real estate

More news about old churches being sold and flipped: Does it matter why this is happening?

More news about old churches being sold and flipped: Does it matter why this is happening?

Trigger alert: News readers are going to be seeing more and more stories about churches closing down and going up for sale.

There’s a good reason for this: Lots of churches, in lots of zip codes (but some zip codes more than others) are closing and being put up for sale. This is an obvious local story hook and often comes with colorful art, as these sanctuaries are turned into pubs, condos, art galleries, mansions, etc., etc.

However, these local stories also have valid national angles, because some flocks (think Seven Sisters of oldline Protestantism) are closing more churches than others. Also (think Catholic parishes in New York City), some of these churches are sitting on ultra-prime real estate in older downtown neighborhoods.

So here is my question: Is the fate of the church bodies that formerly occupied these holy spaces an essential element in all of these stories? In the old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how,” does the “WHY” element remain important?

It would appear not, based on many of the stories that I am seeing.

Consider this new NPR report that does with a very broad headline: “Houses Of Worship Find New Life After Congregations Downsize.” See the implied question there? Why are so many congregations downsizing or even closing?

So what facts made it into the story? Here is the overture:

When Lisa and Dan Macheca bought a century-old Methodist church in St. Louis back in 2004, they didn't think much about the cost of heating the place.

Then the first heating bill arrived: $5,000 for a single month.

"I felt like crying," Lisa Macheca said. "Like, 'Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?' "

Over the course of a decade, the Machecas, who both have hospitality backgrounds, renovated the 115-year-old church into a bed and breakfast. Repurposing these buildings — known as adaptive reuse — is becoming increasingly common as the religious preferences of Americans shift.

So what is going on here?

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New York Times scribe has big problem with 'New South' -- it's full of backward church people

New York Times scribe has big problem with 'New South' -- it's full of backward church people

To be honest, I had shoved the Ginia Bellafante feature at The New York Times — “Abortion and the Future of the New South” — so far back into the “think piece” folder of guilt that I almost forgot that this “Big City” masterpiece still existed.

In this case, the term “masterpiece” is defined as a piece of first-person journalism that has to be in the running as one of the greatest summary statements of Gray Lady-speak ever put on paper.

I mean, Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher — a former Brooklyn resident — had already produced this truly fab summary statement of what’s going on here. Before we get to the latest response to the Bellafante opus — at Scalawag, hold that thought — let’s let Dreher kick off this thinker-fest:

I’m so sorry. Really, just very sorry. Here entitled Yankees like the NYT’s Ginia Bellafante thought the American South existed to give Millennial Brooklynites a place to reproduce Park Slope, but more affordably, and now we’ve gone and ruined it for them with our deplorable social and religious views.

Ah, right. All that icky religious stuff. That really messes things up for “Tess” and other relocated New Yorkers. Here is the essential Times-talk overture:

Tess wanted her own kingdom, and New York — forbidding, impossible — wasn’t going to let her build it. The start-up costs for the baking and catering business she envisioned were going to be too high; the rent on her apartment in Bed-Stuy was increasing. When she moved in it was $1,800 a month; just a few years later, it was approaching $3,400.

This young woman was a citizen of the New South now. Her business, Tess Kitchen, was thriving. Her New Orleans apartment, at $1,900 a month, had three bathrooms.

I called Tess on the day that the Louisiana House Health and Welfare Committee backed legislation to prohibit abortions once a fetal heartbeat was detected. This came 24 hours after Alabama passed the most restrictive abortion law in the country, one that does not allow exceptions for rape or incest. That followed the passage of another restrictive abortion law in Georgia.

Living in a very liberal city in a very conservative state is a trick mirror. “You really forget that you are in the Deep South here,’’ she said.

Need more? It’s all about the word “backward,” you see. You see the people who are, to New York-raised reformers, still yearning for the “Old South” are still fighting the Civil War.

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Old Chicago church gets converted: It's a real estate story, but there are religion questions

Old Chicago church gets converted: It's a real estate story, but there are religion questions

News consumers who have been paying attention to religion trends may have noticed this one: There are lots of church buildings for sale these days.

