Building dreams

Building dreams

April 30, 2007
Written by Daniel Hazard

Churches get creative with property to make their ministries come alive

By Joanne Griffith Domingue
Apr - May 07

The church's facility is in bad shape, concedes the Rev. John Mack, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C. Members use duct tape on the windows to keep out winter drafts. Worse, there's a lot of asbestos and there's the whole question of inadequate handicap accessibility.

The heat has two settings: on or off. "It fries you or freezes you," says member Meg Maguire. Unfortunately, it would take $100,000 just to get it working properly.

The list goes on.

"It would take $1 million to patch up the church," Maguire says. "And we didn't have this $1 million to bring it to a patched-up state." Then, in 2004, a developer came knocking.

The developer's question: Had First Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C., considered the possibility of developing their site anew? They had not.

But after two years of study, with guidance from several consultants, church members decided a dream was in the making.

Last year, the church sold its "air rights" — the valuable big-city space above them — to a prominent developer for $17.4 million. The sale meant the congregation still owns the land — and soon a new church building — but the finished structure will have a "church on the bottom, a condo tower on top," Mack explains.

"The condo building is absolutely spectacular — something Washington has not seen," he said.

Thankfully, the church's vision has moved beyond merely having a furnace that works and windows that don't leak. Now, they will have new facilities for their social services and meal programs for the homeless. "That's very important," Maguire says.

The building's new energy-efficient, nature-friendly design is certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Plus, the congregation will receive money from a profit-sharing agreement on the sale of the condos, which the church will use to create an endowment for funding low-income, off-site housing.

Creative land deals

With land an increasingly valuable asset, churches throughout the UCC are finding creative, inspiring ways to expand their ministries by tapping into land assets.

Spirit of the Lakes UCC in Minneapolis, Minn., is planning a new building that will include low-income housing for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) seniors.

And, Spirit of Peace UCC in Sioux Falls, S.D., a thriving congregation that is growing rapidly, is building a large facility in a new neighborhood.

Together, these three innovative approaches are a witness that the UCC's presence in these communities is alive and well, says the Rev. David Ragan, the UCC's minister of evangelism for church building development in Cleveland.

"The physical church should be a defining mark of presence and ministry, explicitly and implicitly a sign to the community that ministry is taking place," he says.

All three churches are taking risks, Ragan acknowledges. But these new church buildings will be much more than new space. Each — with its housing, its welcome, its meals — will signal that ministry is happening here.

"A church has to be used by the larger community," Ragan teaches. "Otherwise it is a walled-off prison. These churches are breaking down walls… with different concepts of being the church."

Housing LGBT seniors

Spirit of the Lakes UCC, an LGBT-focused congregation founded in 1988, is taking advantage of its increasing property value in Minneapolis to make real its dream.

"We decided to develop our site in housing — senior age-restricted housing — and market it to LGBT seniors," says church member Barbara Satin, a former national moderator of the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns and a member of the UCC's Executive Council.

When Spirit of the Lakes joined the UCC, it was the first predominately LGBT church in the denomination.

In the early 1990s the church bought property — a corner, three-fourths-of-an-acre lot with a small, one-story, cinder-block, auto-repair garage at the far end of a large parking lot.

The church met in the auto-repair garage. "A warehouse of God," Satin joked.

However, in time, the neighborhood around the cinder-block church began to blossom. Small businesses moved in. Families fixed up houses. And the renaissance soon meant that Spirit of the Lakes UCC's little corner had grown increasingly valuable.

"Developers began to drool over the property," Satin said. "They offered a lot of money, and [hoped] we'd move to the suburbs." But the neighborhood didn't want the church to leave.

Residents told church members, "'We don't need more businesses,'" Satin says. They liked having a church on the corner, not a strip mall, not a Starbucks.

So Spirit of the Lakes UCC began to consider what they could do with their property that would strengthen the neighborhood as well as the church's ministry.

Satin, a transgender woman in her 70s, joined Spirit of the Lakes UCC in 1997 and her concern about issues affecting LGBT seniors was underscored by the experience of a friend and church member, Gayle, a transgender woman who suffered a stroke.

