Stewardship of Property
Following its beginnings in 1838, the Society’s mission and work expanded beyond the original program on the Lower Eastside. The Society became a mission extension organization, which meant it helped to start new congregations with financial support, land purchases, and grants and loans to build buildings. In fact, at one point, the two predecessor agencies of the Society — the NYC Church Extension and Mission Society owned 69 churches in Manhattan — and the Brooklyn and Long Island Church Extension and Mission Society owned 26 churches.
Involvement in property transactions is not new to UMCS work. In a report from 1914, a section dealing with operations of property states: Aside from the forgoing requirements upon the treasury of the Society, there are large obligations which the Society must meet in caring for its several properties. The requirements of the Fire Department and Insurance underwriters become more exacting every year and entail the expenditures of large amounts… The interest payable on mortgages amounts to $7,842.50. Properties taxes and water bills on parsonages exceed $1,000.
In the same report, the property charges were listed at $11,930.60 out of a budget of $55,380.60. It also states that the Capital Account “contains the funds derived from the sale of churches and other properties and represents the permanent fund of the Society.”
Historically, many properties to which the Society held title were given back to those local congregations that were vital and could afford the upkeep – but other buildings were sold as congregations dwindled and funds became insufficient for basic maintenance. This is how the major portion of our endowment was funded.
Recent Building Experience
The sale of church property has been the means by which the Society has built its endowment, which is then used to fund ministry and programs based on a 5% return of a 20-quarter average. The Society’s commitment is to repurpose unsustainable real estate holdings so that there are funds available for mission and program — investing back into the communities for ministry with people.
In recent years, where there has been church vitality and growth, UMCS has returned title to the congregations, including Salem in Manhattan and Wakefield Grace in the Bronx.
Today, however, the New York Annual Conference has a significant number of church buildings suffering from deferred maintenance, unsafe or even deplorable conditions, and small congregations. Many have minimal financial resources and insufficient volunteer power to assist in maintaining large buildings for very small congregations.
For example, the Madison Avenue property was sold after many years of pursuing various real estate options for the site. When UMCS was unable to execute a modification of the deed with the New York City Housing Authority, it was best determined by the board to sell the property after the small congregation merged with Metropolitan Community UMC. UMCS used the funds from the sale to establish an endowment of $1 Million for the merged congregation and after the various costs related to the sale, gave funds to Anchor House, the Children’s program, Far Rockaway Mission, and Camp Olmsted.
Another recent example, at the time UMCS moved to sell the Willis Avenue building, it needed close to $4 million in capital repairs. It had bridge scaffolding around it because of falling bricks. It was sold “as is”, with a discount of $50,000 because of a faulty and old fuel oil tank. The remaining members of Willis have joined other UM churches in Manhattan and the Bronx. The World Olivet Assembly, with a membership of 1,200, purchased the building and is planning to restore it to its grandeur.
Through this sale, UMCS is now funding ministry in the Bronx between Tremont UMC, Epworth UMC, Woodycrest UMC, and a new Hispanic ministry initiative with Annette Rodriguez. Rev. Morais Quissico and Rev. Elizabeth Abel are partners with her in a cooperative ministry in the Bronx. Rev. Marva Usher Kerr has been full-time at Tremont with the investment possible from the sale of Willis.
In Brooklyn, the Society, in partnership with the Cabinet, is now providing funding for full time pastoral support of Rev. Hector (Benny) Custodio at Immanuel and First Spanish. We have also paid for property upgrades. The Cuyler Warren UMC has merged into this congregation and that Society property is in the process of being sold.
The UMCS Real Estate Committee and Board of Directors wrestled with various options for the Cuyler Warren property. After consultation with the Cabinet of the NYAC and looking at many options — including new worship space or a joint venture in housing — the most prudent decision was to sell the property and use the funds for future ministry. An endowment will be established for the local church for the funds to provide for ministry into the future.
Other church properties have been re-purposed with real estate joint ventures for development of the property. For example, in December 2017, the Society completed the formal establishment of a joint venture agreement with the Bronx Pro Group. The UMCS – BP, LLC. will build 154 units of low-income senior housing at the former Trinity-Morrisania site on Washington Avenue. It will be called the Trinity–Rev. William M. James Senior Building. The Grace Church and Apartments on 104th street is an example of this joint venture from the 1980’s. The re-purposing of this property was forced following the destructive fire of the original church building. Salem House was a joint venture with Phipps Housing. We turned this partnership and property over to Salem UMC in 2016 when we returned their title.
With the Executive Director of the Society participating as a member of the cabinet of the conference, the collaboration, partnership and property conversations have proven extremely beneficial. The two metropolitan superintendents have merged congregations, discontinue others, and work with the Society to create cooperative ministries to bring vitality and health. In collaboration with the cabinet, as visions for future ministries emerge, the Society will be a funding partner.
It is difficult when a church dies. Many present parishioners retain wonderful memories of the glorious history of 40 or 50 years ago. Many were baptized, confirmed, married, and wish to be buried from the building. But far too many buildings are unsafe and difficult to manage with so few members.
Can there be new life? Yes, often through a new church start or by becoming a “Legacy Church” that unburdens itself from property and uses those funds to start new ministries and fund ideas. The NYAC supports new church starts and revitalization efforts through the sale of closed church property.
The UMCS is using funds in a similar way to fund healthy congregations and adding funds to the endowment for future income to fund ministry and mission that will transform lives.