By Fred Koenig
When a church like The Gathering in St. Louis launches a new site, they consider two things: Do we have people in that location already? Is there an opportunity to reach new people there?
When they considered the Webster Groves and Kirkwood area, the answer to both questions was yes. The next step was considering where exactly to go.
They considered buying a church, and went as far as to sign a contract, but during the building inspection phase, the estimated cost of needed repairs gave them pause.
“We were looking at a major expense to get it to where we needed it be, and after that we would have a building with no real expansion possibilities, and not very good parking,” said. Rev. Matt Miofsky. “Once you’re that invested in your own building, it’s hard to make a change.”
So instead they went to school. Talking to the Webster Groves School District led them to the Steger Sixth Grade Center at Rock Hill, which has a 350-seat theater, abundant classroom space, full handicap accessibility and ample parking.
“We’re getting all of that for under $40,000 a year, versus spending a million on our own property,” Miofsky said. “And we don’t have upkeep issues, like worries with the boiler or the roof.”
But being at the school isn’t just rent verses buy economics, it’s also an outreach opportunity.
“It gave us an immediate opportunity to connect to the community,” Miofsky said. The church has been intentional about being good partners, bringing teachers lunches during a teacher work day. And they have given the school a baby-grand piano.
Chris Abel is lead pastor at this new church start. When he gave his report to the Congregational Development Team, he told them that he finds the location in the school to be positive when it comes to attracting new people.
“If someone wants a beautiful, established church, there are tons of those in this area to choose from,” Abel said. “We’re looking for people who want to connect in a different way.”
Of course, when you have mid-week activities, the school isn’t available. Miofsky said that’s not always a bad thing.
“It pushes us to reach out to being active in other places,” he said.
“Limitations can lead to being more creative. We found a bookstore where we can have meetings in their back room.”
For the audio/visual equipment needed, The Gathering went with a company called portable church, which provided all of the equipment, in cases, and a trailer to keep it in. They also provided a couple weekends of training regarding the set-up, operation and take-down of the equipment. The total cost was about $100,000.
“It was certainly the right way to go for us. We could have purchased the equipment cheaper on our own, but considering that we’re renting our space by the hour, the time we’re saving quickly pays for the extra expense,” Miofsky said. He also appreciates have an experienced guiding hand through the process.
“We saved a lot of money by not buying the things we don’t need. You can go out and visit a few churches and see what they are doing, but this company had worked with hundreds of churches like us. There is a lot of acquired wisdom there,” Miofsky said.
The trailer with the gear is parked at the school through the week, and is moved about 100 yards to the unloading zone when it’s time to set up church.
Miofsky tries to maintain a good relationship with the school, not just for his own sake, but for other churches that may want to do something similar in the future.
“School administrators talk to each other, and if things don’t go well at one school, that could make another school decide to not let a church use their facility,” he said.
“You have to be flexible, and keep in mind that you can’t just do things when you want to.”
The church has more than 200 people in worship each week. Miofsky hopes the school is a long-term location. “I don’t see any reason why we would move out,” he said.
North Star UMC in Liberty started off in a school. They later moved to a commercial space that they were leasing.
It worked, but the church had also purchased land to build on, and it was hard to gain much headway financially toward a building project while making the large lease payments. After searching about, they were welcomed into Liberty Oaks Elementary School.
“We’re saving about $8,000 per month doing this,” said Rev. Tony Blevins. That’s a lot for a congregation of 170 people.
The church purchased a used U-Haul van to keep their equipment in during the week. They built custom cases on wheels to move everything around in, and can now be set up in about half an hour. They have worship at 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., and are clear of the building
by 12:30 p.m.
Blevins has been there for two years, and the church has been at the school for about one year. The decision to go mobile after having their own space was made with faith.
“We have some really good people in this church who were able to properly communicate that this is where we need to be right now to get to where we want to go – which is building on our property,” he said.
Although setting up church in school each weekend might sound like doing church on the cheap, that’s not necessarily the case. That’s what Rev. Jimmy Cooper, pastor of The Way in Wentzville, found out. He also rents by the hour at a school. More specifically, he’s renting a gymnasium, cafeteria and hallway, each with an hourly rate. When they first launched the church in the spring of 2013, they would get to the church at 6 a.m. in the morning to set-up, and not get clear of it until about 1 p.m. in the afternoon. That added up to about $90,000 a year in rent. They’ve since gotten faster at setup and takedown, and it pays.
“Now we’re 7:00 – 12:30, which saves us about $20,000 per year,” Cooper said.
That’s still more than he’d like to pay, but Cooper isn’t complaining, he’s grateful. When they went to launch the church, they took 150 people from Morning Star UMC with them- which created an immediate need, not just for seats but for parking places. They found the options on the far-west side of St. Charles County to be very limited.
Cooper also sees the plus side of not having a permanent structure.
“If you want to convince people that church is not a building, by not having a permanent space we embody that week-in and week-out,” Cooper said.
When Cooper approached the school about using the facility, the school was already familiar with his parent church, Morning Star UMC, because morning star had been a big supporter of “adopting” children from the school at Christmas, and had supported the buddy backpack weekend meal program.
“Having the Morning Star brand behind me was helpful,” Cooper said.
Midweek meetings have been held at Buffalo Wild Wings or The Tattooed Dog. A monthly leadership class is held at SunRise, which Cooper refers to as their Grandmother Church, because it’s the church that planted Morning Star.
Daniel Taylor started Elevation in Fenton in February 2012, starting monthly worship at Riverchase, a city-owned recreation center. When the local high school became available, they were quick to act.
The church that had been there previously had been using the cafeteria, but Elevation asked for the Fine Arts Theater. It was a great space for worship – a little too great. “It seats about 500, so we draped it to shrink the space down to about 300 seats,” Taylor said.
They also had access to two classrooms for children’s space. They even occasionally rented the school pool for baptisms. But those days weren’t to last forever.
“It was such a large, bureaucratic institution, that we found it very difficult to build relationships with the school district,” Taylor said. After two years, the school decided that it didn’t want to rent its space to churches anymore, and Elevation was left looking for a new home.
They ended up in Ronnie’s (movie theater), in a space that works well for them. A challenge with many theater venues is lack of classroom space, but Ronnie’s has an area for birthday parties that the church has been able to use for children’s ministry. Movies and worship occur at the theater concurrently, and the theater has allowed Elevation to put up a sign out front, and greeters give out programs to church goers as they enter the building.
“Ronnie’s has been great for us. They’ve given us a lot of leeway,” Taylor said.
When Rev. Jim Voigt was working on launching Water’s Edge in Columbia, he talked to the Columbia Public School District, but found the district was not willing to rent any of its facilities to schools.
“I was told that due to the legal language in the bond issues that have been passed to construct and maintain school facilities, the buildings can’t be rented to any outside parties,” Voigt said.
Issues regarding schools renting space to churches have been taken all the way to the Supreme Court, which essentially left the decision on the matter up to the local school district. Dr. Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center Education Project, said the difference between school districts’ approaches to churches probably isn’t going to change.
“They can decide locally whether or not they want to rent their facility to a church, and whatever they decide is fine,” he said. “What a public school can’t do is give one religion or church special treatment over another. They have to treat everyone the same.”