Former Houses of Worship with a Future


A solemn part of the Annual Conference every year is the announcement of the closure of churches. In the Missouri Conference, often, the number is around 10. This year it was up to 30. But that trend isn’t just in Missouri or the United Methodist Church. 

“We project that more than 100,000 houses of worship will close by 2030,” said Mark Elsdon, author of We’re Not Broke. Elsdon was on a panel addressing the Religion News Association on this topic earlier this year. He said for many houses of worship, upcoming closure is inevitable. 

“We have too many churches with too much space for the way people are engaging in religion at this time,” he said. “Right-sizing must go on.” 

Once a house of worship is sold, it will unlikely be a church again. 

“When something changes hands from being held for the greater good to becoming part of someone’s private wealth, it doesn’t usually change back,” Elsdon said. 

That’s why Elsdon encourages churches on a trajectory toward closure to take a proactive, even optimistic, view of what can become of their building in the future. He has a new book coming out on the topic called Gone for Good? Negotiating the Coming Wave of Church Property Transition, with an anticipated publication date of January 2023. Elsdon predicts that many small towns still have eight churches remaining and may see five close. Small cities may see 40 churches close, while large cities may see 300-400 churches. 

“It’s going to have a big impact on the lives of people in those communities,” he said. “We should be thinking about opportunities for affordable housing, grocery stores in food deserts and centers for early childhood education.”

Rev. Joe Daniels, senior pastor of Emory UMC in Washington, D.C., described how his church, located near the old Walter Reed military hospital, closed almost three times since 1992 and practically sold twice. But revitalization brought the church from 55 in worship to nearly 700. It’s a largely black and multicultural congregation. Daniels said in his community, the average income is $140,000 per year, but there is an $80,000 wealth gap between whites and people of color.

Four years ago, Emory UMC cut the ribbon on a 99-unit, $60 million housing project on the church’s property. Daniels describes it as luxury apartments for low-income people. 

“Someone said, ‘Why not build here?’ so we went up six stories and built a horseshoe-shaped apartment complex around our church,” he said. 

A three-bedroom unit in the building rents $1,500 a month, whereas the average rent in D.C. is $3,400. 

“A lot of people involved in housing ignore the importance of congregational development in community development – but it is essential,” Daniels said. “The church can shape the future of community development.”

Rev. Dr. Rochelle Stackhouse started as a historic preservationist but later shifted her posture toward stewarding properties so they are available for active community use. She has been with the United Church of Christ for 40 years and has been pastor of churches where there is too much building for the size of the congregation and too many churches of the same flavor for the community. She has seen a church get sold to a developer that built market-rate apartments with no consideration for the 12-step programs, community choirs and English as a Second Language activities that were taking place. 

“Half the town had keys to the building, and none of them were paying big bucks to use it,” she said. “Cities don’t understand the pressure of use on sacred buildings until they are closed, then they are in for a shock.” 

She sees many congregations struggle to maintain buildings that are not right for them. 

“So many properties were overbuilt in the 1950s and 60s,” Stackhouse said. “So many congregations think, ‘It’s only us. We failed.’ There is a sense of guilt that is overwhelming.” 

Max L. Kleinman of the Jewish Community Legacy Project said the worst situation is where you have a declining building and no resources available for necessary maintenance. He helps people try to act before that point and encourages buildings to be sold before the decline, with the money going into an endowment. But that’s not always an easy sell. 

“Some people feel they are betraying their parents if they take action to close synagogue,” he said. 

Stackhouse said that as a young pastor, she accused congregants of making an idol of their building but learned that was inaccurate. 

“They were in a grieving process,” she said. “That is not being acknowledged enough. So many important things in lives happened in these buildings and the lives of their ancestors.” 

Elsdon said it is time for people to broaden their definition of being a church. 

Daniels encourages churches to maintain a vision for the future because, without that, they will perish. “Vision is as valuable as capital,” he said.