Arlington Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia is a mile from the Pentagon. The average per capita income is $100,000. Families of four making $60,000 a year— teachers, firefighters, medical personal staff, the lifeblood of the community—are being forced out of their own neighborhood by high and rising rents.
When Pastor Sharon Core arrived at the church in December 1998, her primary work with session leaders was to help them see themselves as the spiritual leaders of the church, rather than an administrative body.
“As we made this shift together, we began to discern that what we were doing wasn’t working anymore,” says Core. The church began their discernment as one of the initial churches in National Capital Presbytery to use the Transforming Congregations Project process offered through the presbytery. The process continued for several years through various iterations, including working with a consultant from the Center for Parish Development.
At a retreat in 2009 the Session and ministry team leaders discerned a vision that led them to propose to the congregation that the church property should be given over and replaced by a new church within an affordable housing development. A firestorm of controversy and conflict was ignited when this proposal was presented to the congregation.
Recognizing they had proposed something as radical as demolishing the building without establishing the groundwork and reasoning behind the idea, they tabled the proposal.
In 2010, Arlington's presbytery suggested they follow a Presbyterian Mission Agency discernment and assessment process known as New Beginnings to look closely at the congregation’s financial and spiritual health, neighborhood demographics and its own ability for change.
“New Beginnings helped the entire congregation recognize that something needed to change,” says Core. “That gave us the clarity to focus our efforts on what our mission should be in our neighborhood.”
Arlington Presbyterian invited then new church development coach, Shannon Kiser, to work with the congregation in 2012.
The first thing Kiser did was form a vision team that would commit to four practices:
- Daily scripture reading and prayer
- Daily praying the Matthew 9:38 passage (that the Lord of harvest would send forth laborers into the mission field [their neighborhood])
- Enter into conversations with people in their neighborhood, listening “for whom our hearts are breaking.”
“These missional practices helped us see and hear how God was speaking,” says Kiser, now a 1001 new worshiping communities associate in the East Region.
Kiser and the vision team lived into these practices throughout the summer while Core was on a three month sabbatical.
“By not relying on our pastor to tell us what to do, we gained confidence in our own ability to listen to God day-to-day,” says vision team chair, Susan Etherton.
When Core returned, the vision team was full of stories about the people they’d met who lived and worked along Columbia Pike, where the church is located.
“We were drawn to those who couldn’t afford to live here, even though they worked nearby,” says Etherton. “People wanted a deeper sense of belonging and community, where they lived and worked.”
Members of the congregation had discovered the ones for whom their hearts were breaking.
“It was like ‘oh my-gosh,’ we’ve come full-circle to affordable housing,” says Core. “It’s as if God was saying to us, ‘now you know why there was energy there, and why you’re going to do this.’”
It took nearly two more years of work but in January 2015, members of National Capital Presbytery unanimously approved the sale of Arlington Presbyterian Church to an affordable housing development partner for $8.4 million dollars.
If everything stays on schedule the affordable housing development will close in July 2016. Demolition of the church building and new construction will begin in early 2017 with completion scheduled for 2019.
Arlington Presbyterian is now deciding whether it will rent back worship space from the housing development. The congregation is working with an affordable housing project manager who recently completed a project with a Baptist church in neighboring Clarendon.
Acknowledging the “unfortunate reality” that many urban and suburban churches can no longer maintain their real estate, Jill Norcross says, “affordable housing is a way for them to give something back to the community.”
“We’re trying to the reach the lowest income group possible, but most of the units will be for those making $60,000 (the lifeblood of the community that Core referred to),” she says. “Plus, the church can recreate something new with some leverage.”
Arlington Presbyterian has also hired a mission developer to help them understand how to meet neighbors' desires for deeper connection and belonging—which is the focus of a new worshiping community that will hopefully emerge from the sale.
“There is a remnant of folks who want to be part of this,” says Etherton. “It will probably be about half of what our current attendance  has been.”
“We don’t need a building to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our neighborhood,” says Eatherton who raised her two college-aged students there and, like Core, was married in the church. “Arlington Presbyterian has been a vibrant faith community serving our neighborhood for over 100 years. We will continue to do so, building or no.”
Adds Core, “I get the building as sacred space, but just because we have great memories, that is not a reason not to redevelop. I’ve shifted as a pastor, I’m no longer trying to raise good church people.”
“To me the beauty of church is people learning to listen to God and their neighbors, and becoming good disciples in the community.”