The campuses of theological colleges and seminaries are beloved by students, alumni, and faculty — but administrators and board members know the costs of maintaining historic buildings and antique chapels. It is easy to view them as a drain on already tight resources, especially when some buildings are rarely used — or even shuttered due to disrepair. 

Many seminary leaders may think their institutions are not eligible for assistance from secular historic preservation offices and organizations. However, an array of historic preservation resources is available to all caretakers of historic buildings, including religious institutions. Here is a brief guide to government offices and nonprofit organizations that can assist leaders of seminaries, theological schools, and Christian colleges as they consider the future of their campuses.

Local preservation organizations

Local nonprofit preservation groups, active in many cities and towns, are an excellent resource and should be the first place to turn. They are the easiest to access, they’re often staffed, and they’re led by people who care about local neighborhoods and may even be familiar with your institution. 

Connecting with local advocates can pave the way to garnering community support — and funding — for preservation efforts.    

These groups often have expert staff or board members available to consult on technical aspects of repair — people with the expertise to: 

   •  Assess the physical plant of historic campuses. 

   •  Provide preliminary scopes and budgets for repairing and maintaining building systems. 

   •  Reduce energy costs. 

They can make referrals to architects, engineers, or contractors with the right skills and experience for building challenges — whether they are leaky roofs, rotten window sills, uncomfortable classroom spaces, or heating bills that are increasing too fast. For instance, the Landmark Society of Western New York has awarded a technical grant to Elim Bible College, in the town of Lima, New York, to fund an inspection report on its historic campus buildings, which were originally part of Genesee Wesleyan Seminary and Genesee College. Then the Landmark Society identified a local architect to assist Elim with the project.

Regional and state preservation organizations

Beyond local groups, there are regional or statewide preservation groups that can also be great partners. The New York Landmarks Conservancy has an active Sacred Sites program, which provides technical assistance and grants to religious organizations throughout the state. It has funded restoration work at chapel buildings of two New York City seminaries: General Theological Seminary received a grant in 1987 for $1,000, and Union Theological Seminary received four grants totaling $30,000 in 1986, 1993, 2002, and 2008. (It should be noted that the New York Landmarks Conservancy grant program is focused primarily on individual churches that lack the institutional capacity that colleges and seminaries have.)

Last year, the Landmarks Conservancy co-hosted a two-day conference on alternate uses for historic religious properties, and preservation groups from Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany presented projects they helped to facilitate. Recently, it partnered with the Capital Region Theological Center to sponsor a financial literacy program for Albany-region congregations. While the program was aimed at churches and synagogues, it would also have been relevant for board members and facilities managers from seminaries with historic buildings.

State historic preservation offices

Every state has a historic preservation office that can provide technical assistance on maintaining historic properties, information on rehabilitation tax credits, and guidance on potential state grant opportunities. Expert staff can also provide referrals to local and regional preservation organizations. (A list of state historic preservation offices is at shpolist.htm.)

State policies about using public funds for religious properties vary. Some states — for example, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Colorado — have provided substantial restoration grant funding to church- and synagogue- owned facilities, including both worship and educational facilities. Seminaries in those states may qualify as well. Other states, like California, don’t fund religious projects at all. 

Many states use a formula to address constitutional concerns about government funding for sectarian sites. Under this formula, funding is limited to areas of the landmark building visible to, and enjoyed by, the public (such as roofs, windows, and exterior walls), and public funds can only be used for the difference between routine repair and a high standard of restoration. However, this funding has been increasingly hard to get in the current economic climate, and in many cases projects that create and sustain local jobs have had an edge over other projects. A seminary might be able to make a jobs-creation argument better than an individual congregation, so it’s worth consulting with the state preservation office.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is a nonprofit organization that was chartered by Congress in 1949. It provides national leadership on preservation issues, including direct, on-the-ground action to preserve historic buildings and sites when they are threatened. In recent years, the organization has focused on “national treasures” — places that have made a significant contribution to American history.

