The economic halo effect of sacred places: Measuring civic impact in an innovative new way

Photo courtesy of the First Christian Assembly in Philadelphia, USA

Economics of heritage, Buildings and architecture, Community, Adaptive reuse

Published Date: Oct 01, 2019

Photo: Photo courtesy of the First Christian Assembly in Philadelphia, USA

Nestled in the old city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Old St. George’s United Methodist Church is a “mother church” of the denomination and the oldest Methodist church in continuous operation since 1769. Every year, the church attracts several thousand visitors who spend tens of thousands of dollars locally. It is also surrounded by other heavily visited Revolutionary War sites, such as Independence Hall and the Betsy Ross House. While Old St. George’s is atypical in that it maintains a museum and archives in one of the most vibrant sections of Philadelphia, it is typical of congregations in that in hosts a spectrum of activities that catalyze visitor spending and strengthen local economies.

Old St. George’s is only one example among 90 sacred places surveyed as part of a national study of the economic impact of urban churches and synagogues in the United States that was published in 2016: the Economic Halo Effect of Historic Sacred Places. This study found that the average historic sacred place in an urban environment generates over US$1.7 million annually in economic impact. With over 700 active historic houses of worship each in Chicago, Illinois and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and close to 350 in Fort Worth, Texas, this translates into over US$3 billion in annual impact for the three cities combined. Additionally, sacred places – like Old St. George’s – are magnets for visitors, attracting an average of 780 visits each week with 89 per cent of those visits being for purposes other than worship.

The size and complexity of the economic impact of sacred places provides powerful evidence that sacred places in the United States have enormous community value, a value that is increasingly at risk when these buildings decline and close. Older churches, synagogues, temples and meetinghouses should be seen as engines of community health and vitality. When communities are strengthened and revitalized, the value of sacred places can and should be considered and maximized.

Building on a body of research dating back to the mid-1990s, this study – conducted by Partners for Sacred Places, Dr. Ram Cnaan, Director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, and others – showed that congregations with older buildings provide a range of subsidies to support community-serving programs and activities. They offer free or below-market rate space for community groups, arts events, social service and education programs, as well as thousands of hours of volunteer time, clergy and staff time, and in-kind cash and support.

This study differed from earlier research in that it took into account a broader array of congregational activities and identified nearly two dozen quantifiable measures of economic impact relevant to congregations based on an extensive review of available, academically vetted methodologies. The study was first piloted in Philadelphia and the results of this pilot were published in 2013 in the scholarly, peer-reviewed Journal of Management, Spirituality and Religion in an article titled “If you do not count it, it does not count: A pilot study of valuing urban congregations.” Affirming previous research, this new study showed that 87 per cent of the beneficiaries of the community events and programs and events housed in sacred places are not members of the religious congregation. In effect, sacred places in the United States are de facto community centres.

First Christian Church in Fort Worth, Texas has been a cornerstone of its community since 1885 and has maintained a tradition of innovation from its founding through the present day. As membership decreased and the building’s previously well used spaces fell silent, the church evolved to best reflect its strengths as a congregation and its physical assets. Because the church is centrally located and open to sharing underutilized space, it connected in 2013 with the University of Houston’s College of Optometry and the University of the Incarnate Word’s School of Optometry, which was seeking space to house a teaching clinic.

First Christian Church is now home to the Community Eye Clinic of Fort Worth, which is the largest clinic of its kind in the United States. It provides high-quality health care to Fort Worth’s most underserved populations. This innovative public/private partnership also gives patients access to critical social services, some of which are provided by First Christian Church. Occupying the entire second floor of First Christian Church, the state-of-the-art clinic houses seven exam rooms, two testing areas, a cinema classroom and a dispensary.

Congregations’ capital spending over five years (including non-routine maintenance)

Since the publication of the Economic Halo Effect three years ago, Partners has focused on extending our knowledge and using Halo to help sustain and build community value of congregations. We are also guiding congregations on how to use Halo to make a stronger case for financial support from outside their memberships. The economic language of Halo can be especially powerful for member giving, and with non-traditional funders, such as secular foundations, government agencies and businesses.

Although sacred places have significant Economic Halo Effect value, many congregations are smaller and more vulnerable than before, endangering that value and potentially removing assets and shareable spaces from the civic arena forever. If civic leaders act only when a church is closing, it has lost the opportunity to work with the congregation to put its space to better use.

For leaders in government, philanthropy, community development, the arts and social services, understanding the larger civic value of sacred places is essential as communities think more creatively about the value and impact of historic sacred places on the health and vitality of their neighborhoods. Sacred places are often located at key intersections and adjacent to populations targeted for philanthropic initiatives and government programs.

The groundbreaking Halo study substantiated something that we have always known intuitively, deep down: that the bonds between faith communities and the towns or neighborhoods that they are a part of is real. These connections have economic impact, and they add layers of social support that communities need to thrive. Sacred places give back to their neighborhoods, whether the folks who live there are members of the congregations or not. All the more reason to sustain and preserve them.