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?

The Rev. Ted Barbas, the chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston, had built a strong relationship with a quiet, unassuming donor over the years. As parishes in the region closed in response to COVID-19, this donor reached out. After speaking with Father Ted, the donor decided to give a “gift of love.”

He sent $5,000 checks to each parish in the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston and communicated that he wanted his financial support to give the congregations an opportunity to “catch their breath” while navigating online worship and digital giving.

Father Ted is a past participant in the course I teach, the Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising, and he shared this story with me in April because he wanted to affirm for others the blessing that comes from fundraising that is built in relationship and conversation.

Lake Institute on Faith & Giving encourages religious leaders to embrace relationship-focused fundraising. We believe that fundraising is not about the pitch but about inviting others to join in an organization’s mission. In relationship, fundraising becomes a practice of hospitality, honoring the gifts of generosity and helping faithful givers live out their faith.

Even in the best of times, many religious leaders actively dislike fundraising and avoid it. Often, it’s relegated to the business operations of an organization rather than being integrated as a robust part of ministry. With multiple crises facing our communities, the pressure is even more intense.

That’s not surprising. If “stewardship” is just the religious word for transactional fundraising — and let’s be honest, too often that’s all it is — it can feel disingenuous to make a spiritual case for giving. In the transactional mode, fundraising can feel like sales. The resulting sense of disconnection and missing integrity is at the root of many leaders’ dislike and distaste for fundraising work.

But what if fundraising is not about sales at all? What if, in fact, fundraising is about forming relationships that nurture faithful discernment, sharing the mission of your organization, and inviting others to participate in that mission?

Seen in this way, fundraising is not even primarily about money but truly about inviting others into deeper relationship with God and with their own vocation. As Henri Nouwen says, fundraising is ministry, and there is a deep spirituality connected to this aspect of our human lives.

So what does that look like now, in the midst of catastrophe, uncertainty and upended plans? Ideally, you have been inviting people to give in the context of relationship all along, and you feel confident that there is strong alignment between your organization’s mission and the motivation and vocation of your donors.

But it’s never too late to frame your appeal to donors in relationship, and the changed circumstances of a crisis can create an opening for that connection to deepen or develop anew.

Consider the following ways of practicing relationship-focused fundraising.

Nurture relationships

Above all else, fundraising is about relationships, which are nurtured and developed in one-on-one conversation and connection over time. Call your donors — to see how they are and to express your concern and care for them.

Most of the work of development is about that relationship, and this crisis may create an opening for you and your team of leaders (both staff and volunteers) to strengthen it. Reach out, without an agenda, and that conversation may lead you to the opportunity to invite a gift.

When you have the opportunity to talk with donors about their giving, you become recipients of their hospitality as well. They’ve invited you into their lives in a particular way. Relationship-focused fundraising is, in this sense, about mutuality and connection.

When you really know your donors and have a clear sense of their hopes for their philanthropy, you are then in a position to ask for a specific contribution with both confidence and humility.

Acknowledge that this is a time of crisis

Most faith-based nonprofit organizations, including congregations, rely on a base of individual donors who provide recurring, unrestricted financial support. We know that everyone is thinking differently today compared with just a few months ago.

When communicating about the regular, annual fundraising efforts of your organization, be attentive to the changed context in which you are asking for support.

Acknowledge it, and connect the change with your organization’s mission: Are you responding to some aspect of the crisis? Are you carrying on with your regular work in a challenging circumstance?

Celebrate the value of what your organization contributes to the world, and be specific.

Tell stories about your impact

Stories that illustrate the impact of your mission will be remembered long after facts and figures are forgotten — that’s why I shared Father Ted’s story. Impact is compelling; donors are more interested in making a difference than in understanding an organization’s operations.

A group of people connected to my congregation, for example, leveraged financial resources and social capital to prevent residents from having their utilities turned off during a shelter-in-place mandate.

Learning that this group of neighbors helped a mother keep her kids safe at home says much more to me than listing the number of people who were helped or the dollars given.

