What Meeting for Worship Costs

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No. This is not a post about how faithful attendance at worship will change your life and cause you to renounce things that you never thought you’d be able to live without–although I’ve known that to happen. 

This is a post about money.

A few days ago, in a daily e-mail I get from Ekklesia.org, I learned about Faith in Action Sunday on April 27. A project of World Vision, Outreach, Inc., and Zondervan–

Faith in Action is designed to be a step toward alleviating the complacency that is afflicting churches across the country, and an effective call to action to follow Christ’s example of compassion.

The project culminates on April 27, when the participating churches–instead of holding worship services–will close their doors and send their members out to work in their communities in service to the poor.

The report on Faith in Action Sunday from Ekklesia says:

Current data provided by the US Census Bureau reveals the national poverty level has increased from 11.7 percent in 2001 to 13.3 percent in 2005, or 38 million Americans.

Additionally, demand for food stamps between 2007-08, a key economic indicator provided by the United States Department of Agriculture, is up significantly in 43 states, increasing the need for significant help among more than 28 million Americans.

“These results, when combined with current census and economic data, expose a discrepancy between Christians who believe they are doing enough and the reality that Christians are just scratching the surface in our communities,” said Steve Haas, vice president for church relations at World Vision.

But the study also reports that 60 percent of respondents “would support their church if it occasionally cancelled traditional services in order to donate that time to help the poor in their community”.

Christians are now being invited to close their churches and mobilize in projects within their communities.

 This caused me to wonder how much it costs to hold Meeting for Worship in the big meetinghouses here in the city, so I went to a Friend knowledgeable about the finances of New York Quarter.

He told me that it costs about $1,000 apiece for Fifteenth Street and Brooklyn to open the meetinghouses, heat them, light them, and clean them for each Meeting for Worship.

I am troubled.

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17 Responses to “What Meeting for Worship Costs”

  1. Thy Friend John Says:

    I don’t know how to express my gratitude for this posting, Carol.

    It raises in my mind the question of abandoning our meeting houses, except possibly for monthly meetings for business, and meeting as smaller preparative meetings in one another’s homes on other First Days. Of course it wouldn’t be as simple as that, even assuming that the Holy Spirit commanded it and all Friends felt the prompting and instantly obeyed. Perhaps the Friends that met in one another’s living rooms would simply sit on their money and it would never get to the poor. Perhaps the preparative meetings would become factional cliques — Christian Friends here, universalist Friends there, talkative Friends in so-and-so’s spare room, silence-loving Friends in what’s-her-name’s parlor. Would New York Quarterly Meeting wind up selling its ancient, expensive-to-maintain landmark building to Friends Seminary and take up cheaper quarters in a seedy neighborhood? Then what would become of the Friends’ shelter for the homeless? Who would buy the Brooklyn Meeting House, and whatever would they use it for?

    But it’s certainly something for us to hold in prayer, trying to discern what is the will of the Spirit for us.

    And the question is not whether we’ll abandon our historic meeting houses, but when, if the planet earth continues to heat up and plague, nuclear accident, or a rising sea eventually makes New York City uninhabitable. Nothing in this perishable world is forever.

  2. Quaker Pastor Says:

    Wonder how much that increases for programmed meetings….
    Quaker Pastor

  3. jim m Says:

    That sure seems like a lot. Our meeting’s entire budget has risen to almost $30,000, which is I guess about $600 a week, but only a small portion of that is for the meeting house. And as someone noted above, use of the meeting house includes a lot of meetings during the week.

  4. kevin Says:

    My entire Yearly Meeting’s budget is about 30K, of which 14K is a direct donation to a medical assisted-living facility we run.

    My small-town yearly meeting house holds 2000 people, and we maintain about 20 acres of graveyard and grass, plus other structures. But we don’t try to own them in New York City.

    We routinely meet in other places (we’re few) rather than heat the barn.

    No easy answers if you’re big in a city.

  5. Alan Paxton Says:

    I’d be sad to see the historic meeting houses go. I know it’s unquakerly, idolatrous even, to become too attached to outward architectural forms.

