Churches Don’t Have to Be Lousy Stewards. Here’s Proof

It was probably the least boring sermon on stewardship the congregants had ever heard — and it showed. Over $1 million landed in the collection plate at Revive Church one Sunday in November 2021 after pastor Kyle Morris detailed plans for the Bridge. At the time, and still, the church’s Jeremiah 29:7 initiative meant to help the church’s community flourish by leveraging multiple partners — nonprofit and for-profit — all operating from the same Arvada, Colorado, campus. Director of The Bridge, Cam Kenyon, likes to say the initiative is about “pursuing the peace and prosperity of our city through a platform of purpose.” When redevelopment finishes in 2023, the approximately eight acre campus of the Bridge, which was formerly the Meadows Shopping Center, will house the church’s worship space, a preschool, a job-training center, a missional thrift store, for-profit businesses, offices for outreach ministries led by Revive Church members, greenspace, a café with outdoor seating, and more.

“If the church is going to be effective, we’ve got to convince people that we’re a reputable source,” Morris says. “We’ve got to be a place people can turn to, that they don’t see as being open just two hours a week and taking up space.”

In fact, Morris explained to his flock, the Bridge’s vision involved “shrinking the church’s footprint in order to expand its imprint in the community.” At the time, Revive’s congregation of around 600 regular attendees met in a 75,000 square-foot space in one part of the shopping center. Leaders envisioned purchasing the rest of the Meadows Center, reducing the space for church activities to 33,000 square feet, and devoting the rest to partner organizations that share Revive’s vision for the Arvada community.

“When you consider how we were using that space, it was really inefficient,” Kenyon says. A former airline industry leader who obsessed about maximum aircraft utilization (“you get no return if it’s on the ground”), Kenyon laments that churches “so ludicrously underuse” their space. “All over the world we have incredibly beautiful buildings that are used six hours a week. There’s no reason why any church can’t better steward what the Lord has given them, for the benefit of the community.”

Kenyon’s observation is backed by data. The United Methodist Church, for example, is estimated to own upward of $50 billion of real estate nationwide. Its Western North Carolina UMC Conference (jurisdiction) alone owns nearly 7,600 acres. From his experience in working with dozens of faith leaders, Joel Gilland of Wesley CDC estimates the average church only uses about 14 percent of its available building and property each week.

That’s scandalously poor stewardship. But activists inside and outside the faith community are working to change it. Officials in San Diego County, for example, have identified over 2,000 acres of church land in the county. They’re talking with clergy about partnering to turn some of that into affordable housing. In North Carolina, Gilland’s team is coaching church leaders in repurposing parts of their buildings to create office space for start-up entrepreneurs, adding preschool facilities, or providing meeting rooms for local nonprofits. In San Antonio, the Impact Guild, a social enterprise-championing nonprofit, has launched the Good Acre initiative. It’s showcasing innovative ideas for how the metro area’s roughly 3,000 acres of church property might be put to work to in fresh ways.

By more strategically deploying their real estate assets, congregations can contribute in attractive and innovative ways to their communities. God’s promise in Jeremiah 29:7 is that they’ll discover their own shalom in the process. It’s a promise Revive Church is banking on.

A Bridge Between Wealth and Poverty

The Bridge was named for its strategic location between areas of poverty and wealth in Arvada. The city of 124,000 is a first-ring suburb of Denver. Though the median household income tops $92,000, those who know where to look can easily find pockets of poverty. “There’s been a huge rise in the numbers of working poor in our community. But it’s easy to just drive on the right streets and never really notice [that],” says Dave Runyon, a former pastor at Revive and founder of the Denver-area nonprofit CityUnite. The hope is that the synergistic ministries at the Bridge (and the adjacent new affordable housing being developed by Revive partner BeyondHome) will create pathways out of poverty for local residents.

The journey that led to the Bridge’s inception began a generation ago. In 1988, Revive Church was a small plant called Foothills Community Church. Without money for a building, the congregation met at Moore Middle School. Parishioners liked contemporary worship and wore shorts to services. Observers expressed skepticism about the plant’s survivability. Instead, the “come-as-you-are” ethos and intentional outreach to neighbors attracted increasing numbers.