This is especially true with old-line Protestant sanctuaries located in older neighborhoods — often on prime property deep inside zip codes that are evolving due to gentrification.

What to do? Well, lots of urban folks — singles, cohabitating couples, married-without-kids folks — are attracted to unique condos and apartments that don’t look like they are assembled using cookie-cutters and one or two sets of design plans.

That brings us to the following real-estate headline at The Chicago Tribune: “Logan Square church gets new life as 9 luxury apartments.” Let me stress that I realize that this is a real-estate story. One should not expect that news desk to provide a lot of depth, when it comes to the religious implications of some of the information in a news report of this kind.

But let’s see if you can spot the detail that I think would have been worth a follow-up question or two — a click of a computer mouse, at least, or even a telephone call. Things start in a rather predictable manner, with a bad pun:

Living in one new Logan Square apartment building is a heavenly experience. The former church was converted into nine distinctive residences, incorporating many of the original architectural features.

The historic Episcopal Church of the Advent was built in 1926 by renowned architect Elmer C. Jensen, who designed and engineered more than two dozen of the city’s early skyscrapers. The church closed in 2016 due to dwindling membership.

That brings us to the colorful details that caught my attention. Read this carefully and think, well, sort of like a liturgist, or a religion-beat professional:

In preparation for its second life, the building interior was mostly gutted, and the space was subdivided. Stained glass art windows, ornate chandeliers, decorative millwork, and stone arches and columns are among the retained features. In one apartment, a stone altar acts as the base for a kitchen island. In another, wainscoting was installed to complement the existing millwork. The church exterior was preserved in entirety.

“Any of the elements that were left here, the developer was able to repurpose and reuse,” said Mark Durakovic, principal at Kass Management Services, which is managing and leasing the building.

Wait a minute!

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'Strollerville' trends: Religion ghosts in epic quest by New Yorkers to find that extra bedroom?

'Strollerville' trends: Religion ghosts in epic quest by New Yorkers to find that extra bedroom?

As a part-time New York City resident — lower Manhattan, to be precise — I am learning how to read between the lines when people talk about their adventures trying to find affordable places to live.

Basically, if your family and/or set of roomies can live with one bedroom, you’re in business. If you need two bedrooms, things get tougher but you are still in the game. Listening to New Yorkers talk about apartments is kind of like hearing an urban version of Lord of the Rings or some other epic Hero’s Journey narrative.

Marriage doesn’t really affect this tale — but children do. Again, it’s all about needing that second bedroom. A third bedroom? Fuhgeddaboudit. Then it’s time to start studying commuter trains.

This is another way of saying that — in the New York City context — the decision to have more than 2.100 children has massive implications that involve real estate, but other big issues as well. If being a New Yorker is a kind of cultural religion, having two children raises eyebrows. But having more than 2.100 children is a heresy (for folks with normal incomes). At the very least, it’s countercultural.

This leads me to a remarkably faith-free New York Times story that ran the other day with this epic double-decker headline:

New York’s New Strollervilles

In search of affordable housing, young families are putting down roots in places like Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Morris Park in the Bronx.

What a great word — Strollerville. It’s kind of cute and trendy, but with just a pinch of judgment. The key is that all one needs to get into Strollerville status is, obviously, one stroller. The opening scene:

A few years ago, the gateways to the courtyard of Peter Bracichowicz’s co-op in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, were empty. Now, there are wall-to-wall baby strollers.

“I actually counted them: 10 on one side, eight on the other,” said Mr. Bracichowicz, a Corcoran agent who used to live in the complex. “And that’s just in the entrance.”

Oh the humanity.

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Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Every working day when I am teaching in New York, I walk past the historic Trinity Episcopal Church. I don’t go in that direction on Sundays, because I head over to Brooklyn for a rather different, clearly Orthodox liturgical experience.

But back to the dramatic sanctuary at Broadway and Wall Street. We are talking about some prime real estate. And if you are interested in the dollars and cents of all that, then The New York Times recently ran a long, long story that you will need to read.

