Space-sharing by congregations, installment 1
Who Shares Space?
An online forum contributing to a research project by Dr. Paul Numrich, professor in the Snowden Chair for the Study of Religion and Interreligious Relations
Space-sharing by congregations has become common in the United States in recent years. Consider these facts:
- Half of the responding congregations in a large national study indicated that they share their buildings with at least one outside group, program, or event.  These would include other congregations, community groups, and social service agencies.
- Many immigrant congregations use space in established churches. For instance, the majority of Korean Christian congregations in the US worship in non-Korean churches.
- Churches with multicultural memberships often schedule group-specific activities, like worship services in various languages.
- Some churches open their buildings to groups practicing other faiths.
You're invited to contribute to this forum by emailing Dr. Numrich and addressing these questions: Do you know of a congregation that shares space with another congregation or group, or schedules group-specific activities for its multicultural membership? What kinds of congregations or groups are involved in these space-sharing arrangements?
Selected contributions to this online forum will be posted and may be edited for content. (When responding, please indicate whether you prefer to be named or remain anonymous.) By contributing to this forum, you agree to these conditions.
The next installment of the Space-Sharing by Congregations online forum will consider the benefits of space-sharing.
Rev. Quentin Chin, a United Church of Christ pastor in Massachusetts:
Up until the end of 2016 I served as an intentional interim pastor. Thus, I have served several churches, two of them outside of the UCC.
- The UCC church in Southampton had a half-day preschool program use its community space Monday through Friday. The preschool had no connection to the church other than as a renter.
- The United Methodist Church of Lenox rented its Sunday School wing to a full-day preschool which had classes Monday through Friday. The school took three Sunday School classrooms and occasionally used the community space. The owner of the preschool was a member of the congregation.
- The First Baptist Church of Pittsfield leased its basement to an academic program for single mothers. The moms brought their children to school. During the day the moms would study academic courses as well as receive parenting training. The church also rented space to the Berkshire Immigrant Center, an agency serving immigrants. I left at the beginning of 2013. Sometime later in 2013, the teen mom program left as did the immigrant center.
- Other churches I’ve served had some rental agreements with AA or for one-event rentals.
Barb Anderson, Interfaith Outreach Facilitator at Dublin Community Church (United Church of Christ), Dublin, Ohio:
Our church houses a preschool and the Dublin Community Food Pantry. We have AA meetings nearly every day of the week, Indian (Hindu) dancers rent space weekly from us to practice, a community embroidery group rents space monthly from us, and occasionally civic groups use our space as well. A Cum Christo group (part of the Catholic Cursillo Movement) has begun meeting in our chapel, and we host an Interfaith/Ecumenical Thanks and Giving Service the week before Thanksgiving with Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist representatives giving thanks in their own traditions. Of course our own church groups meet, including WORD (Women of Religious Diversity) which has women of many Christian denominations as well as Muslim and Jewish women.
Rev. Mark Harvey, New Covenant and Zion UMCs, St. Louis, Missouri:
I am a United Methodist pastor. I have been involved in shared space arrangements many times in my 34 years of ministry. Much of it, of course, has been with outside groups like AA, NA, Scouts, Tai Chi or Zumba classes, bands for rehearsal, etc., which we allow either for free or with a contractual fee arrangement. Currently one of my two churches even “rents” the kitchen for use by a for-profit food business operated by a church family, with up-front zoning and tax arrangements.
But let me focus on use by other congregations. Before local church ministry I was with The Ecumenical Institute, and then my wife and I (she is also a UMC pastor) attended an ecumenical seminary (Union/NYC). So we have always had an ecumenical vision for “doing church.” We emerged out of the COCU dialogues and Vatican II with a cross-denominational definition of “Church,” grounded in H. Richard Niehbur's vision of The Church as "those who are sensitive to human injustice and suffering, and respond" (The Church as Social Pioneer). We've always felt we could do this better together than apart. We've been engaged in faith-based community organizing, and in community development and other justice ministry in most places we have served.
