By the time Calvary United Methodist Church made the difficult decision to close its doors for worship in 2018, the congregation had dwindled to about 20 people. Most members of the Asheboro, N.C., church were more than 70 years old, and maintaining the building and its property was a struggle.
Today, however, that same structure is being transformed into a much-needed shelter for women and children. The rebirth was helped through a partnership with Wesley Community Development, an affiliate ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. Supported by The Duke Endowment, Wesley helps faith communities repurpose their real estate and match local needs with church resources.
Methodist leaders say the program addresses a challenge in many rural regions, where Sunday attendance is often falling and congregations are struggling to maintain a vital role in their communities.
“With rooms and parking lots sitting empty during the week, many of these churches feel their property is more of a burden than an asset,” says Joel Gilland, Wesley’s president. “We’ve gotten into this silo mentality where we lock the doors after Sunday service and it’s, ‘See you next week.’ But that’s not the history of the Methodist church. That’s not the type of engagement that will keep churches vibrant in the years ahead.”
In North Carolina, the average United Methodist church is used just 14 percent of the time during the week. Nearly 20 percent of churches in the state have an average weekly worship attendance of 20 parishioners or fewer.
The Wesley team works with pastors and lay leaders to gauge how their buildings and land are being used. They study demographics to learn more about pressing needs in their communities. Wesley has mapped out all United Methodist real estate in North Carolina, which provides a local and regional look at how many other churches are in the area.
“The goal is to help them make faithful decisions about their future,” says Robb Webb, director of the Endowment’s Rural Church program area. “For some, that might be deciding to close. For others, it might be finding an innovative reuse of church property. We encourage congregations to get started, recognizing that each path will be unique to each situation and community.”
Wesley’s program, called Seeds of Change, has served 66 churches since launching with a $415,000 grant from the Endowment in 2015. One closed church is being redeveloped into affordable senior housing. Another subdivided part of its property to allow for retail and commercial development. Several have decided to rent underutilized space to local nonprofits.
In Asheville, Bethesda United Methodist saw its membership decline to fewer than 15 people, so the church transformed its property into Haw Creek Commons, a shared area for general community use. Now it has a wide range of purposes: local businesses use it as a coworking space; a culinary startup makes use of the kitchen; yoga and therapy practices take place inside; and families take advantage of the playground and community garden outside.
Similarly, Cole Memorial in Charlotte will be converted into senior adult affordable housing units, a new African American worship space, offices for local nonprofits, a campus ministry center, and retail space to help generate revenue to fund the ministry.
Although Seeds of Change workshops were suspended because of COVID restrictions, organizers are planning to introduce a hybrid virtual/in-person version.
Gilland believes that appropriately supported churches can become engines of community change.
“Few, if any, churches change overnight,” he says. “For many congregations, the realization that they need to do something different takes time to understand and accept. Our goal is to plant seeds of possibilities and be there to assist those who are ready to move to the next step.”
‘What’s the Greatest Need?’
The Rev. Lynda Ferguson worked with Wesley CDC when her church, First United Methodist of Asheboro, experienced substantial growth. Gilland and his team helped the congregation start the process of adding a worship space and welcome center.
After Calvary closed, Gilland asked Rev. Ferguson to look at the building, which had sat empty for two years. First United Methodist and Calvary are about three miles away from each other.
“He asked me, ‘What’s the greatest need in Asheboro?’ and I told him, ‘Asheboro is one of the most giving communities I’ve ever been part of, but the one thing we do not have is a women’s and children’s shelter.’”
After a needs assessment, followed by discussions with church members, city and county officials, and nonprofit leaders, the shelter idea took hold. After it opens this winter, Lydia’s Place will share space in the former Calvary building with a new start-up congregation called Francis Street Community.
The Rev. Alexis Coleman is pastor of Francis Street and executive director of the shelter, which is still in the first stages of development. Phase one involves converting the old fellowship hall into temporary living apartments and upgrading the kitchen. Rev. Coleman believes there may be room for 40 people initially.
“Bringing new life to the building not only honors the faithful people who built Calvary, but it provides ministries that are much needed,” she says. “Every time I pull into the parking lot, I see the potential for what this is going to be.”
Robert R. Webb III
Director of Rural Church
By the Numbers
Of the 66 churches that have participated in Seeds of Change since 2015:
- 35 are not ready, or are unable, to make a change right now
- 19 have completed, or are undergoing, repurposing (including construction, design development, marketing property for sale)
- 11 are actively considering their options or in discussions with their United Methodist District or Conference
- 1 has merged with another congregation