Sunday, February 19, 2006

Churches Can Matter

Last Thursday, John Greenan, Executive Director of the Central Dallas Community Development Corporation and one of our lawyers at our LAW Center, and I flew to a city in another state to consult with the leaders of a church.

This particular church has a storied past in its denomination. Thirty years ago its membership had grown to almost 2,000. Its minister and leaders had a vision and an ambition to build a giant, megachurch on the almost 40 acre tract of land that the congregation owned.

They built a sanctuary that could seat 3,000. An educational complex was designed to accommodate the growing congregation.

But somehow things just didn't work out as planned.

Today the church numbers under 700 members. It finds itself strapped with a lingering, paralyzing debt to service monthly. Fixed costs often exceed revenue generated by the weekly offerings.

The leaders of this church are eager to reach out, to serve the community, to make a difference. But their financial realities block them at every turn.

As we spent the day with these really fine folks, both John and me could literally feel the burden and the depression of the group.

What could be done to provide some relief to the church and at the same time assist it in regaining its legs for mission?

As we learned about the community surrounding the congregation's building, a new vision began to emerge.

The church currently owns 32 acres of the original tract of property.

On one side of the building sits a beautiful 6-acre tract of carefully mowed Bermuda grass. We learned that 42% of the homes in the four census tracts surrounding the church are occupied by working families who rent.

What if the church created a non-profit arm to do community development? What if this new community development corporation (CDC) developed a planned community of say, 120 new townhomes with first time home buyers in mind? Further, what if their CDC provided homeowners' education as an outreach strategy? What if 10-15% of the new townhomes were sold to church members who fit this same profile and who were willing to purchase one and live in the new community intentionally?

Success in this endeavor would mean at least two things.

First, most, if not all, of the debt could be eliminated by the profits earned from home sales by the CDC.

Second, a viable outreach to area families would open to the church immediately. With current members living in the new neighborhood, all sorts of possibilities seemed evident.

On the other side of the building was another tract of undeveloped land, partially devoted to a gigantic parking lot that was seldom more than 1/3 full.

What if the church's CDC applied for U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds to develop senior housing on this part of its campus? In addition to providing much-needed, quality housing for senior adults, after generating income for a specified period of time, the building would become property of the CDC.

Again, multiple results that serve the church well.

Seniors could be "adopted" and cared for by the church, including some of its own present members.

The strategy would provide more funds for the CDC to continue its work with the church while further relieving the church's debt and fixed costs load.

Finally, we suggested that the church "deed" its property to the new non-profit and then rent back only what it currently needed to conduct its business. The CDC would then have the task of retiring the remaining debt while raising funds to immediately service the monthly debt expense, freeing up weekly offerings for church activities and outreach.

One obvious business opportunity, thanks to the size of the building, appears to be convention and meeting services that would utilize the entire building for outside groups needing space and catering services. The church enjoys the presence of a large, fully outfitted commercial kitchen. The building could actually become a very important "profit center," as opposed to its current "loss center" with "albatros about the neck" status!

As the day ended, the energy had returned to our new friends!

The key was the group's willingness to think outside the box of traditional church approaches.

The prospect of harnessing market forces with clearly defined assets on hand, opened a new vision of opportunity to a faith community that is needed in its city.

Churches can matter.

However, new thinking will be critical for most.


Paul said...

Larry, thank you for thinking outside the box. Major creativity needs to be applied to come up with monumental solutions to the problem of poverty in our nation, not to mention the rest of the world. You are a leader among us! God bless you!

Wade said...

Thanks Larry!

Dale said...

Sorry I missed you. Looking forward to catching up with the others. I really appreciate your creative and innovative way of solution exploration. Will add your site to my favorites.

Clint said...


I love this stream of creative thought! While some US churches could really benefit from it, many more churches in the developing world could benefit even more. I hope our missions sending churches consider these types of ideas too!

These ideas give hope and an opportunity to poor churches in developing countries that otherwise might not find a way to meet together and reach out to their own communities due to lack of funds. And they wouldn't have to consider the alternative, to rely on constant US funds often keeping them from much needed dignity in their lives.

I pray you will have many more opportunities to encourage churches to think outside the box and reach out to others at the same time. And I hope they listen! It is definitely a win, win, win situation.

Thanks for your constant voice and encouragement to be true Christians where we can learn from the poor as we partner with the poor.

It was great to visit with you and learn from you. Let me know what you think of the coffee.

Larry James said...

Clint, please send me some promo material on your coffee so that I can post it here!

Chefswife said...

Thanks for your great ideas. I am a member of this church and the wife of one of it's staff members. We have been praying for solutions like this for some time. We look forward to seeing what the church decides to do at this very important crossroads.