Ashley Goff was pastoring a traditional Presbyterian church with a monumental limestone tower when she first heard that Arlington Presbyterian Church, about six miles away from downtown Washington, D.C., was razing its building to build affordable housing.
The vision grabbed her.
“I wanted to be part of a congregation that did this incredible, radical thing out of a call from God,” Goff said. “I felt called to be in that story.”
Goff came on board as the church pastor in 2018, just as Gilliam Place, a 173-unit affordable housing project, was being built. Today, Arlington Presbyterian, a church of about 60 members, rents a modern, 3,000 square-foot space they designed in line with their values on the first floor of the apartment complex.
A growing number of religious congregations are now reimagining and repurposing their property for social impact. Many are pressed to do so because of declining membership, underutilized space, deteriorating buildings and soaring maintenance costs.
And many of those leading the charge are women clergy.
They are people like Goff who believe the church must reimagine its future if it is to survive into the 21st century.
“This church broke things open and tore things apart for the sake of the community,” said Goff. “They re-imagined the community. This death and resurrection story is where my heart is.”
Of course, plenty of men are also leading congregations to reimagine the use of church properties. The need is urgent. A 2020 Gallup poll showed for the first time in Gallup's eight-decade history less than half of Americans said they belonged to congregations — a huge dip from 70 percent in 1999. Congregational life is undergoing change, not only in Christian settings; synagogues and mosques are also losing members and consolidating, merging or finding new ways to manage their properties.
But in many cases, it’s women who are taking the steps necessary to guide congregations to reuse and redevelop houses of worship. They’re doing so both out of a sense of calling and because of structural inequities.
The Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper, retired pastor of Judson Memorial Church in New York City's Greenwich Village, is among the pioneers of the movement of sacred/civic placemaking. As the first woman to lead the 130-year-old church, she helped the congregation expand the number of nonprofit artistic and social service groups that use the Italian Renaissance-style building.
But, she also conceded, women may be leading congregations to adaptive reuse by necessity.
“A lot of the time men get the fancier jobs and keep them and then they’re not as desperate,” said Schaper, author of “Remove the Pews: Spiritual Possibilities for Sacred Spaces” and a professor of religious leadership at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace.
It’s been more than 65 years since women were first ordained in mainline Protestant denominations such as the United Methodist Church and what would become the Presbyterian Church USA. Women have since ascended to a number of high-profile positions, including in 2006, when Katharine Jefferts Schori became presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the denomination’s highest office.
But typically women receive assignments to smaller congregations with fewer resources.
The Rev. Sarah Strosahl-Kagi knew when she accepted the position at Royersford Baptist Church in Royersford, Pennsylvania, that the 100-member congregation was struggling. It would fall to her to lead the church to a more sustainable future.
“So often, women are given the dying churches that no one else wants,” said Strosahl-Kagi, who is 36. “So we’re forced to be more creative in our leadership.”
In less than three years, she led the church to consider leasing or selling part of its 5-acre plot to a nonprofit developer for the construction of 45 workforce homes and condos — for individuals and families who work in and around Royersford but can’t afford to live there.
Members not only voted unanimously to move ahead with the project, the church has attracted 14 new members and improved its short-term financial outlook.
“I don’t think anyone in our congregation pictured that we would be talking about housing,” Strosahl-Kagi said. “But we’ve been open to it, and we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine a different reality, both for our congregation and community.” ("Leading in a Time of Change": Read lessons from Sarah Strosahl-Kagi.)
Women pastors may be more skilled at guiding churches to think creatively. In part, perhaps because they have to fight existing gender stereotypes, women are more willing to step out of their comfort zone and come up with new ideas that are pragmatic as well as mission-driven.
“We are trained by experience and by circumstance to be thinking more innovatively, being a little more nimble, using our imagination to find ways to affect change and make progress in these sort of creative, off-the-path ways,” said the Rev. Dr. Lauren Ng, director of leadership empowerment for the American Baptist Home Mission Societies and a board member of the nonprofit Sympara, which helps communities repurpose underutilized religious properties for social impact.
Women pastors may also be more collaborative. They understand that various congregational constituencies have to work together to come up with a plan. They also know when to step out of the way and give others credit.
“I did not try to lone-ranger this effort,” said the Rev. Juli Wilson-Black, the pastor of Fairlington Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia, which in 2017 sold a portion of its church parking lot to develop an affordable housing building called The Waypoint.
“I've always tried to approach leadership in a collaborative way where it's not me that's setting the agenda, but it is me that is putting a vision out there and then seeing how people respond and what energizes folks,” Wilson-Black said.
It was ultimately the lay leaders of the church, she said, who owned the decision to move ahead with the project. Working collaboratively in this way also meant that if the project failed to win enough support, she wouldn’t have felt solely responsible for the outcome.
Leaving open the possibility of failure is an important facet of women’s leadership, said the Rev. Melissa St. Clair, pastor of Heart of the Rockies, a Fort Collins, Colorado, Disciples of Christ church that is partnering with three nonprofits to build affordable housing and two homes for adults with developmental disabilities.
“We went into this with the sense of, ‘If we don't get any proposals or if we don't see a way forward, we will have at least learned something in the process and that will help us figure out what's next,’” St. Clair said.
But ultimately it’s the possibility for meaningful change that may most excite women pastors, said Goff, the Arlington Presbyterian pastor.
“I feel part of a call to disrupt the systems that have created so much harm in the church itself — for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities,” said Goff. “For me, in my gender and identity, I have a responsibility collectively. My call is to reimagine Christian community.”
Yonat Shimron is an award-winning religion reporter and senior editor for Religion News Service. She is a former board member for Sympara.