SHARING YOUR CHURCH’S BUILDING
By: Susan B.W. Johnson
Our church began sharing its property quite casually: a church member knew a not-for-profit agency that needed inexpensive space, and the fourth floor of our educational building was unused. Over the years community groups had used our space, and we had even made changes to it to suit some of them (Boy Scouts, Alcoholics Anonymous, community theater). But now we were considering sharing the expenses of building maintenance and utilities. At first, it was like friends lending to friends, and it neither helped us much with expenses nor expanded much our sense of ministry. Later the relationship became more than that. Today our church shares space with a dozen groups.
In an era in which churches and synagogues often have more building than dollars, their offering to share space with local
organizations may be the best way to contribute and support the community – and to keep their own doors open. Our experiences do not include or anticipate all that a church or synagogue may go through in sharing space, but we have developed a short list of
principles and policies (some of which were hard learned) that guide our behavior and help to guide that of our space-sharers as
well. We’ll never get rich sharing space, but it provides us with regular income to help offset our building expenses, and it has
helped. Increase our outreach to our community.
As I indicated, we entered space-sharing casually; this is not ideal. First, a pastor and his or her church should form a
committee to oversee the many details involved with sharing space. This “space-sharing” committee should assess both the church’s building needs and its budget. The committee should look over the church’s schedule carefully. Sharing its building will curtail the church’s own programs at times; committees will have to plan their calendars further ahead than in the past. I tell space-sharers, in advance, that the only time I expect them to “get out of the way of the church” is for funerals. Death has priority. It is inconvenient; it touches everybody. Even then I try not to cause trouble to space-sharers unnecessarily. Decisions about use of space need to be made before crises happen. The congregation will complain as bitterly as a space-sharer when a scheduling mistake is made.
Space-sharers are not exactly tenants, but they will think of themselves this way. A church will be caught in a relationship in
which its “friends” want something for nothing. This is only human, but it will not work. A church should know what it needs
and be frank about expressing it. The space-sharing committee should assess what building maintenance and utilities cost, what space the church has open, what additional staff it will need. The committee should not forget to consider the increased wear and
tear on the building that comes with increased use, or even the cost of such things as toilet paper and paper towels or more locks
and keys. The committee should consider how the cost of space-sharing may increase over the time of any written agreement. We raise our space-sharing costs based on the Consumer Price Index, unless we have specific knowledge that greater increases are
necessary. Those sharing space need to be informed that they cannot have something for nothing, either. Space-sharing is a
series of compromises, but a church should not lose money or restrict its own programming.
As a religious institution, a church is exempt from federal and state income taxes and local real-estate taxes. It may share space
and the costs of space with other not-for-profit organizations, but it may not become a commercial establishment or it will
jeopardize its tax exemption. If the space-sharing committee has any doubts about the tax exemption, it should consult an attorney immediately. Attorneys will help the committee draft documents that protect the church’s possessions, identity and ministry and establish its liability. The church should try to find an attorney who will volunteer his or her time. I married one, but that isn’t a good solution for everybody.
The church should have clear space-sharing agreements that delineate what space is being shared, what the costs are, what the
time period of the agreement is, how either party can terminate the agreement, how late payments will be handled, what insurance (and proof of insurance) space-sharers must have, what rules and policies govern behavior in the building. Programs involving children often require state or city licensing, and increased insurance. Communities need programming for children and families, but a church should research the costs and liabilities so it can responsibly provide space.
The space-sharing committee should write agreements that are to the advantage of the church but fair to the space-sharer. The
church owns the building and every problem will eventually devolve to it; therefore, a church should cover itself generously. Space-sharers will compare notes with others in the building. The church may have different policies for different groups, but it must have clear reasons and it must be prepared to defend them, even rethink them. This is not an age that takes discrimination lightly.
It is imperative that a church have rules and policies that govern behavior in the building. Without realizing it, space-sharers are
actually counting on the church to set the standards-after all, it’s the church’s building. The space-sharing committee may want
to have a sheet of rules separate from the space-sharing agreement, so that they may be changed over time, but a line in
the space-sharing agreement should compel everyone to obey the rules and policies. Again, the committee must inventory the
building and consider the church’s own programs in order to write a good set of rules. The committee should start with the basics:
heat, light, security and building integrity. A church certainly cares about what signs are put out front, or holes made in walls,
or windows removed for air conditioner installation, animals allowed in the building, food prepared or stored, electrical usage, etc.