Among those neighbors was a family of Christian Scientists. After several months of hearing the gospel, Wes Gardner and his wife and children all came to Christ. To his surprise, congregational leaders soon asked him — a businessman — to serve as a deacon, then eventually as an elder. Gardner recalls feeling unqualified. But the Foothills leadership team respected both his character and his entrepreneurial gifts, believing God could use Gardner’s business acumen to advance the church’s mission. Gardner assembled a board of additional professionals — real estate experts, accountants, attorneys, and business leaders — to apply their talents towards that aim.

An opportunity soon presented itself. When Moore Middle School closed for repairs, the congregation entered a nomadic season marked by the informal tagline: “If you can find us, you can worship with us.” Leaders recognized it was time to find a more permanent home and tasked Gardner and the board to identify one.

Their search led them to the Meadows Center, a strip mall a mile south of Moore Middle School. Gardner remembered eating Milk Duds in the United Artists movie theater there as a kid. He realized the theater could be the perfect location for Foothills’ worship space and offices. Skeptics of Gardner’s idea expressed concern about the negative impact a church might have on a shopping center that was already, at times, too sleepy. But Gardner disagreed sharply. He exclaimed, “My boss, Jesus, is in the resurrection business! He can revive this whole center.”

Outside The Walls

After a season of negotiation, the sale went through and Foothills bought the old theater and about half of the strip mall, and the next years brought growth and change to both the church and the city. Denver’s suburbs expanded rapidly. Gardner’s entrepreneurial nose sniffed an opportunity. He urged the church to buy a 96-acre parcel of land in Arvada’s prairie-like outskirts. “I told them I have no idea what God is going to do,” Wes recalls, “but if Foothills didn’t snatch it, I would. That land was going to be a great investment.”

Church leaders decided to follow his advice. Mobilizing the flock to raise $1 million to meet the purchase price raised questions. Members wondered if their future would involve moving to the new location or opening a second site. Gardner framed the initiative as investing in Foothills’ future, capitalizing on a present economic opportunity that could resource a variety of missional possibilities later. This pioneering attitude proved contagious, and members voted to buy.

Foothills was also growing at this time, but more in size than depth. Though new members were invited into discipleship opportunities, many “got very comfortable just coming to church and not really taking what they were learning into the real world — their jobs and businesses.”

A pivotal sermon ushered in a season of re-formation. Pastor Jody Mayes’ “Over the Wall” message remains emblazoned on the minds and hearts of its hearers. In it, he urged his flock to get outside the four walls of church to serve their neighbors. He promised that the church would support any individual congregants with passion to minister to needs they saw in the community.

To lend this support, Foothills launched a sister nonprofit, the i58 Network, which takes its name from Isaiah 58. “i58 would provide an administrative umbrella, grant-writing help, low-cost space, time on stage on Sundays, and other support,” recalls former i58 executive director Charlotte Franson. “For many years we functioned as a ‘church unleashed,’ believing in the priesthood of all believers,” Morris adds. “If God gives you an idea about meeting a need, then he’s not calling you to just tell the pastor to meet it.”

In subsequent years, congregant-led ministries built a playground at a transitional housing development, launched a thrift store, provided backpacks to children entering foster care, and supported struggling single mothers with mentors and material aid.

Committed to the City

In 2016, Revive Church elders chose Morris as the congregation’s new senior leader. That same year, Revive’s leaders received a startling offer: The nation’s largest hospital organization wanted to redevelop the Meadows Center into a hospital. The company offered Revive a very lucrative deal for its portion of the strip mall. Every other tenant was ready to sell. That 96 acres of “prairie land” the church had bought decades prior was now worth millions of dollars, given the burgeoning economic development of the adjacent planned community.

Between that asset and the hospital’s offer, Revive was well-positioned to build a big new building — debt free — and move to the up-and-coming area. But the church stayed put.

“God made it very clear that he wanted us to be a kind of shalom outpost right here in this bridge location in Arvada … where we could build relationships across socioeconomic divides and embrace a new approach of how to be a church that engages its city for the good of people and the glory of God,” Morris said.

