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Determining the Economic Halo Effect of Sacred Places

Partners for Sacred Places has completed a research study finding that the average historic sacred place in an urban environment generates over $1.7 million annually in economic impact. With over 700 active historic houses of worship each in Chicago and Philadelphia, and close to 350 in Fort Worth, this translates into over $3 billion in annual impact for the three cities combined.

The study is based on an in-depth analysis of 90 congregations in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Fort Worth, conducted by Partners for Sacred Places researchers working with Dr. Ram Cnaan, Director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice.

The size and complexity of the sacred places halo effect provides powerful new evidence that America’s sacred places have enormous community value, a value that is increasingly at risk when these buildings decline and close.

Older churches, synagogues, temples, and meetinghouses should now be seen as engines of community health and vitality, and when communities are strengthened and revitalized, the value of sacred places can and should be considered and maximized. Congregations employ, on average, 5 full-time and 6 part-time staff, and purchase goods and services from a network of local small businesses and individual vendors, sustaining an important community economic ecosystem.

Each sacred place is also a magnet for visitors, attracting 780 visits on average each week into its neighborhood or locale. These visits, whether for worship services, life events such as weddings and funerals, concerts and recitals, outreach programs, and other activities, generate spending that boosts the local economy. People spend on travel to and from the sacred place and often patronize local stores nearby. In fact, the majority of these visits are not related to worship. Only 11% of total visits were for worship while 89% were by others attending an event, utilizing a program of the congregation, or going to and from a school or daycare.

This study also affirms and builds on a body of research dating back to the mid-1990s, conducted by Partners, Cnaan, and others, showing that congregations with older buildings provide a range of subsidies to support community-serving programs and activities. They offer free or below-market rate space for community groups, arts events, social service, and education programs, as well as thousands of hours of volunteer time, clergy and staff time, and in-kind and cash support. Affirming previous research, again, this new study showed that 87% of the beneficiaries of the community programs and events housed in sacred places are not members of the religious congregation. In effect, America’s sacred places are de facto community centers.

Overall, Partners’ research shows that older and historic congregations contribute to community economic life in a significant way:

  • Sacred places support jobs and local businesses.
  • The shared use of sacred places subsidizes the work of secular nonprofits.
  • Congregations serve as incubators for both nonprofits and small businesses, providing a range of resources including low-cost spaces, enabling these start up organizations to establish themselves and grow.
  • Congregations are community hubs, providing a variety of flexible and affordable space that encourages neighbors to come together to solve problems, serve and be served, and build social capital.
  • Congregations are important supporters of early childhood education.
  • Congregations counsel, support, and make referrals for individuals and families struggling with a range of issues.