July 30, 2013

How to Preserve Places of Worship, Part One

A few blocks from my home in Washington, D.C., a non-denominational Christian church is housed in what once was an Irish-Catholic church (as the Celtic cross adorning the steeple makes clear). It always reminds me of the fluid and adaptable nature of our communities, and how a single building can be a part of many histories.

Preservationists, of course, have a role in maintaining that continuity, but because of the spiritual and emotional significance of religious spaces, it’s important to approach them sensitively. In particular, conflict can arise if there’s a feeling that preservationists are prioritizing the building over the religious group’s spiritual needs.

Today’s toolkit offers 10 questions to ask to make sure you’re keeping the congregation’s needs at the forefront of the preservation process. Next week, we’ll delve deeper into the nitty-gritty of the rehabilitation and/or re-use of religious buildings.

1. How does this congregation relate to the community? Many activist or civic-focused denominations are called to community service, and because of this they use their sanctuaries as outreach centers. It’s important to know about -- and respect -- the need for appropriate space for mission-oriented work.

2. What tangible connections to their history does the building provide the congregation? Even when the spiritual is prioritized over the physical, certain aspects of the building -- memorials, symbols, and any embellishments or improvements made to the structure -- can be deeply meaningful. Focus on these items when making preservation recommendations.

3. Are you speaking the right language? Different religions employ different terminology for their congregations, leaders, and rituals. For example, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish denominations commonly use “congregation,” while Catholics and Episcopalians prefer “parish.” Respecting the terms can go a long way in helping the faith group view the preservation community as allies and partners, rather than interlopers.

4. Who are the decision makers? Depending on the denomination, a worship community may have almost complete autonomy in its decision-making or virtually none. Engaging with congregants locally is essential, but it’s also good to know upfront if you’ll need to make your case to a more distant, centralized authority as well.

5. Is the building “officially” historic? If the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, or has a state/local historic designation, opportunities may exist for financial or technical assistance. Local designations may also provide protection to the building -- along with responsibilities for the denomination that owns it.

6. Why is the building endangered? As with all preservation projects, knowing the nature of the threat helps you figure out how best to save a place. If maintenance issues threaten the building, look into the underlying causes: Is there limited money for upkeep? Has there been a lack of continuity in leadership? Do the building stewards lack the knowledge and training to keep it up? It’s also possible that the physical structure is in good condition, but is being consolidated with another parish or congregation, leaving it as excess building stock.

7. Which is the best building to use? If multiple congregations are merging, preservationists can bring their expertise to bear by recommending which of the buildings can best accommodate the combination of worship and community outreach services that the congregation needs.

8. What happens to unneeded buildings? Again, preservationists can help at a difficult time by helping identify new uses (and owners) for buildings that are no longer needed.

9. Is there an opportunity to share the space? Finding a business with a compatible mission -- such as a senior center or day care -- to use the building during the “downtime” between services can provide an additional income stream to help with preservation, as well as broaden the base of people with a connection to the building.

10. How can I help the congregation be better stewards of their building? Often, a simple lack of expertise in maintaining historic buildings can be an issue. Volunteering to help a local parish or a larger religious denomination develop maintenance manuals and checklists can go a long way to securing a building’s future.

Sarah Heffern headshot

Sarah Heffern, the National Trust's former director of social media, embraces all things online and pixel-centric, but she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having first fallen for historic places in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

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