My wife and I were appointed together in 1991 to a United Methodist church which already hosted an Episcopal congregation in a smaller chapel. They had sold their property to a local municipality for building of a community center. Down to only 15-20 worshipers with a rector nearing retirement, our chapel was ideal for them. They payed a set fee. Later, after that Episcopal congregation was taken out of existence by the Bishop upon the rector's retirement, and I was back (2009) as the senior pastor of that church and another a half-mile down the road, we merged the two shrinking congregations. The other already hosted a small Korean UMC congregation. Mergers, of course, are never the best option, but in Methodism congregations vote, and that is what both voted to do. We consolidated the merger into the more modern facility, and the Korean church came as well, into that very same chapel. They also paid a flat monthly amount for use of space. After the merger essentially failed, we decided to try to start a new (third) congregation in the facility using the proceeds of the sale of the older building. The Conference appointed a pastor, who was given authority to completely refurbish the sanctuary for “contemporary” worship while the existing congregation moved to the fellowship hall during construction. The new start failed, and I won't go into the reasons. About half of new starts DO fail, but that is no reason not to try. Let me say, it was NOT because the existing congregation resisted, for they did not. They were exceptionally hospitable. Because the congregation had taken this great risk, and proven themselves open to something new, the Conference decided to do a “Restart.” I moved on, and a new (younger) pastor was appointed. They moved the “traditional” service to 8:30 am, and started building the “contemporary” worshiping community in the same space at 10:30. In our estimation the Restart is “successful,” though with just 120 worshipers between the two groups (as one congregation) they remain vulnerable as they will stop receiving Conference funds soon. Through this transition the Korean church moved downstairs into what had previously been a large choir room. This created some tension, as the room had been redecorated by a large Sunday school class which was the core of the previously merged church. But since the new pastor was given full authority, he pushed it through. It was the right move, since the room was adjacent to the “Old Kitchen” which the Korean congregation used for weekly after-worship meals. That space also had its own outside entrance. So, this created contained and separated space for the Korean church, which they could refurnish and redecorate to their own liking. I had worked for better interaction between the two churches, but they mutually preferred the separate space “ownership.” In truth, the separation has worked to foster better, more effective planned interaction. The Korean church has not grown significantly, but they have consistently contributed to the other church for use of space, helping the tenuous bottom-line through the merger and Restart.
First United Methodist Church, Port Angeles, Washington:
Our church shares space whenever we can. We have a large building with many Sunday school classrooms and now have an older congregation with three children. Our space sharing philosophy is, “Make this building a blessing to our community.”
Besides the many meetings for church groups, we have these outside groups using the church at least once during the month:
- NA meets 6 times/week
- Girl Scouts meets 2 times/month
- 4H meets 2 times/month
- Clallam County Historical Society meets 1 time/month
- Sons of Italy meets 1 time/month
- German Group meets 1 time/week
- Local community activist group meets 1 time/week
- Weight Watchers meets 2 times/week
- Feldenkrais exercise group meets 1 time/week
- Philanthropic group for widows meets 1 time/month
We have a strings music teacher who uses the church for a strings camp:
- Mornings for the 2 weeks before school starts
- One afternoon per week from October to February
- Clallam County Interfaith Group
- Clallam County Homeless Task Force
- Seminars sponsored by the community activist group
- Women for women (PEO) philanthropic groups
Rev. Cody J. Sanders, Old Cambridge Baptist Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts:
The Old Cambridge Baptist Church (OCBC), located in Harvard Square, was built between 1867 and 1870 by a prominent local architect, Alexander Esty, who also designed the original Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Since the 1930s the church has been renting parts of the building to other nonprofit organizations that reflect our social justice values at below-market rates. The student-led non-profit Environment Massachusetts got its start in our building and the first lesbian civil and political rights organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, had New England offices in the building for many years.
Today, in addition to a vibrant and growing congregation, OCBC houses the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and two homeless service organizations. The first, Solutions at Work, does job training, provides a computer center, and has a speaker’s bureau, furniture bank, moving company, and children’s clothing exchange for the benefit of those seeking to make the transition out of homelessness. The second, The Homeless Empowerment Project, performs its administrative, editorial and distribution functions at OCBC for the Boston-area street newspaper, “Spare Change,” which is sold by homeless individuals.