The rules should sound friendly but firm, and should be carefully considered. Many of our space-sharers have part-time workers. We now encourage the copying of keys for everyone who is regularly in the building, because I would rather have a key on everyone’s private chain than have one key (labeled with the church’s name) lost. And I especially don’t want employees forcing windows open in order to get into the building, or leaving doors ajar in order to come back later. We change the front-door key every time a space-sharer permanently leaves the building, or fires an employee, or – if for no other reason – every 18 months or so.
Some rules protect the space-sharers as well – for they need to be happy. If a church gives them exclusive access to a space, the
rules should guarantee that the youth group will not have pizza in their conference room and the woman’s society will not store
rummage-sale items in their closet space. If space-sharers use space during the week that the church uses on the weekend, the
church may want to insist that they have a locked cabinet for things they care about, and the church may need to write rules about how one will agree to leave the room for the other.
Members of the church may have strong feelings about space-sharers smoking or drinking alcohol, or the hours that someone is in the building (consider the hours for which the church is willing to provide heat). If some church members think cleanliness is next to godliness, that ought to be reflected in the rules and policies. A church would also be wise to consider its neighbors; rules and policies need to be planned with neighbors’ perceptions in mind (e.g., noise, traffic, parking, deliveries).
We all like good neighbors, but we must also be prepared for the worst. A space-sharing agreement should be clear about what
consequences follow breaking the rules or disregarding the policies. A church may choose to give groups one or more warnings
but the policy should be consistent and firm. If things worsen and legal action against a space-sharer is necessary, inconsistent
enforcement of a policy can erode a church’s position. The church should also keep an office diary. Not only will this provide a
record of how much staff time is devoted to space-sharing concerns, but it will provide narrative documentation of incidents, costs of repairs, numbers of warnings. A space-sharing committee should not rely on the memories of its members; none of us has a memory as reliable or trustworthy as a regularly kept written record.
For the church’s identity, I strongly encourage creating a sense of community within the building. We now have more people,
especially children, in our building during the week than on Sunday. In some ways they are our nonbelieving congregation; I care about them and see them daily. However, it is naive to consider space-sharing a form of evangelism; from the beginning a
church’s relationship with space-sharers is unlike those with church members or visitors. Space-sharing, however, is community outreach. These not-for-profits need the church that provides them space, and together the church and they are undoubtedly
strengthening the community. One way to strengthen the working relation between church and space-sharers is to sponsor a joint
event occasionally, or at least have an annual space-sharers’ dinner. This kind of cooperation and support will also make the
enforcement aspect of the church’s policies more cordial.
Exciting things have happened in our church as a result of our space-sharing. We are better known in our community, and have become much more aware of and responsive to community issues and needs. These are the changes that religious institutions like to hear about and they constitute a wonderful ministry, but a church should be prepared to change in more mundane ways as well.
The church staff will have new burdens associated with these new relationships, and the congregation will often not be sensitive to the increased demands. The role of the church receptionist will change, and the mail delivery will increase. The sexton or janitor will have more work to do. Even if they have their own phones, space-sharers will receive phone calls on church lines. The church will be called “the church with the baby group” or “the congregation with the hospice office.” Strangers will want to use
the church’s phone, its copier, its stapler, its pens, to store things in the church offices, to use the building for free. The church may need to designate a public office space and a private work area.
Sometimes a church’s space-sharers will have higher standards for the building than the church is prepared to meet. They may need to hire their own cleaning staff; they may need their own intercom or buzzer system to let people in. A church must be careful about what costs it picks up this way. If a spacesharer’s business requires something extraordinary, it may not be the church’s obligation to provide it – it may even be the church’s prerogative to disallow it. Again, as always, it is better to have thought these issues through in advance, and a church may expect to do a fair amount of compromising until all the details are worked out.
Occasionally, with a long-term and trusted space-sharer a church may be able to do things with its building that it otherwise would not have been able to afford – like redecorating or renovating, adding appliances or creating handicapped accessibility. But a church should enter into a joint building venture cautiously. Even the most benevolent space-sharer will want to see how the joint venture benefits its concern, not just how it obviously benefits the congregation. Again, the church must put everything in
A church’s space-sharers may inspire congregational volunteers. The congregation may see that sharing space not only keeps the
church afloat financially; it also expands the church’s identity. This will only happen over time, with great care and consideration, creativity, dedication and hard work.
Religious institutions are agents of social change; they are also caretakers of community. Where the churches and synagogues are
active in their communities, the communities deal better with all kinds of social change; where the churches and synagogues die or recede, their communities are at greater risk of deterioration or upheaval. For the sake of the church – and the community – it is
well worth the effort to share a building.
(The above material appeared in the September/October 1992 issue of The Christian Ministry.)
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