It’s well-known that Anglican Watch takes a dim view of much of the real estate in the denomination’s portfolio. Far too often, these buildings are fusty old heaps, energy inefficient, built to meet the needs of parishes when accessibility didn’t matter, telephones were a rarity, and the internet unheard-of. They are romantic, but these buildings are costly and troublesome relics of a long-gone past.
Today, we focus on the other side of the equation: the church also owns real estate of historical or liturgical significance. These buildings often fare poorly under church ownership, lacking preventive maintenance, inexpertly repaired, and poorly maintained. In short, these assets deserve better.
Church buildings as worship
One of the great ironies is that, as a liturgical denomination, the Episcopal Church supposedly understands the value of symbolism in worship. But look around at some of the church buildings in the denomination, and you’d never know it. Indeed, those with property or asset management experience often cringe or shudder when they walk inside Episcopal churches.
We can better understand this issue by asking that question beloved by real estate professionals: what kind of curb appeal does my church provide? Is it beautifully kept? Does it convey optimism and welcome?
Often, the answer is that caring for the physical plant looks like an oversight.
Also, consider how the church looks at night. Is it well-lit? Welcoming? Safe?
LDS temples are great examples of the value of night-time lighting as they glitter in the darkness.
Yet many Episcopal churches, especially ones in neo-gothic buildings, look dark and foreboding at night. Think Dram Stoker and villagers with pitchforks.
What about accessibility? Are there powered doors to assist differently-abled persons? Braille signage? With a so-called Silver Tsunami coming due to the aging of the American population, it’s foolish indeed to have an unwelcoming building.
Speaking of welcomes, what about the most fundamental issue: which door is the entrance? Larger churches and cathedrals may have multiple entries, but none are marked as the entrance. This is both common and not very comforting to newcomers.
Similarly, the interior should reflect loving care and maintenance. That means no gum under the pews, scuffed paint in the corridors, or water stains on the ceilings. Wood flooring should have a fresh coat of varnish. Carpet should have minimal wear.
And while much of the world looks askance at the American fixation with air conditioning, it’s hard to get people to attend in summer without it. Similarly, high humidity is problematic for organs, pianos, vestments, and artwork.
Relatedly, if a church has air conditioning, it should be able to maintain a 70-degree temperature in the nave, even on a triple-digit day and while hosting a packed wedding. Nothing discourages attendance like being hot and sweaty on an already torrid day.
In cases where a church doesn’t have air conditioning or is inadequate to maintain temperature under load, it’s time to look at additional insulation. It may also be worth considering a high-velocity system, which reduces disruption to the fabric of the building while providing adequate airflow.
In short, churches are an expression of the values of the denomination. When a church building is tired, shabby, or uncomfortable, people quickly take the hint and go somewhere more pleasant.
The importance of replacement reserve studies
Another vital component of caring for church real estate is a replacement reserve study, which should be done approximately every ten years.
Required by law for condominium associations in most states, a replacement reserve study takes a professional look at the facility and the remaining actuarial life on assets.
Why is a study critical? For starters, a professional will look at issues most church members and staff don’t even know to consider. For example, how much longer will the roof last? The sidewalks? The HVAC systems? Even things like the parapets along the edges of flat roofs are considered.
And often, a replacement reserve study will identify minor ongoing leaks that slowly cause significant damage, and other insidious challenges typically overlooked by church staff.
A study also takes the personal element out of things. Vestries being what they are, people inevitably have pet projects. But these purported priorities rarely are the most pressing needs, with the result that stained glass windows, in excellent repair for another 20 years, may win out over a failing elevator.
But trap someone in an elevator or have the HVAC system fail in the middle of the summer, and there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth behind the scenes.
Relatedly, a reserve study allows churches to set aside money from income for future maintenance and capital expenditures. A well-run church typically will need to set aside six to ten percent of its operating income for these purposes.
Only a handful of churches set aside adequate income to cover these costs, despite being the best and least expensive solution.
As a result, when the ancient HVAC system finally does give out, there’s a mad scramble to draw up replacement plans, borrow the money, and address an emergency. Hardly an efficient approach, and one that often results in paying top dollar.
Similarly, the savings from preventive versus reactive maintenance can be staggering. Often, this is by a factor of thousands.
For example, one affluent parish for years ignored a pinhole leak in the wall of the basement room under the front steps. The result was high mold levels in the air conditioning system located in that space and damage to a nearby room used by preschool students.
Repairing the leak would have cost less than a dollar and required a small amount of hydraulic cement. Someone could literally have made the repair in less than a minute.
But after being ignored for years, the hole grew larger until one of the walls collapsed. The resulting repairs, done by a friendly vendor, cost $800.
These issues arise when a church has no top-level plan for maintenance, repairs and capital expenses.
In short, planning the maintenance and repair of a church building is impossible when a church does not know what repairs will be needed over the next ten years. And without that information, any work done will be shambolic, costly, and reactive.
The importance of good records
Relatedly, churches must have good records. That is especially the case when heavily reliant, as many are, on volunteers.
Not only is it difficult and costly to prepare a replacement reserve study without robust records, but adequate records provide the context and understanding needed when making property-related decisions.
For example, the church previously mentioned has known for years that its original elevator needs work. But proposals over the years have run the gamut, from replacing the entire thing (foolishly expensive) to replacing the carpet in the elevator cab to make it more attractive (overlooks critical issues, including safety).
But a written assessment by elevator professionals was done in 2014 and flagged all these issues, including recommended timelines, scope of work, and projecting costs.
Yet when the church recently addressed these issues, the project stalled because the scope of the work exceeded what church officials thought necessary. In other words, the church lost the original information and had to reinvent the wheel. Had these records been retained, decision-makers would have understood the scope of work and the urgency of the underlying safety issues.
Similarly, the front portico of the antebellum Mayo House in the Diocese of Virginia has been supported for more than a decade by “temporary” pressure-treated timber braces. Not only are these unsightly, but they make clear that the Diocese has lost sight of the fact that major structural repairs are needed to avoid collapse.
Understanding the importance of the physical plant
The Mayo House example underscores a critical point: all of these issues depend on an appreciation of the underlying assets.
Far too many churches and dioceses cling to these outdated vestiges of past glory as though the church’s ministry depends on them. Yet right beneath the scenes, no one wants to spend the funds to treat these assets respectfully.
In those situations, the denomination gets all the challenges of an old piece of real estate but none of the benefits.
In other words, instead of a glorious piece of historic preservation, the church winds up occupying a tired, decaying, ratty old heap that’s cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and ill-suited to the needs of modern life.
Thus, like many issues confronting the Episcopal Church, foundational (pun intended) questions are involved. In many cases, the church will need to decide to let go of costly, energy-inefficient buildings ill-suited to the needs of the 21st century. Those decisions must be made despite the sentimental attachment often associated with these assets.
In cases where liturgical or historical reasons exist for retaining assets, the church needs to care for them in a way that:
- Is sustainable, despite declining membership.
- Aligns with its mission.
- Respects the value of the underlying assets.
Doing so will require significant shifts in the denomination’s approach to its real estate assets.