I presently serve as pastor, of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. The church, formerly St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church, 7558 Amboy Road in Tottenville, Staten Island, has been in existence for 156 years and has seen so many changes over the years that, to my mind, it truly does not meet the criteria of “historic landmark.” But the larger issue isn’t really about St. Paul’s UMC specifically, but about the nature of the church and the nature of landmarking.
Landmarking is about preserving buildings. The Church is about expanding the kingdom of God. In practice these two goals are at odds. Few historic buildings offer the flexibility necessary to enable congregations to grow with new generations of Christians. Whether we like it or not, study after study informs us that the younger generations of church-goers will not accept uncomfortable physical facilities. They expect the use of modern technologies. They care about issues of accessibility. Growing congregations are implementing such strategies all over the country. Churches that are more interested in preserving than in growing are, for the most part, experiencing decline. When a church receives landmark status any structural changes have to be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The priority for LPC is NOT to enable any church to grow. The priority for LPC is preserving historical buildings whether they function as originally intended or not, therefore, approval for major renovations are unlikely. Even necessary maintenance often becomes increasingly burdensome after landmarking. Additional costs associated with matching original materials are not uncommon.
For the record, I am not against preserving historic buildings in general. I appreciate history and even considered becoming a history professor at an earlier point in my life. I am, however, never in favor of allowing preservation efforts to trump fulfilling the purpose for which a building was built to begin with.
I am not in favor of turning church buildings into museums. That is truly not their purpose. Church buildings are built to house congregations that are intended to be vital, thriving, growing, changing outposts of the kingdom of God.
All churches need the flexibility to make necessary changes to fulfill their mission. As many can attest, landmarking status makes it nearly impossible for a church to make necessary changes that enable growth. St. Paul’s is not a museum and we don’t want to become one. Our intent is to be a vital, thriving congregation in the service of building the kingdom of God. We anticipate the need for a number of significant changes which we intend to approach as St. Paul’s has always approached such necessary change, by preserving as much of the traditional look and feel as possible while enabling our congregation to grow by considering the modern needs and preferences of the people we are trying to reach.
Reverend Joseph Upole is Pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Staten Island. St. Paul’s is under consideration for landmark status by LPC. The application was heard at a Public Meeting on October 22nd along with twenty-five other items in Staten Island as part of LPC’s series of hearings to deal with backlog. A decision will be reached by Landmarks in early 2016.