By: A. Robert Jaeger
One of the hallmarks of this nation, stemming back to the early establishment of religious freedom in America, is the wide variety of religious expression and denominational identity in local communities. Larger cities may have dozens of different faith traditions represented—everything from Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant and Jewish, to Pentecostal, Buddhist, and Muslim. Even a small town may have six or eight denominations evident, such as Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Catholic, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, and so on.
This diversity is one of the glories of our nation, but it also poses challenges. When there are so many churches and houses of worship in town, no one feels any particular allegiance to any of them. With the occasional exception—perhaps the white-steepled church on the proverbial New England green—most of us feel a certain neutrality toward sacred places where we live. We see them, often, as the place of worship for someone else. They are not necessarily seen as shared places, as public assets.
However, something very new and powerful is coming along that can change how we view and support sacred places. Partners for Sacred Places, working with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, is documenting what we call the Economic Halo Effect of Sacred Places and using this new understanding to change how we invest in the most important of our historic churches, synagogues, meetinghouses, and mosques.
This Halo Effect has its roots in a body of research we undertook in the 1990s, where we documented the dollar value of the subsidy the average congregation provides to the outreach programs it houses in its building. Our findings, published as Sacred Places at Risk, were momentous. The average subsidy for outreach programs housed in sacred places—including the value of the space itself, the time of volunteers, and in-kind support—was almost $150,000 per congregation every year.
Importantly, we also learned that 81 percent of those who are served by programs housed in sacred places—such as after-school programs, senior centers, homeless shelters, and food programs—are not congregation members. In effect, sacred places are de facto community centers.
All this helped us communicate that sacred places have a public value. They have a denominational identity, yes, but their buildings are largely dedicated to a public purpose. In other words, that church or synagogue down the block from you may not represent your own faith tradition, but it serves everyone in the community, and therefore everyone has a stake in its preservation!
This new understanding was enormously powerful. We have spent the last 15 years teaching congregations how to communicate that value to potential funders and community partners. Partners’ findings influenced the work of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President Bush, continuing today under President Obama, which has worked to make it easier for the federal government to support faith-based organizations doing a public good.
Over the last 15 years, since the publication of Sacred Places at Risk, we have realized that the shared use of sacred space represents but a small fraction of the overall pattern of congregational contributions to community health. We began to see that the operational budgets of congregations, their capital projects, their ability to host events that attract people back to the neighborhood, and their ability to have a beneficial impact on people’s lives, all had tremendous economic impact. This greater “Economic Halo Effect” of older sacred places is 10 or 20 times larger than previously thought. A pilot study conducted by Partners indicated that Halo can be valued at a million dollars or more for the average congregation each year. That pilot has led to a national study that will permit Partners to make conclusions about the larger pattern of Halo across America.
We have pioneered a Strategic Investment in Sacred Places (SISP) initiative, working with the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, which uses Halo and other factors to identify opportunities to strengthen congregations and make the most of their building assets, and then provide a series of services to sustain and build that Halo value. Partners’ work to assess the Halo Effect will be presented this fall at the National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis, along with some of the newest strategies for using Halo to influence how we invest in and preserve the best of our older sacred places.
A. Robert Jaeger is the president of Partners for Sacred Places.
Interested in learning more? This session and more are available as part of a Learning Lab on Strategies for Sacred Sites at the National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis this fall. Learn more at www.preservationnation.org/conference.