It’s time to sell. With 2023 almost here, it’s time to put Episcopal real estate on the market. I’m thinking particularly of the often beautiful but creaky buildings that are diocese headquarters.
Several dioceses have already taken the plunge, including:
- The Diocese of Southern Virginia, which offloaded the Talbot Hall property after a fraught discernment process;
- The Diocese of Maryland, which sold its headquarters and the building’s Tiffany stained glass windows separately in 1994;
- The Diocese of Newark, which sold its headquarters to a nearby arts center;
- The Diocese of Rochester, which offloaded its $1.2 million headquarters;
- The Diocese of Pittsburgh, which sold office space next to its cathedral; and
- The Diocese of Oregon, which has listed its lovely headquarters and gardens for sale. Once sold, the diocese hopes to move its headquarters to a less isolated location with greater accessibility and better opportunities for staff collaboration.
And, of course, the ever-contentious proposed sale of the Diocese of Chicago headquarters remains on the table. There, the proposal is complicated, as the cathedral, located next door, shares HVAC and accessibility infrastructure with the headquarters building.
Combined with that is the assumption that the cathedral needs to stay put, despite deferred maintenance, a lack of modern meeting space, and an environmental footprint straight from the set of “Madmen.”
And let’s not forget Episcopal Church headquarters. The denomination says it clings to the costly heap because it needs to be near the U.N. As if the U.N. cares what 1.5 million primarily geriatric Episcopalians think.
Meanwhile, for dioceses still clinging to old and often decrepit headquarters, it remains all about location, location, location.
Far too many diocesan headquarters remain far from those they serve, often sitting in splendid isolation.
Racial reconciliation? That’s tough to accomplish when, as in the Diocese of Virginia, staff work from a building that looks like an overly somber version of Tara, replete with a locked front gate. Weeds fill the front yard, the fence is broken, and litter abounds on the sidewalks. Nor does it host public events.
Similarly, do church officials think 20-somethings will connect with baby-boomers hanging out in a fusty old heap dating back to the Civil War? And we’re past the point that hanging out in some big old house will impress the little people.
Far better to hang out in remodeled space in a nearby church. Have computers for kids to use after school, video games, a food pantry, and room to hang out. This notion of the bishop as a demi-god ensconced in a room with silk wallpaper is silly and unhelpful.
Yeah, we get that life as a bishop is busy, even hectic. But if you don’t have time to serve people, something’s wrong.
And we’re not talking about showing up once a year for an episcopal visit, roaming coffee hour, and murmuring, “Interesting. Tell me more.”
In considering offloading costly diocesan real estate, many dioceses face challenges. Not just from folks who oppose change, but from waiting too long.
For example, the Diocese of Chicago headquarters has been on the market repeatedly, but to no avail. It’s no secret that the building is a financial millstone around the neck of the diocese. Thus, any builder with a lick of common sense is going to look at high interest rates and the strings attached to the sale and wait. Just wait.
After all, why pay asking price when we’ll see fire sale pricing in just a few years?
Similarly, many headquarters buildings are historically registered sites. Thus, tearing them down will be difficult, while finding an organization willing to cover the carrying costs will be tough.
That’s particularly the case in Virginia, where nonprofits have left several historic homes next to Mayo House. So perhaps the diocese will get lucky and someone will buy it as a bed and breakfast — a luxurious alternative to the massive four-star Jefferson Hotel just across the street.
Will we see additional church buildings for sale in the next few years? Of course we will. And while right now we’re seeing the low-hanging fruit hitting the market, 418 Episcopal parishes currently have 20 or fewer members. And 383 churches have 10 or less people in the pews on an average Sunday. Thus, we will see a tidal wave of property on the market in the next five years.
So, whether we are talking about diocesan headquarters or lovely but empty suburban churches, my advice is this: Sell before the rush hits. Then, take the money and invest it, while sharing space with a neighboring church. Or become a house church and use the interest from the endowment to fund neighborhood programs.
Early Christians met in secret, in homes and remote locations. They didn’t have access to the towering heaps many parishes have today, yet they grew the church.
And for those who haven’t figured it out, other than as a set for the hoo-ha around Easter and Christmas, plus the occaisional wedding, baptism or funeral, most younger people view church buildings as weird pieces of architecture where their grandparents hung out.
In other words, much of the church’s real estate harms its mission, rather than helps it.