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Neighbourhood churches find a new mission

Many houses of worship are turning over their unused space to housing and non-profits, raising needed revenue as they serve the community in different ways

Rev. Alex Bisset’s Riverdale Presbyterian Church in Toronto once had room for up to 2,600 parishioners, making it one of Toronto’s largest Protestant houses of worship. But with its scaled down sanctuary today, it accommodates its congregation of about 35.

There's an analogy in the Bible for what is fast turning into a mass movement in repurposing local churches and the property they occupy.

A client from an Anglican church pointed this out to Drew Sinclair, who is a principal in Toronto at the architecture and planning firm SvN, which partly specializes in rethinking and renovating underutilized churches.

In the Parable of the Talents (as found in the Gospel According to St. Matthew), the client noted, a wealthy master entrusts three servants with sums of money. Two of the servants put the money to good use and make more in the end. The third servant buries his allotment for fear of losing its value and merely gives the original sum back when the master returns.

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The master praises the two resourceful servants, but gives the third a tongue-lashing for squandering an opportunity (to say nothing of banishing the third servant to that place of "weeping and gnashing of teeth.")

For Mr. Sinclair's client, it's all a lesson in not burying a neighbourhood church's ability to take advantage of its typically high real estate value, and to instead repurpose the church to better serve the community, while perhaps downsizing its sanctuary for a dwindling congregation.

For neighbourhood churches unable to pay the bills, deconsecration and selling the property to condo developers is a last resort.

Developers bought the former main portion of Riverdale Presbyterian and converted it into three-storey condos. (There is no further financial connection between the condos and the church today.) It’s just one example of how local churches in Canada have funded their operations as congregations dwindle and their land needs diminish.

But for churches able to keep their doors open, even barely, despite plummeting Sunday attendance, there are myriad options, including renovating the property to accommodate not-for-profit tenants. What it doesn't entail though are the usual, commercial options for a multiuse property, such as opening up a ground-floor Starbucks.

"Myriad is a good word to apply to the complexity of dealing with churches as redevelopment sites," Mr. Sinclair says.

The Church of the Ascension in Hamilton, for example, found itself with about 50 or 60 congregants for Sunday services, in a space originally made for 500 when the church opened in 1851. It also had an underused parish hall, which included a kitchen, Sunday school and gymnasium. "They were interested in understanding how they might better use the other spaces that weren't being used for worship [in order to] achieve some revenue," Mr. Sinclair says.

"We assessed how each of those various spaces functioned, and then we designed what amounted to, I'll call them, Swiss army knife insertions into their existing church sanctuary," he says. "It's in a heritage-designated building, so we had to be sensitive to the existing character."

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The pews have been removed from the main sanctuary, turning it into a convertible space which can also be used for dinner events or small, staged performances. The development of the parish hall continues as the congregation and the Anglican Church of Canada decide what to do with that property.

But it's more than just a design and real estate matter. Repurposing a church creates a wholesale rethinking of how to use church space, and even the very nature of how churches function in their neighbourhoods. It's seen as a universal problem faced by houses of worship.

Taking the proceeds from selling part of Riverdale Presbyterian’s property to developers, the Toronto church renovated its Sunday school wing into what is now its smaller sanctuary.

"It's all churches, and it's actually bigger than churches. It is organizations that own land and have some kind of social-purpose mandate," says Michele McMaster, an affordable-housing consultant for Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. The CMHC provides grants to assess and develop plans for affordable housing as part of redeveloping churches.

A key problem is that most church congregations go it alone. They see their financial difficulties and options as a unique set of circumstances faced by their church alone. They might see their plight as the same plight faced by most all churches, but practically they seek individual solutions. And most congregations will tackle this with volunteers lacking any real estate or development expertise.

"The United Church of Canada has more locations across Canada than Sobeys [the grocery store chain], for instance. Yet Sobeys wouldn't run without a real estate manager," Ms. McMaster says. So, there needs to be a strategic template, a common plan (at least a clearly outlined set of options) for churches, she adds, which congregations can look to for help.

One option could be to create a plan across a denomination or "a land portfolio strategy," as Ms. McMaster calls it. "That's what we have helped the United Church develop."

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CMHC has been working for a couple of years with the United Church's Edge program to create a real estate strategy, including an inventory of its more than 3,000 properties. Some denominations have more centralized real estate planning, some less so. (In the United Church currently, real estate decisions are made by the trustees of a congregation. These are then approved by a higher level of the organization. Typically that has been the regional presbytery.)

"Information about the property and what it could do can help the congregation reimagine what its mission might look like in the community," says Robert Dalgleish, executive director of United Church's Edge, a program looking into innovative ideas for the church.

Mr. Bisset believes churches have the obligation to be good stewards of the land they occupy, using it for other community benefit. ‘There are worshipping communities that can afford to keep up the building, even though it is bigger than what they need. But is it good stewardship?’ he asks. ‘Is it a good use of the land?’

He adds that he's been astonished by the high degree of attention from the development community – "really high-level players," Mr. Dalgleish says. He notes, for instance, that attendees at a round table talk hosted by CMHC included senior executives, affordable-housing executives and investors, "all to help the United Church address this question. We were blown away."

This wave of interest from developers and housing agencies is driven by the reality that repurposing is likely facing the vast majority of neighbourhood churches, as it has with the Riverdale Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The church, facing a dwindling congregation, sold the main portion of the church to condo developers in a one-shot sale about 15 years ago, and there is no further financial connection between the condos and the church. The money funded the renovation of the Sunday school wing into what is now the church's new, much smaller space for worship, which opened in 2003, says Rev. Alex Bisset.

The church's history presents a stark contrast between its former place in the community and now. A century ago, the church had grown to become one of the largest Protestant places of worship in Toronto. By 1922, the sanctuary was enlarged to seat 2,600. Now the congregation numbers around 35.

In the 1990s, the Westminster Presbyterian Church, which is affiliated with the Riverdale church (Mr. Bisset conducts services at both), built an adjacent seniors' home on its unused space. The land was leased by the church, and a separate non-profit corporation was created to own and administer the seniors' home. Mr. Bisset says this was more opportunity driven, of wanting to do more with Westminster Presbyterian's land, rather than as a matter of necessity.

Yet even among churches that are still financially stable, the move to a more flexible use of their church buildings and land may become the norm. Thinking back to the Parable of the Talents, it's the idea of doing more with what one has. "The word that I would use is stewardship. There are worshipping communities that can afford to keep up the building, even though it is bigger than what they need. But is it good stewardship?" Mr. Bisset says. "Is it a good use of the land?"

Maybe all churches should be doing more, he suggests. "Are there ways that we should spend money other than heating a building that is five times bigger than what we need?"

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