Why have a Meeting House?

2012 03 05 Meeting House front view
This is a question often asked when I say “I manage a Meeting House”, or talk about making profits and covering costs.

Why do we maintain places of worship?

1) Primarily a meeting house exists to enable Quaker worship to happen at a set time and place.

Any premises will need some maintenance, investment and, of course, preparation for the worship. Quakers have a history of meeting in a wide variety of places – outdoors, in homes, or in rented rooms. However, most Quaker meetings in Britain now meet in set premises at set times. You can see 555 existing and former Meeting Houses on Flickr.

2) A meeting house also supports the meeting as a worshipping community.

It allows the meeting to have a visible permanent presence in the local community. It supplies a place to keep the library, store records, and to display notices.

All Quakers this way...

It also prevents additional costs being incurred when the meeting decides to have social gatherings. This lets the community host weddings, funerals, and other activities as desired.

Furthermore, meetings for worship are intended to be public events. Having a public premises for them means they can be advertised widely, without compromising the personal information of anyone involved.

(Or having to alter signs to ensure people find you this month…)

How does the meeting as a worshipping community fund these places?

Originally meetings were funded through local donations only. Now, there is often a wider pool, including income generated by the building. Renting or hiring out the building during the week is the most common way of raising money to support the building. Often this money is pooled locally to enable smaller or struggling meetings to be nurtured by larger or stronger ones.

This bring us to a third reason for owning such an asset:

3) Meeting houses can bring in income. This can support Quaker work locally and further afield, and also enable the meeting to make donations to non-Quaker work which they want to support.

Meetings can exist without a building, and indeed many flourish in rented accommodation or private homes. Open air meetings for worship can be, and are, held regularly. However, they rarely develop into a recognized meeting, instead being supported by other meetings.

Conversely, meeting houses can survive without a meeting. They can be converted into something else, rented or leased out to another body, and any income paid back to the area meeting to support Quaker work.

Meeting houses making money used to be a luxury. One warden told me that when he started twenty odd years ago:

“Back then 80% of the local Meeting’s income was from donations, while lettings brought in 20%. These days – it has completely reversed!”

Declining numbers and changing demographics mean that the number of people supporting either their local meeting or the centrally managed work of Quakers in Britain is lower.

Few people feel that meeting houses shouldn’t be used by non-Quakers, so long as that use does not interfere with Quaker use of the premises. Indeed, many meeting houses are designed or have been altered to enhance use by the wider local community. Most Quakers would, therefore, agree that using our meeting houses to make money is sensible. Though, what that money will be used for, should Quakers make a profit, and if so how much profit, seem to be continual discussion points.

I am presuming the basic premise is that any hiring should at the very least cover costs, ideally giving some profit for maintenance, improvements, and investment.

If the price charged by a meeting house is not covering the costs of the hire, this should be looked at. Is this because the local meeting has corporately agreed this work is worth supporting?

Generally a Quaker meeting won’t continue supporting non-Quaker work to the detriment of Quaker work. Where that does happen, it is often because the full conclusion of a decision hasn’t been thought through.

During one discussion, a member of this premises committee explained that they charged below-cost rents for some yoga teachers, as: “Oh, they are such nice people.”

I asked if this meant that they thought Quakers should be donating to these individuals, rather than to centrally managed Quaker work or some other Quaker cause. After all, someone must be paying the difference between the rent coming in and the running costs going out.

In this case the local meeting was subsidising yoga classes. Of course, this is something that the local business meeting might have decided to do. But had it actually discerned this was what they felt they should be doing? Or had it just… happened? From the surprised looks I received, I suspected the latter.

So, if a meeting has a meeting house, what should they do with it?

I’ll try to answer this question next time.

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