Having decided to stay in the city, the congregation now needed to discern how they could freshly engage the community. As Morris walked at nearby Pomona Lake one morning, he says God impressed on his heart that Revive would be given the rest of the shopping center. And when Morris told Grayson Bundick, Revive’s worship pastor, Bundick planned a Jericho march for the staff around Meadow’s Center. On a brisk, early morning in September, Revive’s staff marched around the facility seven times with guitars, praying and worshipping God.

The center didn’t fall down. And God didn’t give Revive Church the property that day. In the months that followed, though, a quiet assurance grew within the leaders that God had exciting plans for how he would use Revive. That assurance multiplied when God worked in some miraculous ways.

The Dominoes Start Falling

In February 2020, Daniel Rosenfield, a New York City financier who owned the other half of the Meadows Center, called Morris and told him he wanted to take him out for a steak dinner and a talk about the strip mall. “During the meal, he told me: ‘My portion of the shopping center is worth millions, but I need to be out of there,’” Morris recounts. “‘I’ll give the property to you for $1.5 million if you want it.’” They left with a handshake deal for the incredibly generous offer.

Weeks later, just before the coronavirus pandemic ensued, Revive closed on the sale of its land in Candelas. That felt like a miracle: Though the property had multiplied in value, repeated earlier attempts to sell it had been frustrated. The sale paid off all Revive’s debts, clearing the way for the church to focus on new initiatives.

By September of 2020, Morris and Foothills’ leaders had discerned that they would purchase the center. They intended to create a platform of purpose called “The Bridge” to serve spiritually, economically, and relationally vulnerable neighbors. Morris also decided that “Revive Church” — a missional, rather than geographic, moniker — would better communicate the congregation’s new direction. Three days before Pastor Morris would share news of these developments with the congregation, he received an unexpected call from a former congregant who’d moved away. The caller had heard about Revive’s vision for the Meadows Center and told Morris that he’d soon be sending the church a check for $1.5 million.

Astonished, Morris stood before the flock that Sunday and declared, “We own this shopping center, essentially. No debt. God’s given it to us.” Recalling this special moment of God’s visibly providential work, Morris says, “It was crazy, you know, this faith and obedience thing of stepping your foot where you don’t know what’s under it.”

While the church now possessed a potential “shalom outpost,” the Meadows Center needed significant repairs and remodeling. Leaders launched a capital campaign in November 2021 to raise funds for the Bridge. They hoped to raised $2.5 million over two years. That’s when parishioners put $1 million in cash in the offering plates and pledged another $2.5 million. Longtime member Brenda Kaker was there that day. She recalls, “There was no hesitation. People just rushed. They couldn’t wait to give it.”

From vision to reality

Around the time of the Jericho march by the staff of Revive Church, a concurrent journey began that God would use to provide a plan to accompany the place and purpose given to Revive Church. A providential connection resulted in a team from Marsh Collective, a consultancy specializing in real estate stewardship, flying out to Arvada to see the Meadows Center. During this onsite intensive, Marsh Collective leaders helped clarify and develop an executable plan for the vision of the Bridge.

As the group walked and talked amid the Meadows Center’s aging asphalt, bright blue aluminum awnings, and concrete façades, they thought the place seemed unloved. Drawing on his team’s more than 25 years of community-development experience, John Marsh stressed that three key capitals needed to be stewarded — social, spiritual, economic. He urged Morris to look closely at people, property, networks, spiritual inheritance — everything — and “put them on the table and recognize that’s what God has given you to steward. What does God expect of you regarding what has been given?” He urged Morris to celebrate the opportunities that ownership afforded. Rather than seeing physical assets as a necessary (and regrettably costly) requirement of “doing ministry,” the church should explore how property ownership could be catalytic in its own right.

Marsh’s advice resonated with Morris; however, Revive’s leaders were ministers, not real estate moguls. How would the church navigate the road ahead? Morris realized he needed to turn to disciples who possessed germane gifts and professional experiences.

