Image Description: Amy Butler is leading a project to redirect funds to entrepreneurs focused on social justice. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
As developers gobbled up churches in downtown Washington in 2013, the Rev. Amy Butler had a realization. Institutional Christianity, she believed, was unlikely to revive itself after decades of declining membership.
Butler later learned that religious institutions in the United States were valued at $1.2 trillion. And she met a man who was distributing money to anyone he perceived to be working for some kind of community healing.
Those experiences prompted a lightbulb moment for Butler. Why couldn’t money left in the coffers of dying churches be repurposed to fuel projects aimed at doing good in the world? Years later, Butler has brought her idea to life through Invested Faith, a fund established to receive assets from closing houses of worship and disburse them to entrepreneurs motivated by faith and focused on social justice.
The project started with funds donated by financially successful churches and is supporting 13 fellows whose projects include connecting teenagers with free mental health resources and employing refugees to make and sell bread. As Invested Faith begins its third year, Butler now has started trying to convince struggling churches to support it with the money they have left.
“From a spiritual and community standpoint, placing assets with Invested Faith would optimally be a shared decision made to celebrate the past witness of a congregation,” she said, and to ensure “the work of faith that congregation has held so dear for so long continues” even after “the life of the institution comes to an end.”
Now the pastor of National City Christian Church in Washington, Butler knows that some see accepting the closure of churches as akin to giving up on institutions that mean a lot to many. But she rejects that framing, reminding skeptics that belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead lies at the heart of Christianity. “We don’t need to be afraid of death,” Butler said. “We’re people who believe that after death is resurrection.”
While the number of churches that succumb to their financial strain each year is hard to pinpoint, they have been closing rapidly as religious practice fades among Americans. Last year, a minority of the population belonged to a house of worship for the first time since Gallup began tracking in 1937. Christians comprised 63 percent of people in the United States, down from 75 percent a decade ago.
Researchers posit several potential explanations for the trend. Many Americans appear to be disillusioned with the actions of religious leaders. Some believers are mixing pieces of various faith traditions. Others may have replaced their religious beliefs with political opinions.
Whatever the reason, efforts have sprung up to repurpose the assets of closing religious institutions and support faith leaders seeking new forms of ministry. Some organizations convert closed churches into affordable housing or working spaces. Others seek to help what are known as spiritual entrepreneurs as they reimagine how to do ministry.
“Legacies have challenges that start-ups don’t,” said Rabbi Elan Babchuck, whose organization the Glean Network brings together faith leaders trying to innovate. “They have bureaucracies, they have ‘the way we’ve always done things,’ they have, sometimes, lack of institutional momentum wherein great ideas kind of die on the vine.”
Start-ups have their own challenges. They often lack funding, physical space or institutional management skills, Babchuck said. To help meet that need, the Glean Network partners with Columbia University to offer business training to clergy and others looking to create social impact outside of the pulpit. But among the organizations responding to the decline of institutional religion, Invested Faith appears to be an outlier in how it tries to repurpose money from dying churches.
To the Rev. Alisha Gordon, one of its fellows, that reliance on closing institutions is bittersweet. But she said it also creates space for people of faith to reimagine how to live out the mandate of service in the Gospel. “There is an opportunity for institutions to realize that the death of this thing actually creates pathways for more,” Gordon said.
A $5,000 grant from Invested Faith helped Gordon to launch a new initiative this year within her nonprofit organization called the Current Project. She said the program offered eight financial coaching sessions to Black single mothers and helped them get closer to their savings goals by giving them a $500 stipend to pay off debts, including credit cards or medical bills.
As Butler describes it, Gordon is exactly the kind of fellow that Invested Faith tries to bring on board. She said she looks for entrepreneurs who are changing unjust systems and have sustainable financial models. They also have to be rooted in faith, which Butler defines broadly as whether the person can articulate a “yearning to heal the world.”
Butler said she encountered a lot of people who met those criteria in 2014 when she took the helm of Riverside Church in Manhattan, but they weren’t working within the church itself. Many of the theologically trained people whom Butler wanted to hire were involved in Christian spaces outside of traditional churches.
Through Invested Faith, Butler is now trying to support their work. “There are people doing the stuff that we want to do,” she said of the institutional church. “We just don’t call it church because it’s not in pews.”
Although Invested Faith fellow Lizzy Case graduated from a seminary, she didn’t think becoming a pastor would let her pursue her dream of selling ethically made clothing with progressive Christian slogans. So she founded Arrayed, a company that produces that kind of apparel with an eye toward environmental sustainability and humane labor practices. A $5,000 grant from Invested Faith has helped her to invest in her next round of designs and appear as a vendor at conferences, she said.
Case still finds value in institutional churches, which she said once were better positioned to promote social justice. “But I also think that there are new opportunities and new ways of connecting and furthering the mission of the Gospel in the world through other avenues that I think are just as important to explore,” she said.
Butler said she sometimes finds herself trying to convince the pastors of struggling churches of that.
When money is scarce, Butler said, some leaders keep forging ahead with internal projects, like fixing a leaky roof, that are aimed at keeping the doors open at any cost.
Invested Faith is founded on a different approach. Redirecting money from struggling churches to entrepreneurs focused on social justice, Butler said, is a way of embracing the abundance of God. It’s also a way of ensuring that those institutions leave a legacy, she said.
But even as those houses of worship close, Butler is convinced that the Christian church as a broad institution is not doomed to die. The desire of people to ask big questions and perpetual longing for community, she said, will keep it afloat. “The question that we don’t know the answer to yet,” Butler said, is, “What is it going to look like next?” By Marisa Iati
Marisa Iati is a reporter for the General Assignment News Desk at The Washington Post. She previously worked at the Star-Ledger and NJ.com in New Jersey, where she covered municipal mayhem, community issues, education and crime.