Community development corporation: Seeing our buildings as missional assets

July 19, 2022

In June, the 2022 Annual Conference authorized the formation of a community development corporation (CDC). A separate, mission-based nonprofit, the CDC will work with the Conference to come alongside churches to explore using their buildings and/or sites in innovative ways to support mission and strengthen community engagement.
The CDC, as proposed by RS-22-224, would offer consulting services, legal and property development expertise, and sale and repurposing resources to New England churches. It will begin under the auspices of the United Methodist Foundation of New England and eventually become an independent entity. 
Foundation President Ted Crass said a rough estimate based on statistical reports would put the Conference’s property assets at $1 billion. 
But for many congregations, maintenance and deferred maintenance on their buildings and property are burdens draining resources and thwarting mission. The focus of this CDC is to change that perspective — transforming churches’ physical assets into tools for effective stewardship and discipleship. 
One way to make that shift is to see properties not just as church assets but as community assets. 
“This little shift puts our church in our community, our congregation in the community, saying ‘What does our community need?’ ‘How can [our ministry] be a part of that?’” Rev. Crass said.
Some examples might be:
  • assisted living 
  • affordable housing 
  • senior centers
  • art centers 
  • youth centers
However, Rev. Crass said, churches often don’t have the personnel or the expertise to accurately assess what their community needs or the real worth or condition of
Rev. Ted Crass
their buildings to determine how their property might help fill those needs.
“This group can come in and help them quickly triage so they can begin to [discern] options, and then they can move ahead,” he said. 
“… particularly for the congregations that are vibrant — that's where this organization can help — the congregation that's able to develop something new, because that takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of time, a lot of organization, and they [a vibrant congregation] more readily can do that.”
Other congregations may simply need “right-sizing.” 
“For the next five years, [instead of] spending all your money on keeping the lights on, maybe you could sell this property and have the developer build you a small church that's more your size,” Rev. Crass said. 
Or a developer could repurpose a church’s property while creating space inside that new facility for the congregation to use.
The CDC would also be able to help the Conference Trustees handle closed churches’ property in a way that maximizes its potential and enables us to be better stewards of these resources across generations, Rev. Crass said. 
“We shouldn’t forget that we are all part of the same, larger story of God’s work -- the story of Methodism is one of planting, opening, and retiring churches as the congregations and community need,” he said. “Many of our strongest, most vibrant churches today are the successors of other churches’ ministry for their time.”
In fact, some of the initial funding for the CDC will come from the proceeds of the sale of Wesley UMC in Framingham, MA. The joint Church Conference of Wesley and Framingham First 
voted to support the endowment of a new CDC.
The goal, Rev. Crass said, is for the CDC to become self-supporting. While some services will be free, others will be fee based. In the future, there may also be opportunities for “do good-do well” investors.

Next steps

The issues facing NEAC churches are faced by churches across the country, Rev. Crass said, and other conferences and denominations are also seeking solutions. 
One of those is Wesley Community Development (WCD), a nonprofit community development corporation affiliated with the Western North Carolina Conference.
Located in Huntersville, NC, WCD was started in 2002. Rev. Crass said those two decades of experience are what makes WCD a good role model for what the Conference is seeking to create. 
Some of those working on the CDC in New England will travel to North Carolina to embed with the WCD for a couple of weeks this fall.
“[We’ll be] looking at their whole operation and see how they do everything,” Rev. Crass said. 


The idea for forming a CDC in New England started when a group of NEAC leaders came together to read the book “Historic Houses of Worship in Peril: Conserving Their Place in American Life" by Thomas Frank. 
In it, Frank writes that when congregation members recall “the good old days” of full pews and bursting Sunday School classrooms, it is not a longing to move backward, but forward:
“Leaders need to ask and hear … what is really being said behind the words. More often these memories and descriptions are indirect ways of talking about what people most value about the congregation and community. They are an appeal for the kind of energy and focus that will carry the organization forward and that will transform the community. This reflects a very different mental framework from the wish to go back.”
In July of 2021, the group invited Frank to talk with them. 
Based on their conversation, a working group was formed to see “where [the idea] would go and just keep talking about it,” Rev. Crass said. “Everyone saw the missional need for [this type of] organization.”
That group eventually wrote the legislation proposing the CDC.
“There is no reason why, even when you're in decline, you can't be expanding your ministry,” Rev. Crass said. “It’s a question of your mindset.”