It turned out the future leader for the Bridge was already sitting in the pews. Cam Kenyon had attended Revive Church for the better part of 18 years. He was eager to serve and brought a host of professional skills to the table from his experience in law, management, and executive leadership. Marsh applauded the choice. “Kyle found the people with the [relevant] gifts … and put them in an opportunity where they could play to their strengths. You’ve got to have that.”

Kenyon dove into the analysis that the Marsh Collective had completed for Revive, which laid out a comprehensive vision for how the Bridge could strategically bless Arvada residents. “Our vision was big; Cam refined it into an ‘elevator pitch’ we could share effectively with all our stakeholders,” explains Morris.

The Bridge would be a hub for multiple ministries serving neighbors with economic, relational, or spiritual needs. Crucially, Kenyon emphasized, the Bridge would not attempt to “boil the ocean” and directly meet Arvada’s many and wide-ranging needs. Instead, key partners would provide three critical, overlapping services that complement existing Revive congregant-led ministries:

Job Training: CrossPurpose will lease 17,000 square feet at The Bridge. Founded by pastor Jason Janz and mechanical engineer Juan Peña in 2008, the nonprofit provides free life-skills and career training in the context of transformational relationships. Participants, called leaders, are matched with volunteers called allies who cheerlead their progress through the six-month program.

Leaders choose training from several career tracks such as construction, healthcare, culinary services, administration, IT/tech, and commercial transportation. All are eligible to earn a $200 monthly stipend while completing the program. About two-thirds of leaders find new employment and graduate from CrossPurpose. Six hundred and seventy-eight men and women have done so to date. On average, graduates see an eightfold increase in their income. Janz likes to say CrossPurpose isn’t interested in helping people in poverty; it’s committed to getting people out of poverty.

Housing: Revive has partnered with BeyondHome, a holistic ministry that serves mostly young, single moms, since 2018. Like CrossPurpose, BeyondHome is focused on helping families achieve self-sufficiency. It offers stable housing, life-skills training, professional case management, and support from volunteer mentors. BeyondHome has housed 557 families since its founding in 1987. Over 80 percent have graduated from its program into stable housing, and 100 percent of those graduates continue to be self-sufficient. With the support of a $500,000 grant from the City of Arvada, BeyondHome envisions building 20-40 townhomes and an onsite office adjacent to the Bridge, says Associate Director Deanna Mayberry. “BeyondHome residents will be able to just walk over and access job training, childcare, and other services,” she adds.

Early Childhood Education: The Bridge’s third anchor partner is Lionheart Children’s Academy. It collaborates with churches to operate preschools serving children ages 6 weeks to 12 years old. Lionheart began in Texas but is expanding across the country. Lionheart’s portion of the Bridge — about 14,000 square feet — will gather 223 children for daily preschool. Roughly one-third of its classroom seats will be reserved for kids from lower-income homes. The preschool is opened recently. Notably, these three priorities — childcare, affordable housing, and job training — match the top three community priorities the Arvada Chamber of Commerce identified through its own research process.

Each of these partners wins by gaining affordable rental space at the Bridge that extends their programmatic reach. Meanwhile, partners’ rent payments enable the Bridge to operate with abundance instead of leftovers and continually improve the campus. Arvada community members benefit from complementary and co-located services. Christ-followers at Revive and other churches gain new avenues to serve and develop relationships. “At the Bridge, everyone in Arvada — from affluent northwestern areas to significant pockets of poverty in the east and southeast — can meet and learn to love God and neighbor,” enthuses Kenyon. Brad Baggett of the Marsh Collective delights in how the Bridge offers “a new model for what the church can look like. Many churches talk about ‘church outside the walls,’ but they don’t really have specific ways of living into that.”

The National Scene

Other churches are also waking up to the need to better steward their properties. We found encouraging examples in NYC; Philadelphia; San Diego; San Antonio; Arlington, Virginia; Louisville, Kentucky; and sites across western North Carolina.

Elizabeth Coffee of the Impact Guild (TIG) says church leaders moving in this direction are typically motivated by a mixture of vision and economic realities. “They want to contribute to their community’s flourishing, and they also might be facing economic pressures from a declining membership,” she explains. When churches can repurpose space — leasing to community groups for their music, fitness, educational, or recreational purposes, or reconfiguring their space into co-working arrangements, or partnering with a developer to build rental housing — they can gain new revenue streams.

