By Dylan Thayer
Christians know that Jesus calls us to love our neighbors: “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
But just how much light are we shedding? According to Partners for Sacred Places, a secular nonprofit organization that works with organizations of all faiths, quite a bit. Bob Jaeger, who cofounded Partners for Sacred Places, said the organization’s research indicates that the average rural church benefits its community by roughly $750,000. For urban churches, it’s even higher — around $1.7 million.
Much of this benefit is directed toward non-members. Beginning in the 1990s, Partners for Sacred Places conducted three studies — two in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania and one with the University of North Carolina — on churches’ community impact.
In addition to the “halo effect” — Jaeger and Partners for Sacred Places’ term for the positive economic effect of churches — these studies showed that most of that effect comes during the week, not on Sunday mornings. Up to 90 percent of the people who come to a church on weekdays are non-members.
“We started to realize that no one knew what was happening in the buildings during the week,” Jaeger said, looking back on the research, which he says was aimed at helping “congregations tell a better story about their value.”
Emilie Haertsch, who joined Partners for Sacred Places in 2022, agreed: “The value of houses of worship is often judged by worship attendance. But you can’t assume that very small churches can’t have a very big impact on their neighborhood.”
So how can churches that care about their communities and want to grow their halo do it? Both Jaeger and Haertsch agree that increasing program budgets is helpful, but for many churches, this may not be an option. An easy solution is to take a fresh look at the space and invite civic organizations and community leaders to work with the congregation. “The interesting part is, [community leaders] always say yes” to an invitation to collaborate, Jaeger said.
Partners for Sacred Places’ most recent notable community collaboration involved the Diocese of Indianapolis, the Diocese of Northern Indiana, and Indiana Landmarks. Its goal was to perform an evaluation of all 80 churches in the two dioceses, to determine just how big each parish’s halo is, and what can be done to make it larger. The support of the Lilly Endowment, which provided a Thriving Congregations grant, was also essential.
The initiative was enthusiastically supported by Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows (Indianapolis) and Bishop Douglas E. Sparks (Northern Indiana). Baskerville-Burrows has an extensive background in historic preservation, and once interned at Partners for Sacred Places.
Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, canon to the ordinary for administration and evangelism in the Diocese of Indianapolis, discussed the study by phone on a sunny mid-April afternoon as the last congregations were finishing the program.
The study began with training and interviews of parish leadership online, aimed at answering basic questions: Is the congregation using its resources in alignment with its mission? Is it serving the community as well as possible?
The next step was a site visit curated and led by Partners for Sacred Places, aimed at a strategic review of each parish’s buildings and grounds, which generally takes about three hours. That review studies the space’s current use, best possible use, and potential community partners. Finally, churches were encouraged to engage in dialogue with relevant community organizations that could help them achieve their mission goals.
O’Sullivan-Hale said the results were almost immediate. Within weeks after a site visit, one parish began using its parking lot to create wheelchair ramps for disabled veterans. Another church invited people of harshly discordant political views to talk about what issues they could agree needed attention in the community. This dialogue inspired the church, alongside nearby congregations, to apply for a grant for an art program intended to help young people suffering from mental illness.
O’Sullivan-Hale has been impressed by the success of the program, but said he isn’t ready to declare victory. He identified two potential areas for more development: how to supplement leadership capabilities of congregations and how to assist congregations when building size and congregation are an extreme mismatch.
O’Sullivan-Hale’s cautious optimism about the program, combined with a desire to continue building congregations’ capacity for community engagement, was echoed by Michelle Walker, priest in charge at St. Paul’s Church, La Porte, and a missioner for administration and governance in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. As a result of her different roles, Walker experienced the program from both the top down and the bottom up.
Walker is excited about the “great opportunity” that St. Paul’s and other parishes across both dioceses have to pivot toward their community. Walker said she was intrigued by the program’s challenge to “look at ourselves differently and consider other options,” which she and her flock quickly met. Within two months of its site visit, St. Paul’s began working with two community organizations, the La Porte Service League and Arts in the Park.
St. Paul’s received a community grant as part of the Thriving Congregations Initiative. The grant, aimed at restoring the church’s Gothic bell tower, was for $7,500, conditional upon St. Paul’s raising $2,500 on its own. St. Paul’s launched a matching capital campaign to raise the funds, and the results astonished Walker: the church managed to raise $22,500, with no effect on the annual stewardship campaign, which was “as productive, or more so.”
Walker believes the enthusiasm for the building campaign shows how St. Paul’s collaboration with Partners for Sacred Places and the two dioceses has changed the parish for the better, making it “more open to sharing what we have with the community.” St. Paul’s has begun offering a concert in its nave on the first Friday of every month, and has expanded its community meals from once to twice a month.
“For a congregation that really didn’t know what we were getting into, we’ve been really pleased by the project,” Walker said. Like O’Sullivan-Hale, she knows there is more work to be done, but remains faithful and hopeful about the future: “When we give, God comes alongside us.”
Dylan Thayer is a parishioner at St. Paul’s K Street, Washington, D.C.