Re-imagining Church Properties for the Common Good: An Interview with Dave Harder from Parish Properties

Jonathan: Dave, before moving to Ottawa and founding Parish Properties, you were co-pastoring a congregation here in Vancouver.  Did that experience contribute to you launching Parish Properties?

Dave: In a roundabout way, yes. The inciting incident in terms of my shift was in Vancouver, where I was part of a more charismatic, performance-driven Sunday expression of church, where you’re trying to make the thing happen from Sunday to Sunday. I got very burnt out in that experience – pretty severely burnout, actually – of really wrestling through church as performance, related to my own identity as a Type A driven personality, but also (wrestling through) what that was in terms of the expression of a faith community.

At the same time, I was researching what other expressions of church were out there. I got connected with the Parish Collective [an international movement for recovering alternatives to the consumer/commuter church], which is really about, “What if neighborhood became the organizing parameter, not Sundays?” As opposed to this hyper-charismatic expression, the performance-driven narrative that I was in. You’re always trying to grow Sunday: let’s get more people building that system versus “What if we actually took seriously this belief of loving neighbor, and this way of being in the neighborhood, where I’m a character in the community?” There’s this ecosystem of love and care, and the church is a part of that ecosystem rather than trying to be everything. How do we then connect with and partner with those in our community, our neighborhood?

So I took a sabbatical, and during that time I invested deeply in my neighborhood and began to get to know my neighbors, because I had time. I wasn’t so driven by the next Sunday, that I actually had space and time to just be present with those in my community.

One really impactful story starts with my son – a toddler walks at a different pace. He would just take forever to get anywhere, noticing every ant and twig and flower. But he would also notice the homeless gentleman on the corner. And every time we’d walk by, this guy would call my son his “little dude” and, because he was sitting on the ground, he’d see Kellan eye to eye. After one interaction, we walked away and Kellan asked, “Daddy, does he ever get French Fries? Where does he live?” He just had all these questions. I would walk by this fellow every day and not notice. But he was a character in my neighborhood.

These stories began to make me think there’s a different way of being the church. After that sabbatical, I couldn’t go back to church as it was. I resigned and moved to Ottawa to plant a neighborhood-engaged church, one more present in its community. I resigned from that three years ago, to help churches live into their neighborhood, which is really my heart and passion. I’m a neighborhood guy. I love the space that neighborhood creates as a way of being the church and asking questions like, ‘What are the dreams of God in my community, and how do I better serve those?’

I think the Kingdom comes into a context and a place. I think it’s how Jesus lived and walked and breathed. He centered those on the margins, living in such a way that was community- and neighborhood-focused.

As I was helping to launch Parish Collective in Canada, I was consulting with churches around pivoting to a place-based way of being the church, finding that their primary struggle was their building. We’ve got deferred maintenance, an aging congregation, low volunteerism – every ounce of energy we have is going into maintaining this building. So how dare you come in and tell us that there’s a new model, and that it’s about loving our neighborhood? We just don’t have energy or time to even consider what that is.

That was where Parish Properties emerged, because they didn’t see their space as an asset. They saw it as a liability, a noose around their neck that was actually hindering them from living into the dreams they had as a congregation.

So that started me down this path of meeting with developers and architects and planners and community organizers to find out what it looks like where a narrative is not just “sell the property”, because that’s really primarily what we’re seeing in the Canadian context, where denominations are planning to sell thousands of churches in the next three to five years. And these had been community assets forever.

What if the neighborhood actually could join in and begin to animate this space from a neighborly perspective, not just you trying to maintain this cavernous space for a Sunday morning worship service, where it seats 700 people but you have 30 showing up? So I think we can better innovate the space, if we have community partners and a community engagement process. So that’s where Parish Properties emerged from.

Jonathan: One of the first things that an architect will ask when a potential project is brought forward by a client – after they ask for the site’s address, zoning, and square footage of the lot – is, “What’s the program for the space?” So church buildings are constructed to provide a physical environment for the being of the church, like skin and bones for the Body of Christ. From that perspective, what are some examples of the most creative, fruitful uses of a church you’ve seen so far? I’m thinking particularly of church buildings that are still used for worshipping.

Dave: Yes, yes, yes. And that was always, always a part of it. But when you look at how much the building is used in a given week, it is so limited.  And the portion of the building actually used can be put into a very small space.

Some of the more creative stuff that I’ve seen is at a church in Ottawa. They’re going through a super creative, innovative process in the ways in which they’re engaging people to look at their space more holistically: Yes, we’re a worshipping community, but what if our kitchen was used as an incubating space for immigrant families in the neighborhood to start a business? What if we had some retail space that local social entrepreneurs could lease at lower than market rates, but was still getting revenue for the church while providing a good in the community? What if, in our reinvention of the space, the architects could create a more multi-purpose space that could be used during the week for many different things from the neighborhood, whether that’s birthday parties or the community center model, where the community is coming in and animating the space that is also then used for worship on a Sunday?

What about affordable housing, mixed use housing? We have a housing crisis. Why do we need a parking lot for 150 cars? What if we began to reimagine what housing could look like so that we aren’t secluded in our units and homes, but where we mingle and connect because we’ve included a public square and community gardens so that relationships are naturally formed by the built environment?

