Stained glass, steeples and financial sustainability

The formerly enslaved artisans who constructed First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, South Carolina, sometime after the Civil War didn’t use nails. Metal was expensive and often hard to come by for Black builders less than a generation from bondage.

The Rev. Alexander McBride, First African’s senior pastor, explained how the laborers built the church in Gothic Revival style, noted for its signature pointed arches and windows. The current building replaced an antebellum praise house, an open one-room clapboard space with little furniture so the enslaved could engage in a more mobile, joyful service removed from white surveillance and sit-quiet worship styles.

First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, South Carolina
First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, South Carolina, was constructed by master craftsmen more than a century ago.

“They used the mortise-and-tenon method, where they interlock the wood. And this church has withstood every hurricane” that has rolled through the coastal city, said McBride, the 16th pastor at First African in its more than 150 years of existence.

And there have been many storms. An 1893 hurricane drowned many of the town’s Black residents, stranded in low-lying areas or swept to their deaths. But even that massive storm didn’t cause significant damage to the church, thanks to the unnamed craftsmen who may have lacked nails but had possessed the skill and wisdom to use the strongest joint known to woodworkers.

The church’s biggest current enemies are time, termites (which have eaten their way through some of the structure’s undercarriage) and moisture — largely unavoidable menaces for a century-old building in a humid seaside town.

Earlier this year, First African was among dozens of historically Black churches to win grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Those monies, through the Preserving Black Churches initiative — $4 million in this funding cycle — will support projects that recast their sites’ history through new interpretation or exhibits, grow capacity through staff hires and community outreach, and repair aging or damaged buildings.

Diversity of spaces

The grantees highlight the diversity of Black worship spaces and the history of how Black Americans have fought for religious freedom and built their own institutions amid racism and violence. They include institutions such as 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which just marked 60 years since the Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four girls and damaged the church; the elegant Black-majority Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia; one-room churches built by hand and heart; and churches in places with historically small Black populations, such as Alaska and West Virginia.

Two images side by side, one of a brick church steeple, one of a white basilica
16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, (left) and Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia, are both grant recipients.

“Black churches are living testaments to the achievements and resiliency of generations in the face of a racialized, inequitable society,” said Tiffany Tolbert, the Action Fund’s senior director for preservation. “They’re foundational to our Black religious, political, economic and social life.”

In some places, a church is the only building that remains as an artifact of a Black community that no longer exists. Scotland AME Zion Church in Potomac, Maryland, not far from the nation’s capital, is one such example from a community swallowed by encroaching development and urban sprawl.

Religion scholar C. Eric Lincoln once described the Black church as the unchallenged “cultural womb of the Black community.” Fellowship halls and sanctuaries in Black churches have long functioned as multipurpose rooms, where worship and politics meet. Churches like Beaufort’s First African have been incubators for Black social enterprise; during Reconstruction, First African was the site of a school for freed people, hungry for the literacy denied them during slavery.

Numerous historically Black colleges, civil rights protests and social movements trace their origins to Black pulpits and pews. Preserving church spaces can thus have a multiplying effect, documenting as well the stories of Black communities at large and the work of Black architects, artisans and mutual aid.

Worthy of preservation

It’s commonly said that the church is “more than the building,” yet buildings are material remnants of history and culture. What kinds of meaning do church buildings have for you?

Image of a church made with stone bricks
Design features of the Halltown Memorial Chapel are tangible history of the people who worshipped there.

That’s the case with the Halltown Memorial Chapel, built in 1901 not far from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where abolitionist John Brown and his band of brigands in 1859 had raided an arsenal in hopes of ending slavery. The one-room chapel is small, only about 40 feet by 50 feet, with room for 13 pews. It was built of rubble stone by church members, stone masons and laborers who also constructed a nearby turnpike or worked at the local paper mill, which has since closed. Services continued there for decades, only ceasing after World War II because of a dwindling congregation. After that, it hosted the occasional gathering until its last event — a wedding of one of the founders’ descendants — in 1988.

Kim Lowry, the treasurer of the Halltown Chapel Memorial Association, cataloged the many repairs needed via email. “Water damage from a hole in the roof and from water seeping in under the foundation was the culprit. And without regular events or services, the chapel suffered from neglect. The plaster walls needed to be rehabilitated, the flooring had rotted and deteriorated and required replacement, and exterior work was required on the wood window sills and frames and the Chapel entrance area.”

