The Rev. Jonathan Hancock, a pastor at LaSalle Street Church in Chicago, wasn’t even sure exactly what a portico was, never mind that the ones supported by the pillars of his 110-year-old church were architecturally significant and decaying. Nor did he have the expertise to evaluate the condition of the church’s many stained glass windows or to realize a recent tuckpointing job was inferior.

He’s not alone. Few seminaries teach property management, yet the maintenance of church buildings is one of a pastor’s many duties. And in many urban centers, where churches and synagogues are a lifeline for their neighborhoods, maintenance and repairs are an even more urgent problem.

Tight budgets coupled with escalating operating costs threaten not only some of these older buildings, but also the vital service programs they house.

A new partnership

Many churches in Chicago’s historic neighborhoods—including LaSalle Street Church—are getting face lifts thanks to Inspired Partnerships, a nonprofit organization that offers technical assistance in building and financial management to clergy and laity of older religious properties.

“Some of the most significant buildings in any community are the churches,” said Holly Harrison Fiala, executive director of Inspired Partnerships. “Yet American society has undervalued the contributions that local churches are making to the livability of our communities.”

According to an Inspired Partnerships study, congregations housed in these older buildings provide more than 30 types of human services, ranging from food and clothing distribution to child care and counseling, and a majority of those served are nonmembers.

Yet despite meager operating budgets, congregations continue to support these programs, often ...

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