By Jeff Brumley
Mimi Walker, pastor at Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta, says she never took a course on real estate negotiating while in seminary. In fact, she doesn’t know of any seminaries that offer one.
“But I think they should,” Walker said Tuesday, less than a week after she and the church closed on a deal to sell 3 acres to a developer who plans to build apartments or condominiums on the property.
Pastors need to know how to participate in such arrangements as more churches navigate through membership and financial declines.
“This is a time of transition for churches and I’m not the only one finding myself making changes in property arrangements,” Walker told Baptist News Global.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregation shares a narrative with many of the country’s historic urban churches.
“This was the place to be in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s,” Walker said. “But by the 50s things were already changing, people were moving to the suburbs and some other things within Atlanta made this area difficult” for churches.
Druid Hills’ membership reached about 3,600 in the 1930s and 1940s, she said. Today it’s around 100.
And it made upkeep on the historic building increasingly difficult.
“Every time you turn around there are more expenses.”
Creative use of assets
Druid Hills’ experience is becoming par for the course for similar congregations.
“I run into that every week,” said Bill Wilson, founder of the North Carolina-based Center for Healthy churches.
Churches like Druid Hills are in urban settings from which most of its traditional membership fled or died. Those left behind are worshiping in buildings that exceed current congregations’ needs and ability to maintain, Wilson said.
“And that is the story of about a third of the churches in the United States.”
On top of that, new and young people in the area usually don’t want to worship in those facilities.
“The local megachurch has drained away all the young adults and they are surrounded by people who think their church doesn’t have anything to offer them,” Wilson said.
While many churches abandoned downtowns and other urban areas with the masses over the decades, those who remained behind now face yet another challenge: “a tidal surge back to the center of the city.”
Resurging downtowns are generating restaurants and nightclubs and other venues all thriving with young people.
What they’re not generating is membership for the struggling churches nearby.
“These urban churches that think they are in this wasteland are slowly discovering here come the people and we’re not prepared for them — and we are going to have to be very creative with how we use our assets,” he said.
But throwing money at splashy worship won’t be enough, he added.
“It’s a changing paradigm of ministry away from the attractional model where you have a good choir and hope people will come,” he said. “Worship style is not a predictor for success.”
What is a predictor of success in drawing young people is service. They want their church to be a conduit for their own social and ministry work in the surrounding communities, according to Wilson.
“They want a meaningful opportunity to make a difference in the world, worship and community,” he said. “People don’t want to come to church just to be entertained — that will be the death of the megachurch.”
But it’s these sorts of issues, as well as challenges around property, that city-center congregations will need to address — and soon.
Caring for communities
Though there are plenty of churches which haven’t been able to make the transition, there are many who have.
One of those is The Church at Clarendon, a Baptist congregation in Arlington, Va., that today has a 10-story tower, including residential units, rising out of its historic church building.
The complex was built after the church leased its air rights to a real estate development firm for 99 years.
Completed in 2012, the facility retained the historic steeple and pillared façade of the former First Baptist Church. The congregation occupies the first two stories with the remaining eight floors of upscale apartments, more than half of which are designated as affordable housing.
The church’s heavily remodeled education building also houses offices and educational space for the John Leland Center for Theological Studies.
The arrangement is one that works for both the church and seminary and for the surrounding community, said Jim Johnson, senior pastor at The Church at Clarendon.
“Two-thirds are affordable housing, which meets the social justice objectives of the church,” Johnson said.
The mixed religious and residential use also provides opportunities to welcome resident and community members into the church’s spaces. Some come downstairs to worship and some have even joined the congregation after doing so, Johnson said.
“All without coercion,” he added.
The church also offers a yoga class open to the public.
“We have really good attendance with the yoga, which … communicates in a larger way that we care about our community,” he said.
Abundant ministry opportunities
Druid Hills has also taken a community-service approach to its revival in conjunction with its property sale.
Over the last decade it has joined forces with the local neighborhood association and a grassroots, faith-based nonprofit agency for work with the homeless and other issues.
It’s also opened a 1928 church building — the structure it is keeping after the recent sale — for arts, dance and yoga exhibits, Walker said.
But some of that is curtailed while the facility undergoes renovations being funded by the sale of the property that included an educational building, parking lots, social hall and kitchen building and two homes. The developer was on the property doing preparation work for the eventual demolition.
“It’s double chaos around here.”
Walker said she’s learned a lot about how the real estate and government worlds work in the past year. It was during those months that the church and developer had to get the property rezoned.
In the meantime, Druid Hills is worshiping with a neighboring Methodist church, alternating Sundays for preaching and readings.
But it will be worth it when the dwellings, shops and restaurants open up in a part of Atlanta that’s already teeming with new residences and businesses.
Druid Hills plans to be ready when that and its own renovations are completed.
“The traffic is going to be terrible, but the opportunity for ministry is going to be great,” Walker said.
— Baptist News Global’s reporting on innovative congregational ministries is part of the Pacesetter Initiative, funded in part by the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation.