The Unitarian Universalist Association is selling its headquarters and three other buildings in Beacon Hill, the toniest part of Boston, to move to much less stately digs in an “innovation district” on the city’s outskirts. The New York Times, under the headline “Denominations Downsizing and Selling Assets in More Secular Era,” reports that that kind of thing has been happening all over.
Multiple religious denominations, citing everything from diminished financial resources to a need for more contemporary office space, are simultaneously downsizing and raising money by selling longtime headquarters in expensive neighborhoods. The moves come at a time when increasing secularization in the United States is taking a toll on many religious institutions, although most say the reasons for their relocations are not solely financial.
The Unitarians are going to have to get used to a less cushy workplace:
In the new location, a gutted 19th-century warehouse, workers, accustomed to private offices, will find clusters of cubicles separated by felt drapes. Denominational officials, who now cherish the golden light of the sunset reflected off the Statehouse dome, will instead look out at a parking garage.
Among the religious organizations making similar moves are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the United Methodists, the American Baptists, various Catholic dioceses, the Christian Scientists, and the Jewish Reform Movement. (The Unitarians are still an exception, the Times says, because, unlike the other groups, their membership isn’t dwindling appreciably.)
James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University, comments that the writing on the wall is clear:
“The [once-flush denominations are] finding themselves pressed for finances, and making some hard choices about property, and so we’re seeing more sales in the last decade than we had for the last century. The first things to go were camps and conference centers, and now there is some downsizing of prime-location land, churches and facilities.”
Most of the organizations put a brave face on the fact that their landscape is (often literally) changing:
“One of the qualities that God gives us is intelligence,” said Harley Gates, the senior manager of real estate, planning and operations for the First Church of Christ, Scientist, as the Christian Scientists are formally known. “It’s smart to use your assets wisely, and that’s what this was to us.”
The gold leaf is peeling off of the the gilded age of religion. This ought to be cause for gratitude across the board, including among the religious; after all, the new asceticism gives Christians a chance to be more like Christ.
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