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Will Giving Up a Building Revitalize a Congregation?
Will Giving Up a Building Revitalize a Congregation?

What happens when a congregation gives up its building because it’s too much to maintain and then focuses its energy on programming and outreach? First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit is about to find out.

The 80-member congregation, located in Detroit’s central core, has labored for years to keep its three-building complex––the church building itself, a house, and a religious education building––all built between 1891 and 1917––going. It takes much of the congregation’s resources and time to keep things in repair.

But congregational leaders have arrived at a solution that they hope will be good for the congregation and for the larger community. In July the church governing board donated its properties to the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC). The nonprofit council took over operational responsibility in August.

In exchange, the congregation is allowed to continue to hold services in the sanctuary on Sundays in perpetuity. It will also have the right to negotiate for use of other parts of the buildings as needed. Sally Borden, president of the congregation and a member since 1973, said the transfer helps both parties.

She said that a year ago the congregation’s governing board began to seriously consider ways of getting out from under maintenance expenses that were absorbing around $80,000 a year, close to half the congregation’s operating budget.

“We thought about every possible solution, including boarding up the buildings and walking away, selling them, renting space in them. Then we threw it open to the community, to see what ideas other people had. EMEAC made us a proposal and we accepted it.”

EMEAC, founded in the 1960s to confront environmental problems in Michigan, will have its own offices in the church buildings and will rent parts to other progressive enterprises as part of a “commons” of social justice minded groups and individuals. Already in the building is a law firm. Other possible tenants that have expressed interest are a “people’s kitchen,” a holistic healer, a bicycle shop, a cultural arts center, and a range of other arts-related groups.

“We are creating a common space for the movements around social justice, food justice, environmental justice, and digital justice to educate, strategize, and strengthen the underrepresented and unrepresented voices of our youth, elders, communities of color, and those that differ in their orientation and abilities,” said EMEAC Associate Director Lottie Spady on the organization’s website. “Maintaining the structural expenses of a large building is a challenge, but it’s one that has been anticipated and we are planning accordingly.”

The three buildings encompass 46,000 square feet, said Borden, and would have probably brought $1 million to $2 million if sold. The church building itself, built for a Universalist congregation in 1917, with a massive bell tower and historic pipe organ, is connected to the other two buildings, she said. “We have three basements, and three boilers and heating systems. Our kids used to love it because they could really get lost in there.” The congregation has no current religious education program for children.  

Borden said she hopes the transition will allow the congregation, which once had 700 members, to focus on programs and outreach and that—freed from maintenance issues—it might grow. “We’re surrounded by Wayne State University in an area that is becoming gentrified, and we’re hoping to develop programs that will appeal to younger people,” she said. The building complex is adjacent to one of Detroit’s cultural districts.

“We recognize that we’re stepping off into new territory,” said Borden. “We’re excited and anxious. People are really pulling together and wanting this to work. It will be up to us to make of it what we will. Whatever happens, people can’t say we haven’t tried.” She noted the congregation gained several new members during the transition.

In the event EMEAC can’t make a go of the property, the church would have the option of buying it back, Borden said. The transfer agreement will likely include a binding arbitration process in case there are disagreements that the two parties can’t solve.

The congregation has a storied history. In 1934 the Unitarian congregation in Detroit merged with the Universalist congregation, coming together in the building complex that is now being transferred to EMEAC.

The congregation was active in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the fifties and sixties. Viola Liuzzo, killed in Alabama in 1965 by white supremacists while supporting a protest march, was a member. Another member, Alice Herz, also died in 1965, ten days after setting herself on fire to protest the Vietnam War. The congregation has long rented or given space in its buildings to social justice groups.

Borden noted that many members of the congregation have connections to EMEAC, and the two groups have many similar aims.

The congregation has had interim ministers for the past two years and is currently in search. Current interim minister the Rev. Roger Mohr noted, “We see this as a creative move on the congregation’s part and something it feels very good about, even as it also feels some degree of loss. It’s been challenging for the congregation to think about this.”

The congregation is solid, he noted. “It just has way more building than it needs. With this transition we’re looking at doing some re-visioning. If your vision is no longer about maintaining your facility, then what is your mission? You can totally rethink what you can do in the community. These folks are committed to Detroit.”

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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