Carla Leon never knows what kind of response she’ll get when she picks up the phone to cold-call church leaders in Calgary about a new initiative designed to help churches re-imagine who they are in their local communities. But she’s certainly most energized when people instantly “see the light.”
The ones most excited about the initiative tend to be those already venturing into new territory with respect to how they operate as churches in a community, including how they are achieving financial sustainability.
“The congregations that have thought about this and are trying something and seeing small wins, they’re the ones that are more likely to actively embrace (what we’re trying to do),” Carla says.
A small-business consultant, Carla is spearheading the initiative in Calgary as a project manager with the United Church of Canada’s Edge program, which is a kind of research and development arm.
Edge has launched the “re-imagining” initiative nationally in recognition of the tremendous assets that so many churches hold. As an example, the United Church denomination in Canada alone holds a collective $4.7 billion in assets. It’s estimated the Catholic church’s collective assets make it the largest real estate owner in the country. Yet so many congregations see their physical infrastructure as a kind of burden, particularly given the maintenance requirements.
At the same time, many churches across denominations are facing declining engagement. Most, if not all, are no longer the community hubs or central organizing forces of a neighbourhood that they once were.
Carla and the Edge team present an opportunity for churches to partake in a study that includes a property scan, review of their financials, market research and a community roundtable. The goal is to identify the church’s assets and then create opportunities for leveraging those assets in new ways, including through partnerships with other community organizations.
As an example of the possibilities in this, Carla recently engaged in a conversation with representatives from a local church, university and government entity. All four realized they share a similar goal of fostering leadership in their respective circles of influence. The next step is to explore what areas of their work might overlap and how they might partner to realize their shared goals, including by possibly working under one roof.
Eight Calgary churches crossing two denominations have signed up for the initiative to date.
The Calgary Foundation has provided funding for the research phase.
“The Calgary Foundation has been very forward thinking (with this initiative),” Carla says. “Often foundations are not willing to fund faith organization work, but when we met with them we were very clear that this isn’t just a United Church or even a church issue. We see this is a problem across all kinds of traditional non-profits. . . So many of us are asset heavy and cash poor.”
The reality is that many of these non-profits are having to sell off their assets in order to survive.
Across faith congregations alone, 30 per cent will be addressing the question of closure over the next 10 years. “That’s billions of dollars in assets, in prime locations, critical community centres, that we lose and can never get back,” Carla says.
There is little in the way of expert support for churches and other non-profits facing these kinds of issues. That is the capacity Edge is seeking to build within itself, hence its creation of a real estate planning and related programming.
The planning phase for the work in Calgary is slated to wrap up in spring, 2016. At that point, the churches and their partners should be well positioned for accessing funding to actualize the goals they’ve set out for themselves.
Measurable outcomes include the introduction of new programs, increasing usage of the church facilities, becoming more community focused as a church and redevelopment opportunities to serve the communities.
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