GRAND RAPIDS — Fountain Street Church is less than one month away from finalizing the creation of a separate nonprofit organization that will enable it to increase the efficiency of its space and its long-term sustainability.
Executive Director Jack Woller said the non-denominational Fountain Street Church would retain ownership of the building it has occupied for 150 years, but will make a more formalized effort to sublease space or make in-kind donations of space to organizations that have a relationship with the church for continuing education or personal growth opportunities.
Examples of this include the possibility of access-based childcare and a James Beard-trained chef who wants to use the church’s kitchen space to start a culinary business, Woller said.
“We haven’t settled on a name, but we’re 99 percent there and will be filing articles of incorporation in the next month,” he said. “It’s been two years of a very intentional process of listening, talking and engaging people. We want to leverage what power, privilege and assets we have for the benefit of others.”
Similar shifts are happening in mainline churches throughout the United States, particularly those in downtown areas with ample business space and experience working with nonprofits, says Gregg Carlson, director of contracted services and senior consultant with the Center for Progressive Renewal.
The Center for Progressive Renewal, based in Atlanta, Ga., seeks to renew Christianity by training entrepreneurial leaders, supporting the birth of new congregations, renewing and strengthening existing churches, and growing a network of progressive ministries that support and nourish one another and bring about a more just and generous world.
“Increasingly, the congregation has gotten smaller and the building is not the right size for that congregation and the congregation has chosen to flee to the suburbs,” Carlson said. “In many cases, churches choose to remain where they are and their congregations want to make their churches more of a community center.”
While grantors won’t fund a religious organization, they will fund a nonprofit if they are working on issues like homelessness or food insecurity, Carlson said. This opens up the possibility of the church providing space to a nonprofit, while also working as a nonprofit managing the building.
Woller, who has been with Fountain Street for almost three years, said he’s not sure of the exact time when community support and usage of the building by nonprofits and organizers actually started. Fountain Street makes in-kind donations of space to individuals and organizations who are vetted, but there is also a sliding-scale fee and full rentals are available.
Many of those individuals and groups who already have relationships with the church have a focus on social justice and social action.
Fountain Street Church has a long history of hosting individuals and events that appeal to a broad spectrum of the community. Historical figures, including Malcom X, Sir Winston Churchill and Susan B. Anthony, have spoken at Fountain Street, which also has hosted musical greats including B.B. King and Ella Fitzgerald.
“This church was always intended to be for the West Michigan community, not just to provide worship spaces. It was designed to be a place for the community that also had a church in it,” Woller said.
The church’s main sanctuary seats 1,600 people and the facility also features a 200-seat Alden B. Dow-designed chapel, in addition to church house offices, a social hall and meeting rooms.
The spaces provide opportunities for the church to serve as a venue for major events like LaughFest as well as for speakers brought in by the likes of Grand Rapids Community College and others.
“GRCC is an amazing neighbor and we recently had a diversity lecture series,” Woller said. “This is something that’s been going on for a very long time. We collaborate with the community college to make a larger impact.”
In the case of LaughFest, Woller said the event and its mission are something the church embraces.
“If an individual is going through a cancer diagnosis, this is a big and true collaboration that’s beneficial to both parties. We partner with LaughFest to meet their goals,” he said.
But there are also smaller, completely in-kind collaborations such as the Women’s March and March for Our Lives, a student-led push for gun violence prevention.
“A group of students had approached us because they wanted to coordinate and support March for Our Lives, and we were able to support them with a regular meeting room and were beside them to help them organize and participate in a group trip to Washington, D.C.,” Woller said.
The annual budget for Fountain Street Church is about $1.5 million, some of which comes from an earned endowment and fundraising.
“We have a voting membership of a little over 900, but our congregation is much, much larger than that because of the way we operate,” Woller said. “We have individuals who are part of the church, but don’t join. So the congregation is between 3,000 and 4,000 individuals.”
The depth and breadth of the programs and offerings at the church attract people who may not necessarily want to become full-fledged members, but are interested in participating on some level.
“We want to know what part of the puzzle we are for causes and needs and how we can support people regardless of religious structure or faith,” Woller said. “In the nonprofit sector, you have superficial collaboration or posturing to have access to larger donations. With true collaborations, you can know what piece of the puzzle you are. When you truly collaborate, the impact is much higher.”
Carlson said the shift to a multi-purpose use of space works well with churches in downtown locations that already have established relationships with stakeholder groups.
“For churches where it makes sense, it’s where the congregation is willing to say the best use of the facility is this,” he said.
According to Woller, basic supply and demand plays a role in how organizations like Fountain Street Church function. Churches that tend to be geographically outside of a city’s urban core have fewer organizations in their footprint with which to partner and engage.
“Being in the center, we are just a more desirable location,” he said. “Suburban churches have more of a mega-aspect to them. They tend to be living in a different ecosystem. I don’t think the type of multifaceted work we do here would be as successful in a suburban church.”
However, not every mainline church that Carlson counsels is considering the shared space option. Many of them are looking for direction to take their churches to the next level in terms of engagement to grow their membership, he said.
Woller said this has become a significant issue for the continued health of many church organizations. Last year, he said, 10,000 churches closed their doors and that same level of decline is expected to continue this year.
“The research shows that younger individuals, 19-40, are identifying less with membership,” Woller said. “The vast majority are not looking for it and that impacts the way churches are operating from a financial standpoint.
“There is a change in the way churches have to operate, not only to sustain, but truly deliver on their missions. If they truly want to deliver, they’re going to have to tactically develop and evolve.”
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