How to save churches by filling them up with more than worshippers and expanding their community reach beyond the pews was at the heart of a recent two-hour forum in Franklin's First Baptist Church.

Billed as a Sacred Places Town Hall, the public session was sponsored by the Bridge Builders Community Foundations and the Oil Region Alliance.

The Partners for Sacred Places, a nonprofit and secular organization based in Philadelphia, presented the program that focuses on creating partnerships between faith and community organizations in an effort to keep churches open and functioning.

"We have a lot of challenges ahead, but with every challenge comes an opportunity," said Jenn Burden, historic preservation specialist with the ORA. "I consider this a start ... the beginning of the discussion."

'No one is inside'

Joshua Castano, a representative of Partners for Sacred Places, outlined the challenges as well as possible solutions to saving historic churches.

"It is very hard to save a building that is quiet most of the time, ... a place where no one is inside," he said in reference to declining church membership.

In reference to a national study of 80-plus congregations, Castano said it asked "what happens in these buildings during the week ... (and) are congregations opening their buildings for community uses?"

"Do historic churches make an impact on their community?" he asked, noting the study showed use of a church is broken down into 19 percent members and 81 percent nonmembers who visit the facility for various reasons, including for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Scout troops, child care, social services, food pantries and more.

"Those figures start a new way of thinking. ... The church is important to far more than the people who worship there, and that is very powerful."

Dwindling attendance at churches has dramatically impacted finances, and the study showed few churches are committing funds for capital projects, said Castano. Of the 90 congregations included in the national study, more than half of them reported spending less than $99,000 over the past five years for those projects.

Social programs and services ranging from food pantries to drug and alcohol recovery help draw far more people into a church than does a worship service, said Castano, noting that "87 percent of the beneficiaries of those community programs are not church members."

'Recognize the value you have'

Standing in a room within a church accented by towering stained-glass windows, intricate woodwork and more, Castano said historic churches that are centers of unique art and architecture fail to capitalize on those amenities.

"Tons of people in this town and others have never set foot in your church. So how do you get them here?" he asked. "Architecture can't speak, but you have a voice. ... The real goal tonight is to recognize the value you have and build a larger civic community.

"There is plenty more to offer in a church and it takes collaboration and partnerships and building connections."

After a period in which audience members shared information about how the area's sacred places contribute to the community, what the impact of losing a church would be and other topics, a panel discussion ensued. Serving on the panel, in addition to Burden, were Trenton Moulin, president of Bridge Builders; state Rep. R. Lee James, of Oil City; Melinda Meyer, of Preservation Erie; and the Rev. Mark Elliston, of Christ Episcopal Church in Oil City. The moderator was Sarah Jones of Partners for Sacred Places.

'We are supposed to do this'

Elliston offered a litany of how his church serves the community at large. Christ Episcopal offers food distribution, a children's pajama collection, space for six recovery meetings a week, food drives and vouchers, children's events for city festivals, library book sales, veterans monument restoration, financial support for various projects, and more.

"The most amazing thing is you would think we are huge, but we have a 50-member roster with maybe 20 to 30 average attendance at services," said Elliston. "We are called to do so by the Gospel. We are supposed to do this, and so that's what we do."

Meyer said many of Erie's historic churches are in "historic ethnic neighborhoods," and that lends itself to the churches celebrating their ethnic heritage with food festivals, concerts and more.

"And we have a multichurch effort in Erie ... where we identify neighborhoods in need and then organize volunteer projects in them," said Meyer.

In response to a question about "specific strategies to sustain collaborations," Elliston said that 85 percent of those who are involved in Christ Episcopal activities are "nonmembers who are not there for the conventional worship."

"The church needs to go out in the world. You can't be insular and expect them to just come in," he said.

Burden said she intends to promote the area churches' architecture and more to draw people into the buildings.

"People don't see the craftsmanship and beautiful art in our churches," she said. "I plan to continue to work to have meetings and programs in churches so people will know these assets."

'What can we do for you?'

Castano told the group that churches need to come forward in the spirit of collaboration.

"The church needs to ask the community 'what can we do for you?''' he said. "It is rare to have a church ask that. And, we have to jettison our fears of having everything perfect. We inherit this big legacy and that frightens us from just going out and trying. We worry about embarrassment."

James said churches can step forward to assist municipalities with issues such as blight, poverty and more.

"We can't wait around for years to make this work," he said. "We can talk to our cities ... and reach out."

One local resident expressed worries that rural churches may not have collaborative opportunities.

"Rural churches have the ability, even more so than the cities that have libraries and other places, to be a central resource," said Castano. "It's like a one-stop shop; so there is a lot of opportunity there. But it requires conversation."

One individual asked the panel how a church "protects its nonprofit status and still reaches out to do these things."

Elliston said his Christ Episcopal Church does not charge any fee but accepts donations, which "go into alms to help the community - the money comes in and goes out."

Castano said a church can establish a rental fee based on the market and "the church mission."

"It is not out of line to have an appropriate rental fee .... Find a fair price and decide if it aligns with your mission as a church," he said. "You have to know your value and have an honest conversation about it."

He also said a church needs to have contact information, fee schedules and more readily available via media, including websites, so as to effectively deal with groups, businesses and others interested in using church space.

One collaborative effort now in effect is the existence of ministeriums in Oil City, Franklin, Seneca and Venango County, said the Rev. Randy Powell, pastor of First Baptist Church.

"We want those churches to come and be part of our ministerium," said Powell. "It is a good clearing house to talk about this. The mechanism exists, but it needs strengthening."

At the conclusion of the forum, Burden told the group that verbal and written comments relating to how churches and their communities can develop new connections would be reviewed and shared.

"What comes after this? There will be follow-up," she said.

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