‘Basement to belfry’ church inspections help Missouri congregations plan for buildings’ future

By David Paulsen
Posted Dec 1, 2023

The congregation at St. John & St. James Episcopal Church in Sullivan, Missouri, renovated its interior to brighten the space in response to its inspection report. Photo: Sally Weaver

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of Missouri has spent the past two years conducting comprehensive property inspections at all 41 of its Episcopal churches. When it was St. John & St. James Episcopal Church’s turn, the inspectors’ report sounded several alarms for the congregation in the small, rural community of Sullivan, about an hour southwest of St. Louis.

A skylight over the chancel was leaking. The roof was deteriorating. The interior was dark and uninviting, and the church’s only bathroom was down a set of stairs. The sign out front was in such bad shape that St. John & St. James “basically looked abandoned,” the Rev. Sally Weaver, priest-in-charge, told Episcopal News Service.

Bell tower

The bell tower at St. John & St. James was deemed a public health hazard and taken down. Photo: Diocese of Missouri

Most troubling, however, was the teetering structure next to the church that was holding high the church’s big brass bell. Inspectors with Kuhn Construction deemed it a public health hazard, and the congregation agreed to take the bell down and dismantle the structure.

It may sound like a bleak report, and St. John and St. James wasn’t alone. Inspectors have detailed unsafe conditions and needed repairs at other Missouri churches. But rather than dampen the congregations’ outlook, Weaver and other local church leaders welcomed the inspections and have begun to act on the inspectors’ recommendations.

“The biggest challenge facing most of our congregations, both now and in the future, is going to be the buildings,” Bishop Deon Johnson said in an interview with ENS. He ordered the diocese-wide inspections starting in fall 2021, so all the congregations would benefit from detailed reports assessing their properties, “from basement to belfry,” to help them make prudent, informed decisions about the upkeep of the aging church buildings.

The diocese also has received corresponding reports from the church inspections, so it can prioritize and coordinate financial support of the congregations as they plan for renovations and repairs, Johnson said. “What could be fixed now that would save us expenditure of time and money down the road?”

The last three churches in this round are due for inspections in December. The team is led by Rick Kuhn, who owns Kuhn Construction and is a parishioner at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Webster Groves. It is part of his “lifelong passion” to share his team’s expertise with the diocese’s congregations.

Inspector looks at water damage

The inspection team from Kuhn Construction has been producing comprehensive assessments of the Diocese of Missouri’s churches, identifying everything from water damage to trip hazards. Photo: Janis Greenbaum

“The knowledge that we bring back, I think, is immeasurable,” Kuhn told ENS. Whether spending a couple of hours examining a small church like St. John & St. James or several days at Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis, his team catalogues every blemish, hazard and leak inside and out, sometimes with the assistance of drones. Many of the churches are over a century old, so leaky pipes and porous roofs are common.

“We’re finding the drip that nobody thought to look for,” Kuhn said.

His inspectors check ceilings for water damage and then search for the cause of the damage. They look for broken steps, loose handrails and uneven ground that could cause people to trip. They inspect tuckpointing and flashing, roofs and gutters. They detect any lead and mold that might need remediation. And they inventory furnaces, boilers and other appliances and estimate how much life they have left before needing replacement.

In the most serious case, Kuhn’s inspectors advised the congregation at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in suburban Florissant to immediately stop worshipping in its church. The structure, built in 1959, was at risk of collapse from rotting rafters.

Though that dire discovery forced a closure in fall 2021, it didn’t stop the congregation from worshipping. It remodeled the adjacent parish hall, creating a new altar and worship space there. When Johnson visited in May 2022 to consecrate the new space, St. Barnabas members told him they found the parish hall, just as accommodating as the former church had been and even more flexible.

St. Barnabas before and after

The traditional worship building at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church was forced to close because of an unsafe structure, so the congregation moved its services into the parish hall. Photos: Diocese of Missouri

Faith communities are more than the buildings where they worship, Johnson said, but he doesn’t discount the spiritual and emotional resonance of the church as a shared physical gathering place.

“It’s the place where people come to be baptized, to be buried, to be married and reaffirm their faith,” Johnson told ENS. “While we don’t worship the building, the building is often the container for those sacred moments of people’s lives.”

That is a place worth caring for, Johnson said. He envisions a program of continued inspections on a five-year cycle to help congregations maintain their churches far into the future – as “an act of hospitality for those who will come after us. ”

At St. John & St. James, Kuhn’s inspectors didn’t just identify needed improvements. The inspection report also got parishioners thinking about how they used their worship space. With only a handful of worshippers most Sunday mornings, they rarely filled the nave and were not using the building other days of the week, according to Weaver, the priest-in-charge.

Inside St. John & St. James

The renovated St. John & St. James Episcopal Church in Sullivan, Missouri, is brighter and features a mix of chairs and pews. Photo: Sally Weaver

To renovate and reconfigure the church, members drew on some of the congregation’s savings and conducted a small capital campaign. They painted the walls a brighter color, upgraded the lighting, added a bathroom to the main level and a play area for children. They removed most of the old pews and added movable chairs, so after worship services, the space can become a venue for coffee hour, other parish gatherings or community events.

“Implementing these recommendations, it’s been kind of life-changing for this congregation,” Weaver said. “It’s just totally changed the feel [of the building]. … Now you can sense this lightness and joy, and it’s just inviting.”

She partly credits the building upgrades and a new exterior welcome sign, featuring a rainbow Pride flag, for growing attendance on Sundays. Before the renovations, as few as three worshippers would come for the services. Now, a dozen or more regularly attend – a noticeable increase in a small church building where only 50 would feel full.

“We keep getting visitors and we keep getting new members,” she said, “and those that come get involved.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.