Old churches have hidden value

How much are churches and synagogues worth in any given city? There is more than one way to answer such a question.

The initial reaction might be to conclude that the value of a religious institution is incalculable. Who can assign dollar value to a relationship with God, inner peace, a saved marriage, a life with purpose, the courage to confront and combat structures of sin?

But it might be possible at least to take a stab at the value of religious institutions to a community. The easiest way to assess their value might be to total the insured value of each congregation's buildings and property.

This approach would provide an accurate, yet unsatisfactory, answer. That dollar figure could be used by city or county tax assessors scrambling to increase the tax base of a city or county government. There are numerous examples of tax-starved officials plotting back door methods of taxing congregations they have accused of getting a "free ride" when it comes to property taxes.

But another method of calculating the value of a religious institution is much more comprehensive than tallying the dollar value of the land, bricks and mortar. This method, suggested by the nonprofit organization Sacred Places (http://sacredplaces.org ) measures the way a congregation opens itself to the wider community.

The mission of Sacred Spaces is to assist congregations housed in buildings more than 50 years old. These congregations, mostly situated in the central city, share some common characteristics. They save lives, and not just the lives of their own congregation.

Research sponsored by Sacred Spaces reveals that 93 percent of churches and synagogues housed in buildings more than a half century old open their doors to the larger community in the form of food pantries, clothing closets, soup kitchens, community support groups, before- or after-school groups, nurseries, day care ministries, music and lecture series, etc.

Sacred Space has developed a formula to calculate the value these congregations add to the community based on this premise: If these congregations disappeared, how much would it cost government and/or private businesses to replace their services?

According to their calculator, each congregation 50 years or older provides an average annual benefit to the city of $140,000. So, if Albany had seven congregations housed in buildings more than 50 years old, it would take $1 million to replace the services provided by those congregations.

This is a fascinating way to measure the worth of a congregation to the wider community. Even those who do not darken the door of a congregation or who sneer at "organized religion" receive value by the very nature of the ministry that these religious institutions offer to their city.

Such knowledge may be helpful to congregations who sometimes sell their witness short. And it should serve notice to the larger community that the value of the historic congregation goes far beyond its own walls.

Contact Minister Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.