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Winner-Takes-All? Gaming Church Structures

While we seek another way, the mindset of our culture is obsessed with winning and losing. Someone’s going to end up on top. Another party is defeated. Survival of the fittest. Yet, Christians seek another way, even when it’s so very hard. In today’s post, Robert Walker calls us to a new way of imagining stewardship. He includes a great example that shows, again, how in the Christian world more than one can win at the same time.

Yours truly,

Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders  


Winner-Takes-All? Gaming Church Structures
Robert Walker

Excellence in stewardship is slippery to maintain for most individuals, but when dealing with church buildings, competing priorities and divergent needs can increase the difficulty exponentially. Too often, varied interests function as strategic adversaries rather than necessary partners, hindering and even preventing fruitful collaborative approaches.  

Collaboration and goal-setting for success are experiences first trialed through playing games, including outdoor open-field games and indoor quests built around dice, cardboard, and wooden arenas. Some games are winner-takes-all, while others are played by teams; whatever the format, most of us are accustomed to competition and clear victories of winners against losers. The great challenge for churches, in being good stewards of their buildings, is to find a truly collaborative way forward so that everybody wins.

Are Old Church Buildings Assets or Liabilities?

Yes.

There are so many church buildings that were once grand, glorious, and full... which now sit hardly-used, unkept, and mostly-empty.  

These buildings, and the property they occupy, represent a significant stewardship challenge for congregations, denominations, and the greater community. They become liabilities when they are uncared for and under-utilized. Such churches symbolize the failing of institutionalized Christianity and the stifling of the Gospel. These structures too often become the salvific focus of the remaining congregants who channel increasing portions of their declining offerings and energy into saving their beloved buildings, while neglecting the demands of the Gospel to make disciples and care for neighbors in need.

These buildings and properties are also potentially great assets. Those who are tasked with their stewardship must be willing and able to prayerfully, imaginatively, and entrepreneurially envision and enact plans for repurposing the space. Such plans would maximize sustainability while supporting discipleship, witness, and ministries of mercy and justice.  

“What If” …Unleashing the Power of Possibilities with Collaboration                                 

Imagine an ornately hand-crafted, heirloom board game set. The wood has numerous cracks, the once beautiful paint is faded and peeling, some of the pieces are missing, its owner has grown weary, and the children who used to play for hours have outgrown it and moved on. The owner treasures it for the memories and emotions it evokes. The children, now grown, remember it fondly but see it as passé, disappointed it does not meet their needs. Outsiders might consider it clutter that belongs in the trash. What if this board could be refurbished, its pieces restocked, its ownership transferred to multiple parties? It would still take a transformation of the rules to fully engage participants -- and while we’re at it, how about setup that would allow anyone to play, and everyone to win?

Identifying the Players and Changing the Rules

In the stewardship of Church properties, there are three distinct interests that can represent players or teams; the congregation, whose members will have divergent strategies, but who all want to see their church win; the parent denomination, which will be proud if the church succeeds, but will absorb a potential financial windfall if the church fails; and the community, which would win if the church succeeded as a blessing to its neighbors. But the community could also benefit if a sputtering church closed, the property returned to the tax rolls, and the property was redeveloped into something that created jobs and offered goods/services for the population. If the church fails in a careless way, with the property becoming derelict, everyone loses.

The key to success is changing the strategy from winner-takes-all, to all-collaborate-and-win, gaming church structures and their stewardship into something to succeed at together. Rather than teams battling for domination, in engaging community-minded team-building and collective alliances, players can strategize together to find the most efficient and effective ways to reach their goals with the least number of moves.

Winning Isn’t Easy

This case study demonstrates such possibilities, with details about the proposed partnership of Greene St. UMC & University of South Carolina. While the details are assembled, winning isn’t easy, and there is much work ahead.

Creating collaborative win-win-win solutions for church properties takes energy, innovation, and a bit of risk. For those courageous enough to envision new possibilities, work collaboratively, and embrace new realities, responsible stewardship of church structures can become a reality where stewardship wins.

Editor’s Note: Check out games like Mysterium, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Pandemic, and Mansions of Madness for contemporary examples of cooperative board games!

About the Author

Dr. Robert Walker has pastored churches in four states and three denominations over the past 30 years. He currently lives in Columbia, SC where he pastors two UMC churches and serves as Financial Coach at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

"Gambling Phone..." image by Sheldon Nunes. Usage license via Unsplash,

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