Who Owns Your Church?

Has your church ever felt pressure from your denominational leaders to close its doors?  Some churches, like the UCC or American Baptists, own their own buildings and cannot be coerced into closure against their will.  In connectional systems such as the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA and the Roman Catholic Church, property is held by a wider church body, and that body may intervene for encouragement or even forcing of a closure.

The rationale I use for the connectional model is that God’s Church is not a possession owned by some, but a gift to to everyone.  The wider church is charged with the stewardship of property for the good of the whole Church.  When a congregation of, say, 7 people is meeting in a run-down building and using their endowment to pay the heat bill, a Presbytery leader may question them about whether this is wise stewardship of God’s gifts.  Even if the congregation feels it is “our church”, I think it’s appropriate to work with the wider church for the good of the whole body, not just your local church’s wishes.

There are cases when the wider church may misuse its power to control property.   This has led to some bad press for the Catholics in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, where downtown church closures were imposed by the diocese.  For more on that, read this article.

One of my readers shared the story of her Lutheran denomination (ELCA) forcing the closure of her church against the will of the congregation.  She claims the motive was financial: the Synod was going broke and saw her church’s property as a potential source of revenue.  I have not been able to verify her story with any other sources, but it is a compelling one.  You can read about it here.

In another story, a young church rents their building from a Methodist Conference, which holds the deed on a church that previously closed.  The new church would like to buy the building, but the UMC is holding out for a market price higher than the new church  can afford.  Clearly, wider church bodies are aware they are holding some potentially lucrative assets.

But in the churches I’ve studied, while a few were able to sell their buildings for six figures, most are not that attractive in the real estate market.  A church is a use-specific building.  Some sit on valuable lots, but demolishing them is technically and politically difficult (some cities prohibit the destruction of historic churches, even when there is no congregation left to keep them up).  Rural churches sometimes sell for $1 to another congregation, a funeral chapel or a local non-profit.

There may be a few instances where denominational leaders are attempting to glean value from declining churches.  But among the Mainline leaders I have interviewed, most bend over backward to avoid being seen as coercive with their churches in decline.

What is your experience with the wider church’s intervention in discernment about closing a church?  Who owns and controls your building?

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