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[10 on Tuesday] How to Preserve Places of Worship, Part One


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Because of the spiritual and emotional significance of religious spaces, it’s important to approach them sensitively. In particular, conflict can arise if there’s a feeling that preservationists are …

Because of the spiritual and emotional significance of religious spaces, it’s important to approach them sensitively. In particular, conflict can arise if there’s a feeling that preservationists are prioritizing the building over the religious group’s spiritual needs.

This toolkit offers 10 questions local preservationists should ask to make sure they're keeping the congregation’s needs at the forefront of the preservation process. Part Two delves deeper into the nitty-gritty of the rehabilitation and/or re-use of religious buildings. (Read part two:

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  • 1. Photo courtesy gwilmore, Flickr How to Preserve Places of Worship, Part One
  • 2. Many activist or civic-focused denominations are called to community service, and because of this they use their sanctuaries as outreach centers. It’s important to know about -- and respect -- the need for appropriate space for mission-oriented work. 1. How does this congregation relate to the community? Photo courtesy St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral – Memphis, Flickr
  • 3. Even when the spiritual is prioritized over the physical, certain aspects of the building -- memorials, symbols, and any embellishments or improvements made to the structure -- can be deeply meaningful. Focus on these items when making preservation recommendations. 2. What tangible connections to their history does the building provide the congregation? Photo courtesy CORNERSTONES of NY, FLickr
  • 4. Different religions employ different terminology for their congregations, leaders, and rituals. For example, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish denominations commonly use “congregation,” while Catholics and Episcopalians prefer “parish.” Respecting the terms can go a long way in helping the faith group view the preservation community as allies and partners, rather than interlopers. 3. Are you speaking the right language? Photo courtesy klachak, Flickr
  • 5. Depending on the denomination, a worship community may have almost complete autonomy in its decision-making or virtually none. Engaging with congregants locally is essential, but it’s also good to know upfront if you’ll need to make your case to a more distant, centralized authority as well. 4. Who are the decision makers? Photo courtesy Peter J Dean, Flickr
  • 6. If the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, or has a state/local historic designation, opportunities may exist for financial or technical assistance. Local designations may also provide protection to the building -- along with responsibilities for the denomination that owns it. 5. Is the building “officially” historic? Photo courtesy J. Stephen Conn, Flickr.
  • 7. As with all preservation projects, knowing the nature of the threat helps you figure out how best to save a place. If maintenance issues threaten the building, look into the underlying causes: Is there limited money for upkeep? Has there been a lack of continuity in leadership? Do the building stewards lack the knowledge and training to keep it up? It’s also possible that the physical structure is in good condition, but is being consolidated with another parish or congregation, leaving it as excess building stock. 6. Why is the building endangered? Photo courtesy carlylehold, Flickr
  • 8. If multiple congregations are merging, preservationists can bring their expertise to bear by recommending which of the buildings can best accommodate the combination of worship and community outreach services that the congregation needs. 7. Which is the best building to use? Photo courtesy CoryNedlik, Flickr
  • 9. Again, preservationists can help at a difficult time by helping indentify new uses (and owners) for buildings that are no longer needed. 8. What happens to unneeded buildings? Photo courtesy peyri, Flickr
  • 10. Finding a business with a compatible mission -- such as a senior center or day care -- to use the building during the “downtime” between services can provide an additional income stream to help with preservation, as well as broaden the base of people with a connection to the building. 9. Is there an opportunity to share the space? Photo courtesy James C. C., Flickr
  • 11. Often, a simple lack of expertise in maintaining historic buildings can be an issue. Volunteering to help a local parish or a larger religious denomination develop maintenance manuals and checklists can go a long way to securing a building’s future. 10. How can I help the congregation be better stewards of their building? Photo courtesy Anjum., Flickr
  • 12. Ten on Tuesday features ten preservation tips each week. For more tips, visit