One really impactful story starts with my son when he was little. Toddlers walk at a different pace and he would just take forever to get anywhere noticing every ant and twig and flower. When you walk by an old church, it’s not designed as a space of welcome. The windows are small, it’s brick, and it’s cold. So how do we turn that into a space of welcome where the neighborhood feels that they’re able to participate in what that space is?

From Church Parking lot to Affordable Housing Community: The Story of Co:Here 

Twenty-five years ago, Grandview Church began hosting a community meal and an overnight shelter for the increasing number of people living on the street or in precarious housing near Commercial Drive.  That Out of the Cold meal (later named Crossroads) served on Thursday nights was in many ways the beginning of a journey towards a more holistic response to poverty and homelessness that the church would embark upon.  Let me sketch that journey for you.

Out of the Cold / Crossroads

Two seeds were planted early on which led to that initial response.  One was a Christmas dinner, organized by two women from our church a few years previous, where we got a glimpse of the high level of food insecurity in our neighborhood.

A second impetus came from a social servant in the neighborhood, who asked me at an Area Service Team meeting what the churches were doing to support people “near the street” around Commercial Drive.  When I shared that story with our congregation on the next Sunday morning along with my answer – which was “nothing that I am aware of” – a group began to meet and plan the first community meal and shelter that launched six months later.

Salsbury Community Homes

Concurrent to the development of that meal, Grandview was forming community houses where those in need of housing were finding a home.  As folks from the church formed relationships with folks at the community meal, some people were then welcomed to live in community houses.

Meanwhile, those of us in the community homes were learning how shared living exposes each of our own sins and flaws, inviting us to confession and forgiveness, to love and be loved in a deeper way.  Ironically, often the people who needed housing the most were the ones who stayed on that path of mutual transformation when those of us who “had a choice” to stay or go opted out. What we also learned was how it is that moving from precarious to stable housing changes people for good and opens up all sorts of renewed possibilities for their lives.

Co:Here Community Housing

A few years after Grandview Church purchased the lot beside its parking lot in 2001, we began a visioning process in which we first prioritized affordable housing and then set out in the direction that eventually led to the completion of Co:Here in 2018. Co:Here Housing is a four-story affordable housing building with underground parking (primarily for the church), 26 self-contained apartments, as well as large indoor and outdoor community spaces.  Like a good number of the community houses connected with Grandview, Co:Here has a mix of people from diverse backgrounds, with 16 of the units priced at social service rates.

Each step along this journey for the church – from the emergency response of offering a   meal and shelter in the church hall, to personal responses in shared living, to the corporate response of building long-term affordable housing over top of our parking lot – has been an invitation to move deeper into relationship with each other and into understanding the deleterious impact that unstable housing has on our friends.

Along the way, people from the church became much more alert to the injustices in our system, including the failure to provide adequate financial support to people in need of housing (can anyone actually find a room for the social assistance amount of $500/month!), the barriers erected for First Nations folk or single mothers to secure stable housing (how many times did we see these such persons refused housing for no good reason!), or the failure of our elected officials to treat housing as a basic need rather than as a commodity (a situation we all bear some responsibility for!).  Our exposure to these systemic realities led a number of people from Grandview into dialogues with government officials and participation in protests to articulate an alternative vision for how to treat housing as a basic human need.

The Gospel’s Vision of Personal, Corporate, and Systemic Transformation

The underlying impetus behind this journey was the theological vision of how God is transforming persons, communities, and society through Christ and by the Spirit.  The transforming mission of God in the world, articulated for example in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, includes God’s aim to bring all persons and creation together in Christ by realigning back into God’s purposes the forces and powers misshaping our world.

What I want to point out at this point are two important reflections on Grandview church’s journey to live into this vision of the gospel.  First, community meals and shelter lay at the beginning of that journey and started us down a road that eventually led to these wider responses. What a great opportunity churches have to begin this journey around a shared table, a healthy meal, and a place to get out of the rain and cold for a time!

Secondly, I believe that Co:Here Housing is a model that many other churches can adapt to develop their own community housing on what for many churches are underutilized land assets.  The Co:Here board is pivoting to form an organization that can assist other churches in forming this kind of housing and would be glad to chat with you.  Can you imagine if even 10% of the seven billion dollars’ worth of church properties in the Lower Mainland became sites for affordable housing? Can you imagine the different perception our neighbors would have of churches if we developed housing that was affordable and secure for people in need?

My encouragement to all of you is this:  Start the journey now, whether that is through a community meal and shelter in your church hall, welcoming someone in need to live in your home with you, or building affordable housing on your church-owned properties.  The opportunity to share in God’s transforming and restoring mission is right there in front of us. Let’s step into it.

Podcast Feature

The Canadian Affordable Housing Landscape

The housing sector is a complex machine with allot of moving parts which can be quite intimidating when considering housing development or even real-estate. This podcast is a great place for churches to begin understanding the dimensions of Canada’s affordable housing landscape. Join the Intelligent futures podcast- 360 degree city- as they get an overview of it all by professor Dr. Sasha Tsenkova.


Online Symposium – Homefulness: Homemaking ends Homelessness

“This four-part symposium seeks to deepen the discussion of home-making and housing. In the face of a systemic homelessness that has economic, social, public health, ecological and cultural manifestations, how might we develop more holistic and integrated policies and practices for deeper homefulness in our communities? Join Empire Remixed and the Sorrento Centre for an incredible four-part on-line symposium over four Thursdays in April and May. Join 18 thinkers and advocates who have been active in Canada, the UK and the United States in home-making.”