Actually, this sprawling epic is three or four stories in one. You can kind of see that in the massive second line of this double-decker headline. So sit down and dig in.

The Church With the $6 Billion Portfolio

While many houses of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their buildings, Trinity Church has become a big-time developer itself.

Frankly, I think this story should have been a series of some kind — to allow several of the valid religion-news angles to receive the news hole that they deserve. In a way, saying that is a compliment. Maybe.

For starters, you have that whole “$6 Billion Portfolio” thing, which deserves (and gets) a rather business-page approach. Then you have a perfectly valid church-state story about the tax questions circling around that vast bundle of secular and sacred real estate and development. Then you have a separate, but related, issue — New York City’s many other historic churches in which people are, often literally, struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Oh, and Trinity Wall Street is still an actual congregation that is linked to a historic, but now rapidly declining, old-line denomination.

Want to guess which of these stories received the least among of ink in this epic? #DUH

If you guessed the “church” story, you guessed right. Yes, there is an important religion “ghost” in this big religion story.

Let’s start with the overture, then I will note one or two passages that point to what could have been. To no one’s surprise, a certain Broadway musical made it into the lede:

Since the blockbuster musical “Hamilton,” tourists have been swarming Trinity Church, part of an Episcopal parish in Lower Manhattan that dates to the 17th century. Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, are buried in the cemetery there.

Recent years have been good to the church and the rest of its campus.

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Some flocks grow, while others shrink: Yes, that's a big, complex, religion story. So there!

Some flocks grow, while others shrink: Yes, that's a big, complex, religion story. So there!

This week's Crossroads podcast is all about connecting the dots.

Warning: This is a rather confusing podcast (click here to tune that in). Host Todd Wilken and I wander all over the map, touching on topics ranging from shuttered Episcopal cathedrals to declining (and growing) Southern Baptist statistics, from Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod arguments about worship to declining numbers of students in Catholic seminaries, as well as in some (repeat some) urban Catholic parish pews.

Along the way, there's lots and lots of talk about religious real estate (as in my recent post, "There may be faith angles in all those stories about fading flocks in urban America"). Lots of this once-sacred real estate is for sale in prime urban locations, from sea to shining sea.

Do you see any connections yet? Basically, we are talking about some of the biggest stories in American religion. The thread that connects them is demographics and the tricky subject of why some religious congregations (and denominations) die while others grow.

Ah, you say, that's all about where these institutions are located! How did The New York Times team -- not the religion desk, by the way -- put it the other day, in the latest of many Times stories about religious sanctuaries sporting "for sale" signs? That headline proclaimed: "Struggling to Survive, Congregations Look to Sell Houses of Worship." The key paragraph looked like this:

This situation is playing out again and again across New York City. Upward mobility, suburban growth and the dissolution of traditional ethnic enclaves have all contributed to empty pews, said Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. Twenty-seven percent of New Yorkers identified as religiously unaffiliated in 2014, compared with 17 percent in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.

Now, in my post I noted that the final sentence there points off the secular real estate map, with a reference to the "Nones" trend that has been one of America's biggest religion-beat themes in recent years.

But, you see, even in New York City there are booming religious movements and congregations, as well as those that are fading. Did you know that?

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You think? There may be faith angles in all those stories about fading flocks in urban America

You think? There may be faith angles in all those stories about fading flocks in urban America

Frankly, it's one of the biggest religion-news stories in America these days.

You are going to be reading these news stories over and over in newspapers from New York City to Los Angeles and every major urban area in between. Thousands of people are involved, along with millions and millions of dollars.

We are talking about prime urban real estate -- specifically the sale of land (and sometimes the reuse of facilities) belonging to dying churches, synagogues and other religious institutions.

News organizations have to cover these stories, of course. It's an old doctrine of news, as well as real estate: Location, location, location. The question is whether editors and reporters will be interested in the totally valid religion-news angles in these stories, as well as the financial ones.

Yes, it's valid to focus these stories on newsy questions like: What happens next, in terms of the people and the properties? Who gets the money? What happens to the art, pipe organs, pews, altars, burial chambers and other items inside these sacred spaces?