Powderpost beetles had chomped on the pews, spreading ruin with every bite. One of the church’s three stained-glass windows was missing altogether, and the others needed restoration. One is a poignant tribute to Edna, a church member’s child who had died in infancy. Such design features — with references to congregation members who fundraised for such elements — are tangible history, traces of people long gone and their efforts to build beloved community.

“It’s impossible to talk about American craftsmanship without talking about the Black and Indigenous hands that constructed it even before 1776,” said Brandon Bibby, a senior preservation architect with the Action Fund. “It’s important to preserve that aspect so that we as a society don’t forget. By preserving, we are saying, ‘This place matters in the whole context of the American landscape.’”

“What I want most is that through this project, Black congregations and communities will see the value and beauty in their places and see they are worthy of preservation,” he said.

Does your church have a historic role in your community? How has its role changed over the years?

Image of a man inspecting the foundation of a building
Repairs being made at 16th Street Baptist.

Recognizable elements of church design can be particularly vulnerable to deterioration. Steeples are both symbolic and pragmatic communicators; their towering presence in a landscape announces where people can worship or seek shelter. Yet sitting aloft, largely inaccessible, placing strain on dramatic, heaven-pointed roofs and often channeling rainwater to places it shouldn’t go, steeples can be a source of problems that go unnoticed until a leak sprouts or cracks appear.

Many of the Preserving Black Churches grant recipients need steeple repair. When congregations are forced to choose among costly repairs, a steeple can sometimes take a back seat to high-traffic areas with more visible problems, such as the sanctuary itself.

Funding a range of needs

What traditional elements of your church are difficult to maintain? Would your congregation be OK without them?

Declining church attendance has meant less coin in the collection plate and, in turn, fewer resources for maintenance and repairs. Black American church membership has dropped in recent years, from 78% in 1998-2000 to 59% in 2018-2020, though Black Americans remain one of the top populations most likely to be church members (along with conservatives and Republicans), according to a multiyear Gallup poll released in 2021.

A 2012 Kellogg Foundation report also found that Black people give more of their income to community-based causes than whites, in part because of a culture of mutual aid, lack of access to white-dominated institutional funding and traditions such as tithing. Even so, when an evangelical research firm surveyed church financial well-being, more Black pastors said their congregations had less than seven weeks of cash reserves — perhaps because they are dependent on a community with lower wealth in the first place. Getting money to repair churches can be particularly difficult.

Following the first grants that went to 35 churches across the country, recipients of another $4 million will be announced in January, Tolbert said, as part of a plan to distribute between $8 and $10 million, with support from Lilly Endowment Inc. In total, $20 million will be invested through Preserving Black Churches across all of its program goals.

If you were asked what in your church is worth preserving, what would you say? What would your congregation say?

headshot of Tiffany Tolbert
Tiffany Tolbert

That funding will go not only toward capital needs, Tolbert said, but also toward planning, to help churches understand how to undertake preservation. Matching grants will help churches create new preservation endowments so that invested income can be used to support maintenance and preservation of existing buildings. Emergency grants are also available to address immediate issues such as damage caused by floods, fires and even acts of vandalism.

And the Action Fund is working with six churches — four in Alabama and one each in California and Chicago — to help develop comprehensive stewardship plans that will address restoration and rehabilitation of the buildings along with programming and interpretation, activating space for community, and bringing in arts and social justice programs. They will benefit from a consulting team of architects, engineers, business planners and capital campaign fundraisers.

“It is essential that these places are activated,” Tolbert said. “They are centers of worship, but also, they continue to serve the community.”

Action Fund executive director Brent Leggs told The Washington Post in an interview that Black churches are exceptional lenses through which to view Black and American history. “It’s amazing to see centuries of Black history told at historic Black churches. Some of the stories include formerly enslaved Africans moving through emancipation, beginning to form communities, … and some of the earliest buildings founded by African Americans in the United States [include] a Black church. These places are of exceptional significance. Their stories matter, and they are worthy of being preserved.”

Would members of your community benefit from learning more about your congregation’s past and its role in local history?