On a typical Sunday morning, worshipers enter the sanctuary to find pulpit, altar, choir risers, piano, pipe organ, and moveable chairs in place of pews that can be arranged in any configuration to suit the needs of worship on that particular Sunday. By 2:00pm, the entire sanctuary is completely furniture-free and in use as a ballet studio and performance space. On any given weekday, almost the entirety of the church's major spaces will be in use from about 9:00am until 9:00pm.
Christopher and Kristi Hintz, Marquette Hope, Marquette, Michigan:
We co-pastor a multi-site United Methodist congregation in Marquette, Michigan. Our facilities are used by domestic violence groups, a driving school, a club for children, a mental health organization, AA and NA groups, a philanthropic educational organization, a Pentecostal fellowship, a barbershop chorus, a Tai Chi group, a self-defense group, Cub Scouts, a yoga group, and a youth theater group. The benefits of these space-sharing arrangements are posted under installment 2.
Kevin Kessler, District Executive, Illinois and Wisconsin District, Church of the Brethren:
We have at least four congregations in our district sharing space with other Christian groups. I don't know that we have any sharing space with other religious groups. To my knowledge, the four congregations are sharing space in a healthy manner.
Chicago First COB shares space with a Mennonite congregation, and at one time, not sure if still doing so, with a Spanish-speaking group. I'm unsure of the affiliation of this latter group.
York Center COB in Lombard shares space with an independent Charismatic congregation. The worship styles of York Center and the independent congregation are very different. The pastors seem to have a great relationship and I know they do joint services. York Center has also begun hosting a start-up COB congregation that is focusing primarily on persons with disabilities and their families.
The Champaign COB has another congregation sharing space. I'm not as familiar with this relationship but know it has been ongoing for several years which indicates a fairly healthy situation.
The Decatur COB had owned their own building for many, many years. It was a building with stairs everywhere (I'm exaggerating but in some ways not). There was no lift or elevator to move from one level to the other and the age of the congregation was making navigation of the facility difficult. Some folks were unable to attend because of this. The congregation became acquainted with a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation whose building was all on one level. Their congregation had shrunk in size and they were looking for others to share their space. The Decatur COB sold their building, made arrangements with the DOC congregation, and they now share space at the DOC facility, along with another independent group. So, three groups share one building. They have named the facility a “ministry center” and the large sign out front with the name of the ministry center includes the names of the three congregations.
I see a practical side to these arrangements. This is an option for smaller congregations that are having difficulty maintaining property on their own, and unable to sustain property and ministry, to continue ministry by sharing not only space but incorporating the resources of several groups to make the continuance of ministry possible.
Rev. Ellen Guice Sims, Open Table United Church of Christ, Mobile, Alabama:
I received my M.Div. from MTSO and am the founding pastor of Open Table UCC. Open Table currently rents space from All Saints Episcopal Church in the midtown area of our city. Specifically, we rent a lovely and well-appointed chapel that the host church uses only for a prayer service at noon on Wednesdays. We also rent office and classroom space. Sometimes our adult Christian education classes combine in the 9:30 hour on Sundays to study a particular book because both congregations share similar interests in progressive theology and biblical scholarship. When Open Table created an LGBTQ support group for teens in our city, we began renting from All Saints an unused room in their parish hall which they allowed us to transform for that purpose. We had previously rented from two other congregations. The first rental relationship with another church was nearly disastrous for us. The second congregation was congenial but not an ideal location or worship space. The current situation has been mutually beneficial and supportive. The church from which we rent also provides space for the L'Arche offices in our city.
Rev. Dawn-Marie Singleton, pastor, Oakton United Methodist Church, Virginia:
We share space with two other congregations. A Korean Presbyterian congregation rents our chapel at 11 a.m. Sundays when we meet in our sanctuary. A Hispanic ministry rents our social hall on Friday nights, Saturday nights, and Sunday afternoons.
 Mark Chaves, Shawna Anderson, and Alison Eagle, National Congregations Study, cumulative data file and codebook (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University, Department of Sociology, 2014).