U.S. Highway 1, known locally as Roosevelt Boulevard, cuts a nine-mile swath through the heart of northeast Philadelphia. Since its initial construction in 1902, the boulevard has beckoned Philadelphians away from the core city—step by step and new neighborhood by new neighborhood—until they reached the suburbs. As people migrated, they usually left their houses of worship behind to build anew in their “promised land.”

The first church one sees as the boulevard begins its journey out of town might be considered a leftover. Its signboard announcing a German-language service is as out of place in Spanish-speaking Feltonville as sauerkraut would be at a Three Kings Day celebration (a traditional Hispanic Epiphany event). But Tabor Lutheran Church is thriving. Its building is bustling with kids, its confirmation class is healthy, renovated space accommodates multiple community programs, and the steeple-top cross shines brightly every night onto the streets where its members no longer live.

Passersby must wonder how Tabor survives today. Clearly, the church has a complex and compelling story to tell. Is Tabor, however, able to tell that story to people who would care? Can it reach people who could help the church sustain its sacred place amid so much ongoing change?

To help the church find a way to tell its story and find new partners in the community to sustain and build its outreach, Partners for Sacred Places invited the Greater Olney Circle of Friends—a fledgling collaboration of five congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, including Tabor, established by Lutheran Children and Family Service (LCFS) of Southeastern Pennsylvania—to participate in field-testing a unique new tool kit called Your Sacred Place Is a Community Asset. This initiative became a model for how congregations can broaden the circle of individuals and institutions that care about—and act to support—their place in community life. Furthermore, the work of each congregation in learning how to understand and tell its own story has helped to strengthen the collaboration itself.

The “Public Value” of Sacred Places
People of faith can be effective communicators, but they tend to be less effective in telling the stories of their own congregations to the larger public. Partners for Sacred Places—the only national nonprofit and nonsectarian organization in America that focuses on providing resources for property stewardship and preservation to congregations of all faiths—decided to respond to this challenge.

Partners has always known a couple of things anecdotally—that congregations open their doors unselfishly to their communities and that, for many congregations, capital needs outstrip financial means. Further, it has been clear that many urban and rural congregations do not have enough members and financial resources to maintain their aging buildings. Thus, they cannot sustain their roles as de facto community centers without new sources of funding and assistance. Despite the urgency of these needs, congregations usually don’t know how to ask the community for help—or are unsure if they should.

To add scholarly rigor to this understanding, we at Partners for Sacred Places decided to document the value of community programs that congregations host in their buildings. We undertook a national study of more than 110 community-serving congregations in six cities, published in 1998 as Sacred Places at Risk. This landmark study showed that over 80 percent of the people served by programs hosted by congregations are nonmembers, that four community-serving programs are hosted by the average congregation, and that each congregation provides resources that support these programs, valued at almost $150,000 each year.

These numbers grabbed the attention of policy makers, philanthropists, government officials, and religious leaders who recognized the impact that congregations have in their neighborhoods, and knew what would be lost if they closed their doors. But even more important, the findings caught the eye of individual congregations, which began asking Partners how they could obtain similar numbers for their buildings and programs.

Partners moved immediately to convene a national advisory team to help create a resource to help congregations gather this data. As Partners developed it, the tool kit evolved into a multidimensional resource for gathering and weaving the threads of a congregation’s story: Who we are (our heritage in a community context), What we have (the building fabric and the space it offers for community programming), and What we do (the community value of our programs).

One Congregation’s Story
Once the tool kit was designed, Partners was ready to work with churches and synagogues to test it “in the field.” We wanted to learn how congregations would proceed to research and make sense of their own story. Did the size, location, or health of a congregation dictate how congregants organized themselves and approached the tasks of information-gathering? What kind of expert help and encouragement would they need? Would they be able to find new resources by powerfully telling their story to the right audiences?