    But a site or building where a community has worshipped over many generations can be a powerful sign of faithfulness in a society devoted to the hedonistic, consumerist Now, and to the economic ‘gale of creative destruction’ that constantly jettisons the past in the name of Progress.

    Such a place is a very striking sight in a city where commercial premises frequently change hands every few years, buildings are often torn down and replaced, and most land is given over to business, bureaucracy or road traffic.

    That a valuable piece of real estate can be set aside for the apparently ‘useless’ business of prayer is a powerful statement in itself. Churchyards and meeting house grounds may be valuable wildlife sanctuaries. These oases of calm show passers by that we exist and have something to offer which is at odds with the world and is genuinely attractive. And it’s generally easier to attract newcomers to a public building than it is to a gathering in someone’s home, which is one reason why so many groups use our meeting houses.

  6. Cat Chapin-Bishop Says:

    You know, I hear a lot from Friends about wanting to reach out and welcome new attenders and new members. And I think that meeting houses are important in that. Having a “where” to go to, for someone investigating Friends, is actually very important. It’s hard enough to go to a new place, among new people, whose ways you don’t yet know. Having to figure out which of several private homes are opening themselves for worship this week… not having a central number to call to ask about meeting times… Well, I think it would discourage a fair number of seekers. It might well have discouraged me, at least.

    Meeting houses are places for finding community. Without them, it would be that much harder to bring us together at all.

    And the point about meeting houses as oases of calm is not a trivial one. My own meeting manages a not-insignificant patch of forest land, and it is one of the reasons I love my meeting. I live in the city myself, but at least one day a week, I can sit under a tree and look up at the leaves. This is no small gift to me. (Nor are the smaller green spaces managed by other churches in the city where I live.)

    An interview in the NPR series on climate change that aired tonight looked at the importance of religious communities in addressing climate change. It revealed two things I thought were noteworthy, even before I read this post: first, the man being interviewed, a clergyman in Britain spoke of finding his way for the first time to the church via a visit, during a family fight in a rough time in his childhood, to a local cathedral. He spoke of just desperately needing some beauty in his life at that time. I think that Friends’ meeting houses offer some of that beauty to the world–if in a simpler form than a cathedral–and I do not think it is idolatry, but humanity, to realize how deprived of beauty many of us live our lives.

    He also pointed out that, worldwide, 7% of the world’s forests are owned by religious communities. That’s a significant portion of the world’s green that is being preserved by communities that are not motivated mainly by short-term profit! Even if it’s just one shade tree on an urban block, the grounds of churches and meeting houses offer a sanctuary that benefits more than the human community.

    Finally, though the pride some of us feel in the historic nature of it all may verge on the idolatrous, I’m wary of putting a price tag on one of the few uncommercialized common spaces we have left for creating community. When the only pleasant open spaces left to us are shopping malls, resort hotels, and spas, we’ll have created a world in which consumers have value, but not communities. (And where does that leave those who will be turned away from the malls, resorts, and spas? Is beauty something only the wealthy should have access to?)

    By all means, let’s turn down the thermostats in our buildings, lay down meeting houses that no longer serve our needs, and be unafraid to compromise some of our historic architecture if it makes our communal homes more economical or accessible. But I’d hate to see us let go of our meeting houses entirely. They serve at least some purposes that outweigh economics–because, even in a world where people are hungry for bread, there are other things we hunger for, too, just as valid, if less tangible…

  7. Carol Says:

    You’re welcome, John. I know I can count on your companionship in being troubled.

    Hey, QP, if you get a chance to do the math, let us know. Do you really think it’s more than $1,000 a Sunday?

    Jim M. and Kevin, thanks for the views from where you are. One of the problems in New York Quarter is that the $1,000 apiece costs of holding Meetings for Worship on Sundays are only being partially paid from the budgets of Brooklyn and Fifteenth Street. Most of the money is coming from the income of the endowments our 19th-century Friends left us.