Communicate in every way you can

Use every mechanism you have to communicate clearly, positively and with a warm welcome to your partners, constituents and stakeholders. Remember that this group supports your work, and it is natural to ask them to participate however they can.

Social media, email newsletters, mailings and video all create opportunities for you to invite others to join in your mission. Remember that this is part of relationship, and an expression of hospitality.

Further, make the process of giving easy. Online options reduce barriers to giving. Put the donate button where people expect it, in the upper right corner of your website, and employ a user-friendly platform.

While being sensitive to the changes wrought by this crisis, you can still create meaningful invitations for contribution. Remember that your existing donors and friends may be looking for ways to make a difference in the world, given all the suffering and uncertainty around us.

How to ask for a gift

Asking for a major gift — however that’s defined in your organization — can be nerve-wracking. But inviting a contribution actually involves a few simple steps.

First, do your homework. If you’ve taken the time to invest in this relationship, you’ll have learned about the donor’s previous giving and general capacity to give; you will know the donor’s priorities and what gift is reasonable to request.

Second, be clear about the relationship. Who is in the best position to ask the donor for a gift? Is it the committee chairperson, the development director, the pastor or executive director? Don’t be shy in enlisting help.

Then ask the prospective donor for a meeting (in today’s circumstance, a phone call or video meeting), transparently indicating that you’d like to discuss the work of the organization and ask for financial support.

In your conversation, listen to the donor. Really pay attention. How does your current need connect with the individual’s long-standing interest in your organization?

Ask the donor to tell you more. Get a sense of what he or she is excited about. This is part of the work of developing and deepening relationships.

At the same time, you are the expert and champion for your own mission, and your commitment to that mission positions you to ask others to join you.

Once you can see how the prospective donor’s interest aligns with your organization’s work, you’re ready to invite the donor to make a gift, clearly and specifically.

Practice what you want to say beforehand so you won’t stumble. For example, an Orthodox church I know of lost $100,000 of anticipated revenue when it was forced to cancel its Greek culture festival. If I were fundraising for this church, I might prepare to approach longtime members with a request framed in this way:

“James and Mary, you have been faithful supporters of our work for years. I am so grateful for your generosity and partnership. We are now in a new circumstance, given the crisis created by the coronavirus, but our mission remains the same. Will you consider making a gift of $10,000 this spring to help us maintain our focus and meet the new challenge?”

Once you’ve asked the question, listen to the response. Treat your request as a real question, one that requires thought and consideration. Be patient, with yourself and with your donor. Take a deep breath.

Most donors are glad to be asked, even if they are unable to make the gift you have requested; otherwise, they wouldn’t have accepted the meeting.

They may have questions. Go in with some prepared answers — about the scope of the work ahead, about where you are in the fundraising process, about how they can make or structure a gift.

And be prepared to follow up, if they are looking for information you don’t have at the ready or would like to consult with others before making a decision.

Finally, the most crucial aspect, regardless of the response to this immediate request: express your thanks. Thank them for their engagement with your organization and its mission. Thank them for their time and openness to the conversation, and thank them for considering your invitation.

If they’ve said yes, follow up with a letter or email confirming the gift, providing any information they might need and once again expressing your appreciation.

Relationships and results

When we focus on relationships and see development work as part of our ministry of connection and partnership, the bottom line recedes as the mission is brought to the fore.

As I said earlier, fundraising is not about money — although it requires us to talk about money openly, confidently and practically. Fundraising advances the mission of the organization, and developing robust stewardship is part of discipleship.

Father Ted celebrated the faithfulness of his donor in Boston, whose “gift of love” offered encouragement and affirmation as well as financial support. And it would not have been possible if he had not tended the relationship.

Religious leaders who operate in this way will find the work of fundraising rewarding and meaningful. The gifts you have in ministry will all serve your work of fundraising well: leading an organization, nurturing discernment, listening attentively, and seeing and celebrating God’s gifts in the lives of others.

Don’t hold back. Because of the investment you’ve made in connecting, others know that the mission you serve is important. Invite them into that mission with confidence.