In November 2019, TIG coordinated the Mission-Driven Development Summit in partnership with San Antonio’s housing department. The gathering focused on how church land could be unleashed to address the city’s shortage of affordable housing. Ninety-one individuals attended, and representatives from 19 churches indicated interest in finding new ways of deploying their underutilized land and buildings.

Today, reports TIG Executive Director Sarah Woolsey, several churches are actively pursuing development projects. For example, the large Sunset Ridge Church of Christ congregation has earmarked several million dollars to redevelop a one-acre parking lot it owns into a new city park and co-working space. Emmanuel United Methodist Church on the city’s west side is working with consultants on developing the three acres it owns behind the church building. Senior Pastor Maribel Vazquez says the small congregation (about 50 attenders) has “big dreams” of a possible plan combining affordable housing, retail space, and recreational space. “It’s not enough for us to do ministry within our walls,” Vazquez says. “We need to connect with our neighbors, and that means doing ministry in new ways.”

In San Diego, a small group of church leaders and housing advocates are gathering under the name YIGBY, for “Yes in God’s Back Yard.” It’s a play on the negative NIMBY — Not in My Back Yard — sentiment that describes the all-too-common pushback against affordable housing or similar projects. Pastor Jonathan Doolittle from Clairemont Lutheran Church is active in the group. His congregation’s blueprint to redevelop its fellowship hall includes plans to build 16-21 affordable apartments in the adjoining parking lot.

In North Carolina, Wesley CDC launched the Seeds of Change (SOC) program in 2016 to help church leaders reimagine their properities in ways that bless their communities and address their own economic needs. CEO Joel Gilland reports that 19 congregations have completed or are undergoing redevelopment projects while another 11 are actively planning towards repurposing. SOC graduates have developed community gardens, expanded childcare facilities, leased out their commercial kitchens to local food entrepreneurs, and established co-working spaces, among other projects.

Park Street UMC in Belmont, North Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte, joined SOC in 2017. The 101-year-old church had been hit with two expensive roof repairs. Leaders were feeling the burden of property ownership, but gained fresh eyes to see opportunities stemming from their prime downtown location. Now the 275-member church rents space to a Christian counseling group, a music teacher, and a martial arts training studio. This brings in $20,000 per year. Now, Wesley CDC has helped the church enter an agreement with a builder to develop 100 units of senior housing on their campus.

Why Churches Are Usually Lousy Stewards

Asked why most congregations fail to fully utilize their properties, Gilland cites two main reasons. One, “you fail to see what you don’t look at,” he says. Leaders simply have not taken inventory of properties, intentionally examined how much they are utilized, or imagined alternative uses. Two, they are not trained to do it. “Clergy tell us all the time, ‘I didn’t get real estate classes in seminary,’” Gilland says.

Leaders who are ready to start the journey usually confront at least two obstacles, he adds. The straightforward one is finding the money for remodeling. The trickier one is “congregational attachment to the past.” Gilland explains that congregants often balk at removing pews or repurposing spaces long used for a certain activity, even when few are participating. In some cases, he says, “they’re in denial” about the church’s shrinking size.

Woolsey points to a deeper problem. “I think the church in the U.S. has become really tunnel-visioned on one version of what church’ looks like.” She says:

And then so many resources, time and money, are spent upholding that programming of Sunday worship and the other activities of what “church looks like.” So this question around stewarding church assets for community benefit — which is not completely off their radar — gets overwhelmed by the attitude of “How could we possibly be engaged with the community when we’ve got so much going on over here, with church stuff?”

Real change will require “a theological shift,” says Woolsey.

Leaders need a new imagination, “a willingness to reform who we are as the church in our communities, into who is God asking us to be.

“It’s hard to move away from what we’ve seen and known,” Woolsey admits. “We have to reprogram as individuals and as leaders and institutions.”

cover image, Common Good issue 11
This story is from Common Good issue 11.
Scroll to Top