    Alan, I love the meetinghouses, too. And I struggle with my feelings that I’m holding them in idolatry. I know that they are a means of outreach, especially here in the city. I can quote stories from dear F/friends who came to meeting for the first time because they wanted to know what happened inside such special buildings.

    But . . . $2,000 a week, $104,000 a year? It remains troubling to me. How much food could that put in a food pantry? How many bowls of soup served from a soup kitchen?

  8. Tom and Sandy Farley Says:

    We estimate the costs associated with having our meetinghouse at just under $400 per week [less than half our budget,] but the parent co-op nursery school pays the utilitiy bills for their use and ours. And how do we account for letting Buddhist and Moravian groups meet weekly? We don’t charge them rent, but they contribute to offset our cost for keeping up the buildings.

    Our 100+ Friends are spread through 15 towns with a 15-mile radius with maybe a third overlapping with another meeting. If we dispersed into smaller groups, how would we affect that meeting? How would our Quaker children get to know one another?

    Also, worship and service are not part of a zero-sum game. If we replaced a meeting for worship with a community service projext, we’d probably plan to have some worship time around it anyway or more attendance at fourth day worship or both.

    And then there is the hope that all our lives are both worship and service, not starting and stopping as we pass in or out a door, but only shifting in form as a meeting rises to exhale its Friends into the community and then draws them in again.

  9. Brent Bill Says:

    I’ve heard that sort of figure ($1,000) tossed around before but dn’t believe it to be true except in very rare cases. Indeed, we’ve (the Indianapolis Center for Congregations) have helped congregations do “audits” on how much it would cost their neighborhoods should the buildings be closed. The economic impact of a congregational building, and the often many other services that happen there (meeting space, food pantries, schools, etc) is much more positive for the neighborhood than it is negative. This is especially true in older, urban areas.

  10. Carol Says:

    Cat, you and I were evidently writing our comments at the same time, but you got yours up first. I know what you mean about our meetinghouses often being green oases. One of the things I lost when I transferred from 15th Street to Brooklyn was a view from my bench of the plane trees that line the street. At Brooklyn, if I sit in exactly the right spot and if the greeters don’t close the doors to the room at 11:15 I can see one tree about three blocks away.

    I trust the $1,000-a-worship figure that my friend gave me, Brent. I believe that you can believe it to be true. Of course, we are talking New York City–a very rare place! Thanks for sharing your $400-a-worship amount, Tom and Sandy.

    However, I’m a bit concerned that folks are veering off into a discussion of closing meetinghouses. That’s not where I went in my original post. That was in John’s comment.

    Indeed, what motivated my original post is, precisely, that I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do.

    But it changed my worship last Sunday in ways I can’t articulate to know that it was costing $1,000.

    And that knowledge sits next to a report on the food crisis in Haiti that I saw on PBS’s Newshour Monday night, April 28, where James Mates of ITV was talking about what’s going on in the worst slums in Port-au-Prince. Here’s a link I found on ITV to that report:

    http://www.itv.com/News/newsspecial/Matesblog2/default.html

    Have a look at it.

    All that has been opened to me for now, Friends, is to suggest that we inform ourselves what it costs to hold our respective meetings for worship every Sunday.

  11. kate Says:

    This is really interesting and valuable, Carol.

    I am among those who feel the need for our meetinghouses. While I value worship in a smaller group (hello John, Elizabeth, and Carol!), I know that my Quaker experience is richer for also interacting closely with a larger group.

    I am a bit shocked at the $1000 figure though once I think about it, am not surprised. Just out of curiosity, I’d like to see a breakdown, just to know what we might cut down on.

    I know that my own meeting pays a caretaker who works part time. This must make a dent in the $52,000 figure.

    I also note that, were I a member of a congregation with a minister in NYC, I would expect their salary to make up a much larger portion of $52,000 (though I am a congregational minister’s granddaughter, and I know it isn’t a high-paying profession).

    And that’s before you have a building or lights.