As part of a field-testing process in Philadelphia and rural North Dakota, Partners invited the Greater Olney Circle of Friends to participate. The Olney neighborhood in North Philadelphia represents the kind of multicultural, urban neighborhood undergoing continuing demographic and economic change that poses challenges to congregations across the nation. Susan Pursch, LCFS’s vice president of church and community partnerships, worked closely with Partners’ staff to integrate the field-testing process into the overall organizational development of the Greater Olney Circle of Friends.

Congregations were given a deceptively simple challenge: “Make a new case for community support of your historic sacred place.” Tabor’s energetic German-born pastor, the Rev. Andreas Wagner, and a team of members got to work on the task at hand.

Tabor first identified its current ministries to the community, choosing from approximately 250 possible community programs that a congregation might offer or support. In addition to summer camp, a basketball program, and a children’s choir, Tabor’s after-school program, staffed by professional teachers and supervised by a community-based advisory board, has had a measurable impact on the reading scores and school performance of the participants. Tabor also identified the mix of building space, volunteer time, cash support, and other resources it provided to each of these programs.

What did Tabor learn? First, following national trends, fully 77 percent of those benefiting from Tabor’s programs are nonmembers. Tabor calculated that the total dollar value of the resources it provides (space, staff and volunteer time, in-kind services) is at least $95,000 annually (the national average is $144,000). In other words, if Tabor shut its doors tomorrow or stopped its community programming, the Feltonville neighborhood would need to find at least $95,000 in resources to replace those offered so generously by Tabor.

Tabor had a comprehensive building plan in place and had recently completed a major renovation of its 12,000-square-foot facility to update its great hall and kitchen, to install a computer lab, and to provide classroom space for its after-school programs. Renovation of the gymnasium is Tabor’s next building challenge, but the congregation has already assessed the renovation costs and planned the use of space for new and expanded programs serving neighborhood children.

Describing Tabor’s Heritage
For the purpose of developing a new case for community support, the story of a congregation’s heritage is not a church history. Instead, the process focuses on helping nonmembers and
civic leaders come to a new appreciation of a particular sacred place—its building, its congregation, and its role in the community over time. The end product is not a book or pamphlet but rather a simple statement that fairly shouts, “This is how our past got us to where we now are,” with compelling examples to support it.

Under the gaze of the past pastors (all German-born, they are seen in the photos lining the great hall), Partners staff and Tabor members began to work on a congregation and community timeline. Late 19th century and early 20th century maps brought the story of Tabor and Feltonville’s early days to life. Founded in 1898, Tabor served a German immigrant community that was making its first move within Philadelphia to a newly developed neighborhood with jobs for all in small factories—the men worked as machinists and the women in neighborhood hosiery mills. Other immigrant groups came to Feltonville, but the Germans were the most significant in numbers and cultural impact. Tabor not only served Feltonville’s German community; with its German and English language schools, choral groups, and festivals; it evolved during the early 20th century into a major cultural resource for the entire Philadelphia German community.

The Great Depression brought major economic change to Feltonville, and Roosevelt Boulevard beckoned residents to new neighborhoods being built along its expanded length through most of the 1960s. Tabor continued to go about its business, but in the 1980s it stopped to look outside its doors and discovered a totally new Feltonville—one that no longer looked or sounded like its membership. In constructing the congregation and community timelines, Tabor had to confront some tough issues about social change and the congregation’s responses to it. Members also returned to the hard questions that had been asked in the 1970s and 1980s: do we stay, or do we move? Do we close, or do we change and adapt?

Describing the Congregation’s Heritage
Tabor’s identity—“Who We Are”—became clearer to congregational leaders when they discussed the church’s work with other recent immigrant groups: sponsoring Cambodian families, sharing worship space with a Hmong Lutheran congregation, and continuing to welcome new German immigrants. The seeming dichotomy of Tabor’s reaching out to its Spanish-speaking neighbors while maintaining its German tradition was reconciled. In the end, the members drafted this description of their congregation and its community ministry: Tabor Lutheran Church—An Immigrant Church Welcoming and Serving New Immigrant Families.