Questions to consider

  • It’s commonly said that the church is “more than the building,” yet buildings are material remnants of history and culture. What kinds of meaning do church buildings have for you?
  • Does your church have a historic role in your community? How has its role changed over the years?
  • Steeples are a traditional element of many churches, yet they can be difficult to maintain. What traditional elements of your church are difficult to maintain? Would your congregation be OK without them?
  • If you were asked what in your church is worth preserving, what would you say? What would your congregation say?
  • How is your space “activated” for your community? Would members of your community benefit from learning more about your congregation’s past and its role in local history?

Years ago, Ken faced a struggle in the downtown church where he was serving as a young associate pastor. On a return visit to Duke Divinity School, he described the dilemma to Robert Wilson, an approachable and curious member of the faculty.

Wilson listened, paused and then began to talk about a book he had co-written in 1974 called “What’s Ahead for Old First Church.” It draws on a three-year study of more than 300 downtown congregations in more than 100 cities.

“You know, that book has sold and sold and sold!” he said with a smile.

The question at the heart of the book, published almost 50 years ago, remains: What is the future for “First Churches” — those anchor institutions in our cities? Ken returned to the book amid the pandemic and was struck by how much in it still resonates today.

How do you know whether your congregation is a First Church? (Keep in mind that a First Church might be called Central or Trinity or be named for one of the saints.)

These institutions are often described with three words: quality, prestige and leadership. The book notes several signs of an Old First Church:

  • Is an easily recognized urban landmark.
  • Is a symbol of its denomination.
  • Is a symbol of the role that religion plays in a city.
  • Is instrumental in giving birth to new churches.
  • Is known for excellence in worship and music.
  • Counts among its membership persons of affluence.

There are also some less research-based signs: Does your church have a wall dedicated to 8-by-10 photos of pastors past? Do you have a ceramics room, complete with kiln and ceramic figurines? Do you find yourself talking about a nostalgic past, when the congregation carried more influence? If so, you might be a First Church.

For those of us who regard the downtown big-steeple church of 50 years ago as the height of the mainline, it’s important to note that the book also points to these traits of an Old First Church:

  • Is in decline.
  • Is surrounded by change.
  • Has deferred maintenance.
  • Has more money than people (although that may be in question).
  • Has leadership in denial about the trends.
  • Yearns for a pastor who can recapture the glory of former times.

Wilson and his co-author, Ezra Earl Jones, are clear about the problem: “A large number of Old First Churches are rapidly approaching a crisis point.” We were surprised to see this — 50 years ago, these churches were in crisis?

This runs against the grain of a common narrative, which sees a generation ago as the era of glory and success. Many of the artifacts displayed in First Churches reinforce such a perception; they hold up the past by honoring an influential pastor or lay leader, a very large Sunday School class or youth group, and evidence of their former position of prominence in the community.

We can only imagine that the book sold so much because it identifies the paralyzing tension that many First Churches find themselves facing — then and now. They must honor and maintain the church of the past for longtime members while also creating a new church with new people to continue the gospel message of Jesus.

So what’s next for Old First Church? We would suggest that First Churches practice a more truthful remembrance of the past in order to move more faithfully into the future. This process includes observation, interpretation and intervention. The authors of “What’s Ahead for Old First Church” engaged in this kind of exercise, and our own congregations merit the same intentional process.

First Churches often have long histories and complex narratives. At the same time, they might have a propensity to oversimplify what is going on — whether within their buildings, among their people or in their surroundings.

A more nuanced observation helps us understand the multilayered context in which these churches are located. Cities are contested spaces; denominations are themselves a changing landscape; workforces are departing from commercial centers and in different ways returning to them; and the nature of work, gathering and spirituality are being revised by digital access and experience.

Observation leads to interpretation. A deep practice of interpretation involves multiple conversation partners — often drawn from fields as diverse as urban planning, economic development and community organizing.

We addressed this in our book “Fresh Expressions of People Over Property,” and we also highly recommend “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership,” by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky.

Ken often asks leaders of these churches, “Whom are you learning from?” A church in Miami can learn from a church in San Antonio, and the same church in Miami can facilitate learning with a church in Los Angeles.

After that groundwork, intervention is crucial. The absence of an intervention can be a kind of work avoidance or even a failure of nerve.

First UMC in Miami is one example of a church that was willing to live through a necessary change. Audrey led a multiyear reinvention of the church and has lived the book’s question.

