Upstate New York congregation finds storefront worship ‘liberating’ after selling church building – Episcopal News Service
[Episcopal News Service] An Episcopal congregation in the Diocese of Rochester, New York, thought they had the perfect solution to their inability to maintain their historic but aging building. A developer has agreed to buy Trinity Episcopal Church in Geneva’s Finger Lakes town and turn it into a boutique hotel – while continuing to let Trinity use the former sanctuary for its services.
To make way for the developer’s renovations, the congregation in 2018 began worshiping in a rented downtown storefront, a move parishioners thought was temporary.
Then a surprising thing happened. They really enjoyed worshiping in the rented space.
The storefront, a former wine bar in the bustling downtown entertainment district, was only a mile from the old church, but a more intimate venue, and its flexibility made a variety of uses possible. The financial benefits were obvious – no church buildings to maintain.
“Not having a building is so liberating,” the Reverend Cameron Miller, Trinity’s part-time rector, told Episcopal News Service as he described how the congregation gradually grew to adopt the storefront as its permanent home. They named it Trinity Place, and Sunday services regularly draw around 30 worshippers, enough to nearly fill the hall.
Now, Trinity reflects on how her renewed sense of mission can continue to grow and evolve. Church leaders talked about creating “micro-churches” that would meet in a variety of places, for different purposes, and for different communities. And adding $340,000 from the sale of the property, he now has a $1 million endowment to support future projects.
“It’s amazing. We have this space here now that we worship in, that we love. We have the use of this other space [in the old church] that people love and that the community loves. It’s an abundance of resources,” Miller said. “It’s just a wonderful opportunity for this church to experiment with new ways of being church, because it’s pretty clear that the old way of being church isn’t working.”
Trinity, founded in 1806, had been struggling with declining membership for about two decades when Miller arrived in 2016 as the first permanent priest in many years. Its first objective was to lead the congregation, made up largely of elderly people, in a process of discernment on its future, in particular on what should be done with its parish buildings.
As part of the process, the congregation determined the true cost of the facility, including the cost of properly preserving the buildings after years of deferred maintenance. The conclusion is sobering: $250,000 a year, far more than the $135,000 in annual revenue the congregation has budgeted in pledges and endowment proceeds.
“You’re looking at a big shortfall,” Miller said, and even if the congregation was able to raise money for repairs, “is that what you want to put all your energy and staff into, running a building?”
The congregation researched various options, including leasing space in the church for community use and partnering with a property developer on an adaptive reuse project. During this process, church leaders met Mark McGroarty, a Toronto-based developer, who offered to turn the parish house and parsonage into 29 hotel rooms while renovating the sanctuary for weddings and the like. events.
Members of the congregation held a meeting to review the McGroarty Investments proposal and other options. About 35 parishioners attended, and all but one said they favored the boutique hotel plan.
“It was a decision of the vestry, but the vestry wanted there to be consensus,” Miller said. “The agreement was that we would continue to be able to worship there and have an office in the building.”
That deal, however, was delayed when some neighbors sued to block the redevelopment, claiming it would change the character of the residential neighborhood. As this litigation dragged on, the congregation moved out of the old church building and into the storefront.
“After we worshiped there for about three months, the congregation fell in love with the worship there,” Miller said. “The level of energy in worship was incredible, and because it was a multipurpose space, we could adapt the space for liturgical seasons and go from formal to casual to intimate. It just allowed for so much creativity .
The new location in the heart of downtown has brought new life to the congregation, Miller said, with a large portion of new worshipers who have never attended previous services in the traditional church. Trinity Place has also invited non-profit community groups to use the space free of charge when services are not taking place.
As for some neighbors’ efforts to block the redevelopment project, their petition opposing approval of a zoning board went to a New York State Court of Appeals, which ruled on the side of the promoter and the congregation in December 2020.
Trinity completed the sale in June 2022 and McGroarty Investments is expected to begin building renovations by the end of this year. The shrine-turned-event space could become available for Trinity use again by June 2024, Miller said.
The congregation is discussing the possibility of forming a second worship community to resume services in the church sanctuary, although Trinity Place will remain the congregation’s home base. Other new ideas include a “sacred meals” ministry for young adults interested in gathering on weeknights.
With older churches, often “the tail of the building is wagging the dog,” Miller said. His congregation was sorry to say goodbye to the old church but don’t look back.
“There has been heartbreak, there is no doubt about it. We went through a whole process of intentional grieving when we left the building,” Miller said, but as they settled into their new space, the consensus was, “Oh my God, this is so awesome!
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.