Thus, Tabor emerged from this process with a compelling story to tell. Now it can concentrate on how to use that story to secure new resources for its buildings and programs. Tabor has developed a two-page case statement that incorporates what members learned from the process, and has obtained grants from four Philadelphia-area foundations to fund program and some building improvements. The pastor has recruited a grant-writing team from within the congregation and has arranged for Liberty Lutheran Services to conduct an eight-week workshop to teach additional fundraising skills to the team members, as well as to prospective grant writers from other Lutheran churches.

Tabor has also played a leadership role in the development of the Greater Olney Circle of Friends. At a daylong retreat, each of the five congregations presented its initial draft of a case statement to one another and a panel of experts, including a marketing professional, a community foundation executive, and the outreach director of a grant-making church. For most congregational representatives in the room, this was their first time hearing the stories of the other congregations, especially from this perspective. Recognizing the assets each congregation brought to the table—their programs and public value, building resources, and even heritage—encouraged the Greater Olney Circle of Friends to take several steps forward. The circle incorporated as a community development corporation and began weaving together the individual congregational stories and community value into one larger story. The circle will now be reaching out to the community to engage new partners by telling their new story in a way that offers opportunities for others to contribute to the future of Feltonville and the other neighborhoods that make up Greater Olney.

Using the Tool Kit Approach in your Congregation and Community
The Your Sacred Place Is A Community Asset tool kit contains five tools:

  • “Exploring Your Heritage” is designed to help a congregation document and articulate the significance and history of its building in a community context. This resource includes a set of timelines that describe key events in American national history, architectural history, and religious history—to encourage congregations to lay out parallel events from their own history and that of their community.
  • “Assessing Your Building” helps a congregation develop an overview of the repair and maintenance needs of its buildings and an understanding of how it uses its space.
  • The unique Web-based “Calculating Your Public Value” tool draws heavily from the Sacred Places at Risk approach to research and guides a congregation through a simple worksheet that presents the community value of its programs in dollars and cents.
  • “Discovering Your Partners,” developed in collaboration with Northwestern University’s Asset-Based Community Development Institute, Evanston, Illinois, helps a congregation identify new sources of support and collaboration in the community.
  • “Telling Your Story” gives a congregation guidance on how to make a case for collaboration to distinctive audiences in different ways, including case statements and other documents from a successful capital campaign.

Supporting materials include a PDF (Adobe Portable Document Format) version of Sacred Places at Risk; a 28-minute video, After Sunday, which tells the story of three congregations and puts a human face on Sacred Places at Risk; and an audio compact disc on which five clergy (mainline and evangelical Protestant, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Episcopal) provide brief meditations on the question “Why should we spend money on our buildings when there is so much need in the world?”

Individual congregations ready to embark on a journey of self-discovery and storytelling can follow Tabor’s example. The field-testing experience demonstrates that a healthy and motivated congregation with capital needs and a desire to reach out beyond its own membership to fund them can successfully use the tool kit on its own.

The Your Sacred Place Is a Community Asset tool kit is also available at an affordable cost to intermediary organizations that would like to reach several congregations from the same denomination or neighborhood. Partners provides a discounted group program that offers 10 tool kits plus a half-day of training for the staff of a judicatory or other intermediary organization.

Partners is also using the tool kit as the primary text for a new training program called New Dollars/New Partners, which will help congregations with older buildings develop community partnerships and prepare for capital fundraising efforts. This program will be available to groups of 8 to 12 congregations gathered and sponsored by a local or regional intermediary group, such as a judicatory, historic preservation organization, or council of churches. Partners will lead four training modules, provide coaching to congregations, and supply copies of the tool kit to each participating congregation.

For more information on the tool ki
t or New Dollars/New Partners training, call Partners for Sacred Places at 215-567-3234, or visit its Web site at www.sacredplaces.org.