by Rachael Holliday Smith, The NY City Magazine, 3/22/21.
…“Many churches have plateaued,” Hildebrandt said. “There’s just a general uneasiness about the future right now — and I think COVID made it worse.”
A cadre of clergy, congregants, land use experts and planners are fighting back against the trend in one of the places hit hardest by the pandemic with a new handbook — a bible, of sorts.
The “Action Book,” released this week by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, is chock full of answers to the question: How can a congregation keep its building, while still carrying out its mission?
…Judson founded a nonprofit called Bricks and Mortals that aims to help religious institutions cope with mounting bills and the pressures to sell.
Schaper said she’s found that small churches with fewer than 20 members are most at risk. Many haven’t paid their pastor in months, or have had their water cut, or lights turned off.
“A lot of these congregations just disappear,” Schaper said.
Nationally, about 1% of congregations close each year, according to research cited by The New York Times late last year. Brewer’s office found that between 2010 and 2020, the numbers of religious congregations in Manhattan declined by 7% from 976 to 907.
Karen DiLossi, director of arts at Partners for Sacred Places — which also informed Brewer’s report — said the pressure is worse in Black and brown neighborhoods where would-be buyers target weakened churches.
“They may have a diminishing congregation, and maybe they have a huge facility, but the upkeep is too much,” she said. “They feel tremendous amounts of pressure to sell.”
The Action Book, written in partnership with the NYU Wagner School of Public Service, offers guidance about alternatives to cashing out. The report also explains the basics of New York’s land use rules, how air rights work, the pros and cons of landmarking a building and what to know about redevelopment.
Brewer’s guide gives local examples of how some local congregations have made their properties work for them. It describes a deal made in Harlem by Bethel Gospel Assembly to sell air rights and allow a developer to build on the church’s former parking lot. In Washington Heights, Rocky Mountain Baptist Church arranged to be part of a senior housing development under construction now.