Buildings are valuable assets which can be made to work hard for a faith group – and there's nothing sacrilegious about that, argues former international Methodist leader Stuart Burgess
Many faiths regard their buildings as primarily places of worship. Some believe that they should be used for no other purpose. Methodists take a slightly different view – buildings are made by people, for a purpose. If people of faith can see a better way for a church building to be put to work for the good of the faith, then so be it.
It sounds simple – but even for a pragmatic faith group like the Methodists, the journey has not been easy. Should churches be investing as if they were businesses? Should faith groups be prepared to take a loss in the short term, in the hope they will make money later? Should churches even be pursuing profit at all?
All these questions have preoccupied Stuart Burgess, a Methodist minister and former leader of the faith internationally, as President of the Methodist Conference.
Stuart has spearheaded a businesslike approach to property which has seen the Methodists build their own upmarket London hotel – The Wesley, featured here on this website. This venture is so successful that it is being followed by a second. It’s helping to win the movement over to the view that buildings, especially valuable ones in city centres, can bring big benefits to faith groups and their communities.
‘I've always been interested in property, in how to make property work for the well-being of the church,’ Stuart said.
‘We quite like as Christians to pretend that we function only by prayer and generosity and charity and we're a little bit embarrassed about the fact that actually we've got quite a lot of money invested.
‘But I don't find that embarrassing at all because I see the whole of Creation as holistic. Money is very, very important, but it's how you use money.’
‘We quite like as Christians to pretend that we function only by prayer and generosity and charity and we're a little bit embarrassed about the fact that actually we've got quite a lot of money invested' – Dr Stuart Burgess
Stuart takes his cue from the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, who when preaching to the rural poor in England in the 17th Century said 'Save all you can, gain all you can and give all you can'.
In the 1950s, missionary Hilda Porter saw a need for accommodation for Methodist visitors who came to London to study, mainly from Africa. The idea grew until there were Methodist accommodation blocks in nearly every university city in the UK.
But times change, and as student accommodation became more easily available, the Methodist centres were less needed. What to do, in particular, with the centre in London, on a valuable site close to Euston railway station?
It seemed obvious to Stuart that this expensive asset should be working for the church. He came up with a plan for a hotel, to be run on ethical lines, but with the aim of making money, which could be ploughed into charitable causes.
‘The challenge was convincing the Church that this was the right thing to do,’ he said. Partly this was because in the 18th century, ‘many of the rural buildings were only put up by the goodwill of farmers on their land, and there were only there to last about 100 years. If a building isn't wanted, we get rid of it and move on.”
This made it a challenge to convince church leaders that they should hang on to the building, and use it for a profit. ‘They could cope with an international centre looking after students – but heaven's above, you're gonna make money? And what are you're going to do with your money?’
‘Convincing the Church was a huge problem. I had to go back to the Methodist Council at least three times to convince them that this was a thing worthy of the Gospel.
‘Should the Church, should we as a Christian organisation, even contemplate investing our money in this? It raises the whole question of the attitude to property.’
The traditional Methodist attitude, Stuart said, was: ‘If you don't want the building, if it's serving no other purpose, then you get rid of it and build another property somewhere else. So it's a mind shift of saying, hang on, these properties are now in very strategic places, especially in London when the properties are worth an enormous amount of money.
'The Methodist Church has always been ambivalent about not bothering to get planning permission, not bothering to get the best price, just put it on the market,' says Stuart. His argument was to say, 'Let's hold on a moment, let's put some deep thinking into this, and can we use that property differently, can we see it in terms of serving the community, and can we see it in terms of making money out of it out of that property to invest that money in different causes around the community?'xd
Winning the argument took great perseverance. But now the Methodist are much more focused on the value of the 4,500 properties they own across the UK.
'Every organisation should have a social heart and a commercial head. It's trying to work out the balance between those two.' – Dr Stuart Burgess
‘Every organisation should have a social heart and a commercial head. It's trying to work out the balance between those two,’ said Stuart. He believes that the church still sometimes has a short-term vision, like governments do, looking at the next four or five years.
Why not, he says, think long term? ‘What are the long term benefits? What are you going to get it out of? You may make a loss to start off with, in the first three or four years, but project yourself for the next 10 years.
‘The bet is you're going to make a lot of money, which can then be used for creative purposes to do other things.’ But, he admits, to convince the Church on that is tough.
But there is plenty of scope for religious bodies who adopt the right mindset to use their properties – or even other people’s – to prosper and fund good works. The success of The Wesley hotel in London has led to a new hotel project in nearby Camden, which will also support a community facility.
Covid can challenge the best of plans: one building under the Methodist microscope was worth £9 million. Post-Covid, the value is about £3.5m.
But the same market forces mean that conversely, it’s cheaper to buy buildings from others. Stuart also has his eye on another property next to a Methodist building. It’s owned by another faith group, who might be willing to sell. ‘We already have a business plan. We’re ready to go for pre-planning application and things like that. So we're there.’
All he wants is the investment of £2m-£3m. Often one opportunity leads to another, and success breeds success.