What resulted flowed from the iterative process of observation (what was going on within and around First UMC Miami), interpretation (what was needed in the next generations among the dynamic mission field surrounding the church), and intervention (the destruction of what had been, the migration of worship to a new setting for over three years, and the design and creation of a new structure with expanded purposes and partnerships).

First UMC Miami wrestled with the question, “What’s ahead?” and came up with an answer. Other First Churches need to do the same for themselves. The answer to the question is unique to each geographical context, each collection of leaders and each congregational history.

What’s ahead for Old First Church? Our conversations with lay and clergy leaders convince us that this remains a crucial question. Yet we believe in those institutions. They can thrive — if they have the courage to embrace and honor the past while building a pathway toward the future that God dreams about for vital churches in living communities.

So what’s next for Old First Church? We would suggest that First Churches practice a more truthful remembrance of the past in order to move more faithfully into the future. This process includes observation, interpretation and intervention.

When the Rev. Angela M. Redman left her 20-year legal career to serve as executive director of the United Methodist City Society, she did not expect so much of her time to be focused on real estate management and development. But she spends a good part of each day doing just that.

Located in upper Manhattan, the United Methodist City Society is a 185-year-old agency that provides support to United Methodist churches in the greater New York City area. A group of Methodist women started the organization to provide meals, education and shelter to children in economically impoverished neighborhoods. The society went on to build churches and spread the faith. Today, it still holds titles to churches throughout the area.

One of them was the Trinity-Morrisania United Methodist Church in the Bronx. But where that church once stood is now the Trinity-Rev. William M. James Senior Apartments, with 153 affordable housing units for low-income seniors. James had led a revitalization of the church as pastor there in the 1940s and ’50s.

trinity apts ext.
The United Methodist City Society led the effort to redevelop a church site into affordable housing for seniors, including some who were formerly incarcerated.

A joint venture between the United Methodist City Society and the Bronx Pro Group — a real estate development and management company focused on affordable housing — the Trinity Apartments began accepting tenants in late 2021. But the project’s origin story goes back more than a decade, when the City Society’s then executive director, the Rev. Dr. William Shillady, first visited the church in 2008.

“When I first got to City Society, I visited all the churches we held title to,” Shillady said. A new apartment building had gone up across the street from Trinity-Morrisania, and the words emblazoned across the front door lintel caught his eye: “With God’s Love All Things Are Possible.”

That was Shillady’s introduction to the Bronx Pro Group. He contacted the developer and got a tour of the property.

In 2016, when the 12 remaining congregants of Trinity-Morrisania decided it was time to close the church, Shillady contacted the developer, beginning the transformation from a 150-year-old church in ill repair to a modern 12-story apartment building for low-income seniors. To be eligible, tenants must meet an age requirement and earn no more than 60% of the area’s median income.

tenant
Residents like Freddie Pagain take pride in decorating their homes.

The process was complicated, with intense negotiations between lawyers, Shillady recalled. Out of the eventual deal, City Society maintained a 25% share in the $88 million dollar development project, putting no money down, aside from the negotiating costs. Funded with tax-exempt bond financing, low-income housing tax credits and government subsidies, the project allows City Society to earn income — an estimated $50,000 to $75,000 annually — to fund additional mission work.

A developer with a mission

Since shifting its focus to affordable housing in 1998, the Bronx Pro Group has built more than 2,900 affordable units. Developing quality housing for low-income New Yorkers is integral to the mission of the firm, which was started by Peter Magistro, then a real estate developer and property manager, now retired. Aligning with his passion to cook for and feed the unhoused, according to his daughter, Samantha, he discovered he had a knack for affordable housing. After he completed his first such project in 2000, the company’s aspirational nod to Matthew 19:26 — “With God’s Love All Things Are Possible” — went over the door. It continues to grace many of the buildings that Bronx Pro develops and manages.

Samantha Magistro, now the company’s CEO, said this kind of work takes effort and faith. The project with City Society was no exception.

Although Bronx Pro had repurposed a vacant church before, this was the first time they were taking down a building with architecturally historic significance, and working with a partner who wanted to collaborate every step of the way.

All things being equal, from a business perspective, it’s better to have fewer hurdles,” Samantha Magistro said. “But business is not the only driving factor.”

For example, it was important to Shillady that the new building incorporate elements of the old church. Walking through the lobby and the public spaces, you can see reminders: in the wooden arches built into a ground floor common room, in the restored stained-glass windows above the mailboxes and the restored pews, where residents can relax on their way in or out of the building.