    I also know that, as an unprogrammed Friend, I _don’t_ have a minister. But the meetinghouse then plays the role of providing space for committees that do much of a pastor’s work, and this space is needed, not just for an hour or two on first days.

    Does the value of the space (which could be rented out or sold) figure in at all? If it did, I would expect a NYC meeting to cost more than twice what a comparably-sized meeting in most places does. After all, rent and housing prices in Manhattan are more than twice those in most American cities.

    Now, living in an expensive city (expensive both financially and resource-wise)–troubles me very much. But that’s for another post.

    I also feel saddened that we are not doing enough for social justice, feeding and housing the poor, and so on. I know many Friends don’t like to get involved in politics, but I do feel a major change is needed on a large scale. And I feel that we can effect change for the hungry and unhoused in much bigger ways, in addition to spending more of our money in this way.

  12. Carol Says:

    Thank you, Kate. I hope you will post about living in an expensive city. And about major change on a large scale.

    Meanwhile, I find I have had to distill one of my comments into a new post. Perhaps some conversation will continue there.

  13. Quaker Pastor Says:

    Our cost of worship (expenses divided by 52 weeks) looks to be around
    $788 per week. My salary is about 39 percent of the expense…
    Peace, QP

  14. kate Says:

    Thanks Carol, and Quaker Pastor, that is helpful to know.

  15. MaryM Says:

    In the original post the wasn’t the concept to close churches and spend money feeding the hungry? Comparing quaker meeting houses to churches is like comparing apples to oranges, at least it is here in North Carolina. Most of the meeting houses I’ve been in are simple structures. I suspect it costs way more for a catholic or baptist church to open their doors on a sunday. Many meetings make their space available to important community services. A thousand dollars for Meeting for Worship in a major city sounds a lot, but how many attend? If only a very few, then close the meeting house. If it is a large meeting, then a meeting house is necessary for a locus for the community.

    What do they do when they leave? Go home complacently, or find renewed energy to do what needs to be done in their communities? Most of the Friends in my meeting (we don’t have a meeting house, we’re pretty tiny) spend their time tending the sick in our community, or in education and mentoring youth. They have a real spiritual need to gather for worship in silence to be able to face what they do in the world every week.

    Instead of fretting over the cost of a meeting for worship space, the meeting’s budget committee could review all expenses. Our yearly meeting discovered two years ago that by changing the vendor of our annual minutes we saved several thousand dollars. This money went to payments to Quaker organizations and travel expenses for friends.

  16. Carol Says:

    Thanks, Mary M., and welcome. And a belated welcome to Tom and Sandy Farley and Brent Bill, too.

    In the original post I understood myself to be musing on the concept of choosing to close down worship occasionally in order to spend the time serving in the community. It was a project designed by Faith in Action to alleviate complacency among churchgoers.

    I am not advocating–nor was Faith in Action–closing houses of worship so that the money can be spent on the poor.

    I am wondering about my own complacency.

    I began wondering about it when I realized that I didn’t even know what my own worship cost every week. It’s not that I’m fretting over that cost. I was oblivious to it. It never occurred to me to wonder.

    What does that obliviousness tell me about my relationship to money? I don’t know. But I think it says something about my sense of entitlement.

    Close upon these wonderings came my viewing of James Mates’s news report about Haitians eating “cookies” baked from a batter of dirt, butter, and salt to help with the pain of being hungry and having nothing else to put in their stomachs.

    As I said in my earlier comment, all that has been opened to me is that we inform ourselves about what our First-Day meetings for worship cost.

    Both Brooklyn and Fifteenth Street have between 60 and 100 worshipers each week.

    I’m not asking, How do I close down my meetinghouse? I’m asking, What do I do now that I have begun to open up my eyes?

  17. rachel Says:

    $1000? I don’t know the type of building you have in NYC or any specifics on utility costs in your area or stuff like that, but surely it can’t REALLY cost that much per week? I wonder how they came up with that figure?

    But regarding how much TIME is spent on worship, vs. on service to the poor, yes, I can see there could be a big issue there.

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