alternative places to go, should those church buildings close. Even before COVID-19 and Imagine Canada’s new call for a restructuring of financing of the charitable sector, the health of Canada’s charities has been integral to the health of our church buildings. We now need to tie those two lifelines together.

We need today’s financing, too

Second, we need a totally new financing model for doing this. We must first restructure the use-case for our buildings—I call this “partial, periodic deconsecration”. But what about cash? Our church (all denominations) clergy and staff pension schemes in Canada hold over $6 billion in investments. Our parishes and dioceses hold billions more. Many of our investment holdings are related to commercial property, which may see a significant reduction in value, post-COVID-19. Why did we not create an investment program for our own funds to invest in our own $16 billion in church buildings? The main reason is the absence of sustainable operating plans and, in short, most of our parish buildings couldn’t borrow money from a loan shark. Why, when we do sell off certain buildings, have we not been able to divert widespread investment in the ones we keep? The reason is not our people, it is our financial structures which have allowed our liturgical and missional structures to wilt. Let us rejoice at this time when the entire world is rethinking social finance! Let us take this time now to do what church pundits have been asking us to do for over 70 years: reform our church finances, radically. Such a transformation would move us from seeing our buildings as withering assets into a vision of them as fallow fields: ready for a new crop.

Repent from our current approach—and start helping

Third, WWCD. What would Cranmer do? We must begin with repentance. This repentance needs to be in front of secular charities, municipalities and our children, who are deeply angry with us. If you’re interested, I will post for you the four-page list in tiny font of the names of the hundreds of ancient churches of New France and Lower Canada, sold off by the year 2006 when the Quebec government and the church stopped counting. The counting must start again, from scratch. The National Trust for Canada puts this number at 9,000 buildings that we can expect to close imminently. The reason we must not only stop this firesale—but actually repent—is that so much of the charitable sector has seen this as an act of real estate hoarding, by us. Hoarding happens when someone holds too much of a precious commodity because of their privilege, circumstances and timing. And then they let the hoarded loot rot.

If we do not radically mend our ways in the sale of churches, we will flood the market to such a point as for properties to be sold for pennies (instead of dimes) on the dollar. Please note, I am not referring to some of the excellent programs for creating affordable housing where a poor-quality building in a suburban location has been sensitively developed. What I am referring to are the hundreds of situations where churches were sold with almost all profits going to private developers, with virtually none returning to restructure the community life that gifted land, tax exemptions and funds for that church in the first place.

I want to tell you the story of a director of heritage planning for a Canadian city who recently yelled, swore and crashed his tankard (of beer) at me. Let’s call him John. In reference to the new foundation we have established to help in this work, John said this: “Graham, you told me you were going to get all of those ‘church plants’ out from renting the cinemas and the schools and back into using the churches. It’s been two years and I’ve got seven demolition orders on my desk! What the **** are you doing?”

John had the right question. What are we doing? As we sell churches to condo developers, whose (pension-funded) business imperative is to demolish and improve density, how are we serving the Kingdom? I mustered up a reply to John. “I don’t have the power to convene all of the churches on a conversation like this, but you do!”

“Yes,” John said,” but if I did, I wouldn’t know what to say!”

Can we help leaders like John? Can we engage that level of city-by-city conversation to address this together? We recently produced a “gamified” version of this exercise in Guelph, Ontario, called “Gotham City,” wherein “Bruce Wayne” agreed to pay for unlimited capital repairs on the buildings of a fictitious city, on one provision: one of the buildings must be sold and the proceeds used for the repositioning work. We have since been asked by the City of Guelph to keep going and turn this game into a key stakeholder exercise. Would we rise to that kind of occasion?

Find leaders for the tasks at hand

Fourth, what kind of leaders do we need for this task? I daresay, it is not clergy. Most of my fellow clergy want to teach, care, pray, preach and preside at the Eucharist. They are not particularly interested in property finance. One congregation we’re working with recently received a report on their finances, from the head of the commerce department at their local university. “You’ve got 3 years left. 4 years max,” it read. And there was uproar in the vestry! This is #clergylife these days, and it is hard. It is so much harder in these COVID-days. We need a new leadership structure. The United Church tried do this in 1926. We need to try again.

Find change liberating

Fifth, if we release the false idolatry of our buildings, church might actually be more effective and more fun. What if we could use our buildings, but not be controlled by them? What if we could be prime tenants in our own historic spaces? Church would be better! People might come back! First, they might come back because 10 of the best-run charities in the city have their offices there. Then, they might attend the church plant that we put in the Sunday morning slot. Maybe then, might they want to discover Evensong? Morning Prayer? Matins? Harmony?

Quit the blame game

Sixth, stop blaming the bishops, archdeacons, left-wingers or right-wingers. But Graham, you say, perhaps we can blame the chancellors or treasurers (harumph!) because they are all lawyers and accountants who should know better than to allow organizations to sell their capital assets for such a protracted period, without changing the management!

Don’t be so fast. Nowhere in the Bible does God promise that blame will pave our path to salvation. Let go. But reader, if you are a diocesan finance director, now is your time to rise up! If you were preparing financial statements for any other organization, you would have raised the three-flag alarm 25 years ago.

We have been living in a state of group-think, of cognitive dissonance, wherein we have all told ourselves that somehow these rules are different, for the church. In a situation like this—one of trauma—blame is a very dangerous thing. We have a living memory of the blanket exercises and the truth and reconciliation work done across our land. Let us use that gift of confession to help us move around blame and towards a new future. And let us be sensitive, careful, loving and gentle with our emotions. How can we do that, without allowing our pastoral care to occlude our auditors?

* * *

So, let us go back to our parishes. Perhaps I remind you of that annoying treasurer who retired a few years ago, having recycled the cover page of his austere report one too many times. What if we invited him back? Perhaps there is something in the raw questions above that could be sent to the great-grandaughter of one of your founding families. You recently asked her for money. How about asking for her to join a national restructuring team? She does that kind of work for her day job. Next Sunday, I will be joining the Zoom parish town hall for St. Paul’s Church [city removed, but fill in your own]. We will be asking three questions about the future of their church site: 1) What is your wildest dream? 2) What is your deepest fear? 3) What are the assumptions we have that might need to change?

How might you answer these questions? For your church? For your life? Think back to Doreen—who found herself prepared and excited for the changes ahead, in spite of reservations. “I may not like you—yet—but what I definitely didn’t like was an empty church,” she continued. “If these changes mean that the kids are back, then I’m for whatever you’re doing—and I’m for you!” Her favourite song was a new children’s song called “Are are you ready, ready, ready? Ring a ding-a-ding-ding!”, where the actions depicted the vigorous ringing of a great carillon of bells.

A few months after the big changes began in her parish, Doreen was on her deathbed, with IV tubes hanging down like bell ropes. With a smile in the knowledge that hard decisions had brought new life, she made the sign, “I’m ready,” and she breathed her last.

The Rev. Graham Singh is incumbent of St Jax, Montreal, and founder of the Trinity Centres Foundation, which works with churches to transform properties for community impact. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea and that’s OK—he prefers black coffee.


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