How can your mission create community that sustains your organization’s purpose?

“Bill [Shillady] wanted to keep the mission alive, and it gave a richness to the experience of developing this project,” Samantha Magistro said. “This work is hard, so you have to be fulfilled from it.”

The church may be gone, but the mission work of the United Methodist City Society is very much present.

“Affordable housing is mission, by bringing the marginalized into beloved community,” Shillady said.

In the case of the Trinity Apartments, not only are they providing sustainable housing to low-income seniors, but the property also dedicates more than a third of the apartments to supported housing, reserved for formerly incarcerated seniors.

Since his release from prison in 2019, 70-year-old Ruhullah Hizbullah had been shuttled among various New York City homeless shelters. He was in a shelter in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx when his name was picked in a housing lottery.

“They told me to pack my bags,” Hizbullah said, holding his dog, Duke, in his cozy studio apartment. “I signed the papers and got the keys the same day. Now I feel free.”

How can your property be reimagined for mission-driven development?

Rulhullah
Ruhullah Hizbullah, who shares a studio apartment with his dog, Duke, sits outside on the building’s 6th floor terrace.

The apartment was move-in ready: fully furnished, with linens and a kitchen stocked with pots and pans. Like the other tenants in the building, Hizbullah pays 30% of his monthly income in rent. State and city subsidies cover the remainder.

Another benefit for supported housing residents like Hizbullah are the wraparound services provided on-site by the Fortune Society, a New York-based nonprofit that has been helping people released from prison successfully reenter the community since 1967. Fortune Society rents office space in the building to support the organization’s broader mission in New York City. Among those working from the building are the case managers and staff who cater directly to the Trinity residents.

Providing a variety of services

“Each tenant has a case manager to talk with them individually to see what they want to work on,” said Carolyn Slade, who directs the senior housing program at the Trinity Apartments. Many of the resident have a history of homelessness and involvement in the criminal justice system.

“We try to help them integrate into the community,” she said. 

That could mean addressing mental health issues and substance use. Ongoing services include training in budget management so that residents know how to be financially responsible. And an important part of Fortune Society’s support is making sure residents are accessing the benefits to which they are entitled.

“We want to make sure they have the income and the means to take care of things, like rent,” Slade said. The aim is to prevent these residents from experiencing homelessness again.

Fortune has a nurse on-site to help manage mobility issues, high blood pressure, diabetes. A lack of access to primary care means many tenants have unaddressed health concerns.

Tenants receive support to connect with primary care physicians and assistance with transportation to their medical appointments. Fortune also works with an agency that helps tenants access home health care workers to assist with cleaning, food preparation or shopping if they need it.

But among the most important services Fortune Society provides — not just for the formerly incarcerated but for all the residents — is building a sense of community.

tenant meeting
Carolyn Slade, an on-site staff member of organizational partner the Fortune Society, leads a residents’ meeting.

That took time, said senior case manager Stalin Hunt, a Fortune Society employee for 20 years.

“When we first opened the building, the affordable housing tenants said, ‘I don’t want people like that here,’” Hunt said, referring to the other tenants’ concerns about the apartments reserved for the formerly incarcerated. “They were worried they would not feel safe or that their belongings would get stolen.”

But nothing like that happened, and the tensions began to subside.

The Fortune Society fosters community through events — such as a Valentine’s Day party and other holiday celebrations.

“You can really see people coming together as a community,” Hunt said. “People look out for each other.”

Resident William Muhamad Green, 63, said he also had spent a lot of time moving between the city’s homeless shelters after he was released from being incarcerated. He eventually became one of Trinity’s first residents and now experiences the type of community that builds friendships, like his with Hizbullah. He even takes turns caring for Duke.

When people challenge a concept or plan, how do you listen and form a response?

Green
Resident William Muhamad Green, who used to be a boxer and train boxers, works out on the punching bag in Ruhullah’s apartment. The two have become friends as well as neighbors.

Fortune offers health, sports and cooking classes, as well as support groups. At a recent monthly tenants meeting, Fortune introduced a new member of the team, who would be coordinating other recreational activities, such as chess tournaments, bingo, nature walks and a talent show. 

And there are plenty of spaces throughout the building where people can meet — like the sixth-floor terrace that offers a view of the Bronx skyline. On an unusually warm day in February, Hizbullah sat outside as the pigeons circled the coop on the neighboring rooftop.