However, journalists may also want to ask these kinds of questions: Why are some urban churches -- take New York City, for example -- closing while others are not? Why are there thriving churches in urban areas, while others are dying? Why do some have lots of members, converts and new children, while others do not? Might there be religious factors at play here, as well as relevant "secular" factors? Might demographics and doctrine be linked?

OK, I'll ask another question that some readers may be thinking: Do your GetReligionistas plan to keep noting these faith-shaped holes in all these real-estate stories, over and over and over? Good question: I think the answer is still "yes."

The New York Times recently covered religious real-estate issues in a pair of unrelated stories that ran August 6-7. Here is the overture to the first one, that ran with the headline, "Struggling to Survive, Congregations Look to Sell Houses of Worship."

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Wait just a minute: Fading Lutherans (ELCA) in Waco sold their lovely building to Anglicans?

Wait just a minute: Fading Lutherans (ELCA) in Waco sold their lovely building to Anglicans?

I think leaders of The Waco Tribune-Herald team had an interesting religion-beat story on their hands the other day, but it appears that they may not have known that.

It's easy to see the some predictable news trends looming over the recent headline: "Dwindling congregation forces sale of 133-year-old Waco Lutheran church."

There are several valid news angles here, the first of which is that lots of fading urban churches are being squeezed by similar financial and demographic issues. You can see that in this recent story from The Nashville Tennessean that was picked up for further distribution by Religion News Service.

If you visit the core streets and neighborhoods of almost any American city you will find lots of churches -- often from the old "Seven Sisters" flocks of liberal mainline Protestantism -- sitting on what is now prime real estate for re-developers appealing to the gentrification and young singles Millennial crowds. Many of these churches now face a tornado of red statistics, with aging members, low birthrates and declining numbers of converts.

Yes, there are doctrinal issues linked to some of those issues, especially in the American heartland and Bible Belt (think Waco, Texas). However, the Tribune-Herald team isn't very interested in these issues.

Hold that thought, while we look at some summary material near the top of this report. The symbolic voice is that of 94-year-old church member Joyce Heckmann:

Through the years, there were countless Christmas celebrations, church-wide smorgasbord dinners, Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible Schools and more.
But while the years have been kind to Heckmann, they have taken their toll on the aging church building and congregation, members say. The once-vibrant church family boasted 450 members, requiring an extensive expansion project that more than doubled the size of the building in 1958.
Now, members say, they are lucky to have 40 worshipers on Sunday morning. Members recently came to the painful but practical realization that their smallish group could no longer support such a large building.
So they voted to sell the property -- Texas Historical Commission landmark medallion and all -- to Christ Church Waco, an up-and-coming Anglican congregation that has met in least 10 temporary locations since it was formed in 2009.

Now stop the train right there for a minute.

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Thinking outside the bricks: Sensitive Washington Post piece reports fate of empty church buildings

Thinking outside the bricks: Sensitive Washington Post piece reports fate of empty church buildings

Church rolls may drop, but the buildings don’t always fall to the wrecking ball -- some of them are converted to condos. That trend is the focus of a story in the Washington Post that is at once factual, thoughtful and sensitive.

The smoothly written piece is a massive 1,480 words, yet it reads rather fast. It gives us an overview of the situation across the nation's capital. It offers a few insights on how professionals convert church buildings. And it shows a soothing feel for the concerns of the people who had to leave their sacred spaces.

Church conversions are a kind of gentrification, but with a difference, as the Post points out.

"As churches’ congregations move to the suburbs and D.C. property values soar, increasing numbers of religious institutions are selling their properties in the city, usually with plans to move closer to their congregants," the paper says.  "But … some experts say that a church’s former life as a sacred space requires a particular kind of respect."

The Post gets into the expected issues of restoring a big building with neglected windows, plumbing and HVAC.  It deals also with how to divide up a big room that's built around a pulpit. But it's much more, says writer Amanda Abrams. 

A freelance writer who is not a religion specialist, Abrams might have well gotten caught up in those mundane details. But no, she recalls the reason for the buildings -- and so do her sources:

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