In order to receive the medical care she needed, Gayle was forced to go back to being "Glen."

For the church, this raised the issue of what LGBT members might face as they grow older, so a church group formed — LGBT Generations — in order to educate on aging issues, Satin says.

From the beginning, the group desired a residential component to their program. "But we didn't have the where-withal or the expertise to take this on," she says.

Then, a Minneapolis-based developer, the Powderhorn Residents Group (PRG), met with members of the church to discuss their specialty — affordable, mixed-use housing.

Spirit of the Lakes UCC soon sold their property to PRG and is using the proceeds to build space on the new development's ground floor. In addition to underground parking, the four stories above the church will include 41 "limited-equity co-ops," selling for $100,000 to $250,000 depending upon size and amenities, for LGBT seniors.

In a "co-op," members jointly own the real estate, not their individual units, explains Kathy Wetzel-Mastel, a project manager with PRG. "Limited equity" means there is a cap on appreciation so units will remain affordable.

Residents are not required to be members of the church, and while the project is designed for the LGBT community, it is open to anyone 55 or older.

The housing and the church will be separately owned, and the church's new multi-use facility will be made available to building residents and community groups.

The $9.7 million project includes the 5,700-square-foot church, which is being built for $850,000. The city of Minneapolis is contributing $370,000 in housing subsidy for the low-income portion of the project, and developers are also hoping the county and state will become financing partners.

The congregation used its land proceeds to pay for its new church. "But it's not enough to decorate," says Stuart Holland, a former church moderator. "We might end up standing, as we're not sure if we have money for seats."

After six months without a minister, Spirit of the Lakes UCC called the Rev. James Pennington in January 2007. He calls the church's housing plan, "Fantastic! Brilliant! A way of meeting a need in the community and of providing new church space."

The church could have taken the money and run. "But they are staying and becoming a bigger asset to the community," says Wetzel-Mastel. The Rev. Dr. Karen Smith Sellers, Minnesota Conference Minister, calls Spirit of the Lakes' redevelopment "enormously exciting."

'Reinventing ourselves'

In Sioux Falls, S.D., Spirit of Peace UCC is planning to move into its new 18,230-square-foot building this month, just before Easter. The sanctuary has room for 500 and sits on a 7 ½-acre site at the southern edge of town.

"The structure is gorgeous," says the Rev. Gene Miller, South Dakota Conference Minister. When the Conference's task force on new church starts toured the building in February, "everyone was awestruck. It's a beautiful building."

To go with its new building, the congregation has a new name and a new mission. "We're not just an old church moved to a new spot," said the Rev. Marcia Sietstra, a pastor of Spirit of Peace UCC (formerly Crestwood UCC).

The word "peace" was important, Sietstra says. "As a UCC church we are uniquely qualified to be leaders with interfaith dialogue, especially among the Jewish and Muslim communities."

The church also sees itself as "a progressive Christian voice," says Tom Hoy, chairman of the building committee.

The changes have helped the church to "think of ourselves as a new church start," Sietstra said. If people saw the old church name, they might think "old church, old ideas." But that's not what Spirit of Peace is about. "We felt strongly we needed to reinvent ourselves." And they have.

When Sietstra came to Crestwood in 1999, the church "wasn't dying, but it was in the intensive care ward," she says. Numbers were shrinking. They began advertising, despite the absence of an advertising budget. "Instead of fresh flowers each week," Sietstra says, "we asked people to sponsor a newspaper ad. It didn't cost the church anything, and we had publicity."

There was no person for nursery care. "So we put someone in," she says. "No one will use it unless someone was there." They also started a youth group.

Every time they served communion, Sietstra explained the process, so visitors would feel comfortable, even if the information was repetitive for members.

The church added 39 new members during Sietstra's first year.

Then, the South Dakota Conference came to the church in 2000 with an offer: You work with us as a new church with your existing congregation, and we'll give you the land once purchased and set aside for a new church start.