“I like a place where I can meditate and read,” he said. “To free my mind.”

It may not look like a sanctuary, but the atmosphere is peaceful. A contemplative spot to call home.

Beyond serving congregations

“As church congregations are shrinking — and in some situations severely — the upkeep of the buildings is becoming too expensive for the congregations to manage,” said Redman, the City Society executive director. It’s important to explore how properties can be used differently to further ministry and generate income streams, she said.

This is not the first time City Society has been involved in affordable housing. Even in the early 20th century, the organization owned a number of buildings that offered housing to immigrants arriving in New York.

A later example is Grace United Methodist Church in Manhattan, which suffered a catastrophic fire in 1983. When City Society made plans to rebuild the church, the development project also included a 10-story building for low-income housing.

City Society owns that building outright. And while they hire a company for day-to-day management, maintaining the property is not for the faint of heart. Redman recently rattled off some of the reasons she spends so much time dealing with the property.

“We have five vacant apartments. That lowers the income stream. We have seven or eight tenants behind in rent. That lowers the income stream,” Redman said. “We meet with a management team and have a real estate committee. This is a significant part of what I do as executive director.”

NYC
A view of the Bronx from the 6th floor garden terrace of the Trinity Apartments.

There are definite advantages, she pointed out, to the partnership model that City Society has with the Bronx Pro Group. They maintain partial ownership in the property but don’t have to deal with all of those daily concerns.

But full ownership or a joint venture like the Trinity Apartments are just two possible models for churches. Since retiring in July 2022, after the official ribbon cutting at the Trinity Apartments, Shillady has invested his time in helping cash-strapped faith communities explore various ways to generate income.

“I’m really passionate about affordable housing and using church property for mission-driven development,” said Shillady, who now consults with congregations about how they can repurpose their properties. He also serves on the board of a New York City-based nonprofit called Bricks and Mortals, which helps faith-based communities utilize their properties in creative, sustainable ways.

One of the purposes of this member-based organization in bringing together religious leaders, lawyers, developers and brokers is to document the strategies religious institutions may use to sustain themselves and continue to provide essential services to New York City and surrounding areas.

There are a number of ways the thousands of religious properties in New York City can use their space to maximize mission. Among them are selling air rights to a developer or renting community space for theater or dance classes or educational groups, Shillady said.

“A church can sell its property and make a lot of money and walk away, whereas a church can negotiate a development where they could have new space in a mixed-used building to do missional work,” he said. “That congregation gets a new facility, partial ownership, income stream and usually some funds up front. It is not walking away but finding a way to be missional.”

Who are the community partners who should be at the table in developing strategies for sustainability?  

Questions to consider

  • How can your mission create community that sustains your organization’s purpose?
  • How can your property be reimagined for mission-driven development?
  • When people challenge a concept or plan, how do you listen and form a response?
  • Who are the community partners who should be at the table in developing strategies for sustainability?  

First United Methodist Church of Miami was Audrey’s second pastoral appointment. She left a deeply challenging and meaningful missional ministry in South Miami to come to the big, shiny downtown church and find some rest, security and stability. She thought.

It didn’t take long to notice that the exterior cross was not shiny but rusty, the roof was leaking, and the sanctuary pulpit had been eroded by termites. The building maintenance list was twice as long as the hospital visit list. So much for rest!

This is the reality of most of our beloved “Old First Churches.” Because First Churches — often, the first of their denominations to be established in a city — are in strategic locations and have significant influence, they have long drawn the attention of observers.

In 1974, Ezra Earl Jones and Robert Wilson wrote a book titled “What’s Ahead for Old First Church?” In their research, they focused on the role of the downtown church in the civic, religious and social life of a city, region and denomination. They noted a number of common traits of Old First Churches — quality, prestige and leadership.

And yet reading their work almost 50 years later, we were struck by the undeniable sense that already in the early ’70s the Old First Church was in decline.

The disestablishment of mainline religion was underway; the function of downtown areas was shifting, especially as the suburbs were growing; and the aberrant patterns of convergent and cohesive communities that had occurred in the post-World War II 1950s were giving way to divergent patterns of social life.

Audrey’s church fit this model, which we included in our 2020 book, “Fresh Expressions of People Over Property.” First UMC Miami’s history is deeply linked to its origins as a downtown church with multiple locations, narratives and identities.

