Renting Church Space: A Cautionary Tale

Renting Church Space: A Cautionary Tale

a small easel chalkboard sign with the word welcome written on it is in the foreground; in the background are two large leaded glass windows and a stone column

Churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon have long sought ways to build relationships with organizations and businesses in their neighborhoods. Renting church space to musicians, schools, and community programs provides congregations with an opportunity for ministry, as well as a valuable source of income. It also opens the doors to connections based in common values and purpose within their neighborhoods.

“Stewardship of church property isn’t just about preserving and maintaining a beautiful structure,” says the Rev. Martin Elfert, Rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in a Congregation Close-up article. “It’s also about recognizing that the property has a ministry to proclaim the Gospel.”

Things to consider

There are many considerations churches must keep in mind as they navigate business relationships:

  • Scheduling
  • Maintenance and clean-up
  • Reimbursement
  • Insurance

Specific details as well as a sample Facility Usage Policy are included in the diocesan Policies & Procedures Manual.

Additionally, it is essential that churches know and understand the tax implications of these property use arrangements. Improper contracts with for-profit businesses can result in a church losing their tax-exempt status for property tax and being required to pay back taxes.

What can go wrong

In 2018 First Presbyterian Church in Miami, Florida received a $7.1 million tax bill by the Miami-Dade Property Appraiser. Claiming that the church’s leases to a private religious school and food trucks violates its religious exemption status, back taxes plus interest and fines were assessed for the years 2009-2017.

In response, First Presbyterian Church filed a lawsuit claiming religious discrimination on the part of the county. “What’s happening to this church is the ultimate nightmare scenario,” said Franklin Zemel, a lawyer quoted in a Miami Herald article covering First Presbyterian’s taxes and the lawsuit.

Though the church claims the operation of the for-profit school “is motivated by the Church’s sincere religious beliefs,” Zemel’s assessment is that the county acted appropriately in charging a church that is making money without paying the appropriate taxes. Had the school been a non-profit, with its own tax-exempt status, the result would have been very different, and the county would not have looked to the church for tax payments.

What to do

Churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon who enter into partnerships with for-profit businesses must ensure that they operate within their tax-exempt status. The income must be directly tied to mission and ministry or tax consequences can result.

Any church considering or engaged in such property use agreements must consult with their legal counsel or the diocesan chancellor. Additionally, the chancellor’s office must approve the contract.

The long history of churches as public spaces and hubs of social activity remains a vital part of our Christian tradition. As congregations continue opening their doors to community partnerships, it must be done with a clear sense of purpose and a thorough understanding of business practices.