Sietstra says the church's original building, built in 1958, was a good starter church with a tiny bit of parking. "[But] if we continued this revitalization, we'd outgrow this space," she says. "If we stayed and built on, we would have still had a parking problem."

Some members resisted. They didn't want to move and start over.

So the church spent two years in a discernment process. By 2002, they accepted the Conference's offer and began a capital campaign for their new building.

In 2004, the church added a second minister, the Rev. Jean Morrow. She was drawn to the church's transforming work and wanted to be part of the "creative process" the church was experiencing, she says.

Between 2003 and 2006, the church school grew 41 percent. Mission giving jumped 55 percent, and the budget leaped ahead by 59 percent.

Meanwhile the area around the Conference's site was also growing and developed into a commercial neighborhood rather than residential. So, instead of locating a new church building there, the Conference sold their 5-acre site for $570,000 in 2005, for which they had paid just $150,000 in 1997. With some of the proceeds, the church then bought another 7 ½-acre site further out of town for their new building.

"We want to get there before the houses," Sietstra says. "It's important to time our move — be there first so the new homes find you."

With the sale of the church's former site to a developer, along with gifts to the capital campaign and about $1 million from the Conference, Spirit of Peace UCC is funding construction of its $2.58 million facility.

Sioux Falls is one of the fastest growing areas in the Midwest, Miller says. Experts forecast that Sioux Falls will soon grow from its current population of 130,000 to 500,000.

Feeding the homeless

Members of Washington D.C.'s First Congregational UCC, one of the city's oldest congregations, feel deeply connected to their community. Founded by abolitionists in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, the current facility, built in 1961, sits on the same half-acre site as the original church. In spite of tempting offers from developers, the church is staying put.

"The city needs our presence in a vibrant way, as a place of hope and healing in downtown," Maguire said.

The church portion of the new building, on the first and second floors, will have 35,000 square feet. The sanctuary, chapel, offices, education classrooms, social hall and catering kitchen will occupy about two-thirds of the church's space.

The remaining one-third will house the Dinner Program for Homeless Women, a jewel in the crown of First Congregational UCC's ministry. Founded by the church in 1979, the Dinner Program has operated, since 1986, as a separate, church-housed non-profit organization with a paid staff. In 2006 the Dinner Program served more than 100,000 meals to homeless men, women and children.

In the evenings, 75 to 100 women and children come to the church for a hot, nutritious meal and social services. In the mornings, between 150 and 450 men and women come for breakfast. All food and services are provided for free. In 2004, the Dinner Program was named the city's outstanding agency.

Ironically, above this justice-oriented UCC church and its housed social programs will sit a dramatic tower with upscale condos. The developer, PN Hoffman, specializes in residential and mixed-use properties. "They are comfortable with having our social services on site," Maguire says.

Some have wondered if buyers for $500,000 to $1 million condos might have second thoughts about living above a food program for the homeless. "People accept the diversity of downtown," Maguire says. "Some people won't buy these [condos]. But others will come right downstairs and help out and give back."

Maguire acknowledges that the condo market has collapsed in Washington, D.C., where once-roaring sales slowed to a trickle last year. But "we're barreling ahead," she says. "Ours is the last remaining unspoken for land in the downtown capital. Over time it is a no-lose proposition."

The process is exciting, but also stressful. The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, a church member and retired president of Hartford [Conn.] Seminary, cheers members on.

"As a church historian I know that the finest hours of the church have been when stress is high and risk is real," Zikmund says. "So I keep telling people it's like exercise — it will keep us healthy."

Zikmund resists the idea that her church is a resurrection story.

"We weren't dead. We didn't die," she insists. Instead she calls it "a renewal, revitalization." "It's risky," Zikmund says. "But risk is important."

Joanne Griffith Domingue, a freelance journalist and United Church News contributor, is a member of First Congregational UCC in San Jose, Calif.

For more about how UCC churches have made architectural statements throughout history, read Barbara Brown Zikmund's "Past as Prologue" column for April at

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