Miami is magical, especially at night. This was not the case 126 years ago, when First United Methodist Church was birthed. The location on the Miami River had been occupied for thousands of years by Native Americans and had been visited by Ponce de Leon in the 1500s; the city itself was incorporated in 1896.

At that time, it wasn’t much of a city, comprising wooden structures, mangrove trees and mud. Many of our early members imagined more; the people who built the city were also the founders of White Temple ME Church (in the northern faction of the Methodist Episcopal denomination) and Trinity ME Church South (in the southern one).

historic postcards
Postcards of The White Temple Methodist Church and Trinity Methodist Church in Miami, Florida. The two congregations later merged to become First United Methodist Church of Miami.

Both churches started in houseboats, then upgraded to buildings and eventually erected their sunbathed sanctuaries just two blocks from one another. The churches had been in their new downtown buildings only about 20 years when the northern and southern Methodists reunited.

Although the two churches were now under the same denominational umbrella and less than a mile apart, they never spoke of merging — they were too big. The growth continued until the ’60s and ’70s. But perhaps spurred by a damaging fire at White Temple, the two churches merged in 1966, meeting at the Trinity campus for several years before constructing a new building on Biscayne Boulevard, completed in 1981.

White flight continued, and by the ’90s, most mainline churches in Miami had lost 50% of their membership. Many wondered what was ahead.

Urban theorist Richard Florida has noted that suburbanization “accentuated [the] fissure of urban areas into separate zones for working and living.” Many of our downtown structures were defined and built for an earlier way of life. But church leaders were slow to adapt to change.

Still, adaptation would come. Many downtown churches simply followed their people to the suburbs; as we know, systemic racism was and is a factor in real estate markets.

Alongside the change came a nostalgia for the past — when sanctuaries and Sunday school classes were filled with people, when prominent preachers held esteemed positions in the community, when political and civic leaders of influence sat in the pews and were active as members.

This selective memory does harm to leadership in the present, lowering morale and increasing anxiety and stress.

When Audrey arrived as pastor of FUMC Miami in 2015, some members still identified themselves as “Templers” or “Trinity.” Many carried with them the nostalgia and prestige passed on to them by the ancestors who had built the city and had stayed when so many others left.

Not all were longtime locals, of course. The faithful folks she inherited were from more than 25 countries around the world, and they also embraced FUMC’s identity “in the heart of the city with the city in its heart.”

The men’s group started a powerful ministry with the unhoused. Many members started tutoring at local elementary schools. The church became a leader in Miami’s People Acting for Community Together and took on many social issues downtown. FUMC’s music was far from contemporary, and its sanctuary bore no screens, but each year new people trickled into the church.

Like many bighearted downtown churches across the country, First UMC found that love was not enough to pay the bills and do new things. Solutions such as budget cuts and renting out space helped for only so long. The church was looking at half a million dollars in upgrades, such as improving bathrooms and organ pipes — expenditures that were necessary but did not bring in new people.

For many churches, large property decisions arise from two main drivers: declaration and desperation. First UMC was motivated by both.

The congregation wanted to stay downtown to declare the gospel and serve the homeless. They also were becoming desperate. Audrey spent her first few months at FUMC crunching numbers. How much square footage was used for ministry? How many of the top 25 givers were over 65? (Answer: too many.)

The questions and the data led to a decision: They had to do something.

How could First UMC remain an Old First Church, willing to understand its past and appreciate its traditions, yet discern what in all of that could be released and repurposed for mission in a changed landscape?

The church formed an exploratory development committee, which created a plan and process to partner with a developer. It then sold a little over an acre to a developer who is building two towers on the property. The church will occupy 20,000 square feet on a corner of one building, and the rest of the building will have 696 microunit apartments, 40 of which will be used as a hotel. The second tower will be residential.

The income received from the sale is being used to buy and build the church’s portion of one building. The rest will be in an endowment to fund the church in perpetuity.

The vision is to have a hub in downtown and spokes in the city. The spokes will be created by the missional and faith needs in their locations, such as a new brunch church directed toward the LGBTQ community or missional ministry with veterans.

FUMC of Miami does not want to stop following God where God might lead them now that they are building a beautiful home. Each year, they’re working to live into a new future for their beloved — new — First Church.