 The National Trust can serve as a strong advocacy partner for public relations campaigns, using its publications to promote national dialogue and public engagement with specific preservation efforts. If seminaries were to band together to engage the public, they could lobby the Trust to list “America’s historic seminaries” on its annual “11 to save” campaign, to raise awareness of the issues facing at-risk historic seminaries with overwhelming deferred-maintenance costs. 

Many local and statewide preservation groups maintain and promote similar annual “endangered” lists, and the “at risk” designation some- times comes with free publicity, technical assistance, and fundraising help from preservation organizations. If a theological school were to wage an effective public relations campaign in conjunction with a preservation group, the school might want to create a new “friends” group — that is, a separately incorporated organization to raise funds for its historic buildings, especially if these buildings also host public events like lectures, concerts, and secular activities.

One example of a religious nonprofit that capitalized on its inclusion on a “top 10”–type list is Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York. In 2008, the Russian Orthodox monastery was listed on the “Seven to Save” list of the Preservation League of New York State, and the next year the monastery’s nonprofit, secular partner, Otsego 2000, was awarded a grant that was funded by the state and administered by the Preservation League. The grant provided funding for the preparation of a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, which is a prerequisite for most grants, loans, and tax-credit funding for repair and rehabilitation of historic buildings.

The National Trust Community Investment Corp-oration (NTCIC), a subsidiary of the National Trust, is a potential partner for seminaries interested in syndicating federal rehabilitation tax credits for the commercial reuse of a portion of their campus. NTCIC makes equity investments in real estate projects that qualify for federal and state historic tax credits, low-income housing credits, solar tax credits, and New Markets Tax Credits. (For explanations of all of these, see NTCIC works with a variety of property owners including for-profit developers, nonprofit organizations, and local governments. 

NTCIC’s acquisition staff has expertise in a range of legal structures, including single-entity, master-tenant, and other kinds of leveraged transactions, and they work with for-profit, nonprofit, and public-sector developers. 

Private consultants 

Private consultants are another option for religious institutions considering historic preservation efforts. Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York, was seeking a tax syndication partner for repurposing its community wing as rental apartments, and it hired Murray Gould, a real estate consultant, to assist with the process. Another firm, Lichten Craig of New York, launched a facilities management program this year for General Theological Seminary.

To plan and implement renovation projects, it is useful to find consultants with a portfolio of comparable experience and an affinity for working with religious institutions. For instance, a grant writer, fundraising consultant, real estate development consultant, architect, engineer, or construction manager with experience only in well-endowed universities might not be the best consultant to understand and creatively address the unique challenges of smaller seminary campuses, but a consultant with experience in both campus facilities and historic churches might be ideal.

There are architects and construction managers who actively market to churches, but they should also have requisite experience with historic buildings to ensure that repairs and renovations are cost effective and sustainable. For example, the life of a slate roof can often be extended by repairs to its drainage systems — gutters, downspouts, and valley flashing — and building systems don’t always need to be fully replaced. An architect or general contractor who specializes in new construction might not know much about slate roofs, but one who specializes in historic religious architecture undoubtedly will.

Diverse options

When considering the maintenance, repair, and renovation of historic campus spaces, it is valuable to understand the array of resources in the historic preservation field. Each offers diverse perspectives and services. Whichever option a seminary decides to pursue first, working with one entity can lead to collaboration with others — and ultimately to greater community recognition of the importance of campus buildings.

Telling a new story

Lancaster Theological Seminary and Partners for Sacred Places

Partners for Sacred Places is a national nonprofit that provides training programs, an information clearing-house, and a professional network to congregations with older properties in all 50 states. In the last few years, the organization began to recognize the parallels between the churches and seminaries — both kinds of institutions face similar issues. Now, with funding from the Henry Luce Foundation, Partners for Sacred Places has developed a pilot program for seminaries, starting with Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Campus assessment

Carol Lytch, president of the seminary, describes the situation: “When I came in, it was obvious that we had beautiful buildings, but updating needed to occur. We also had some underutilized space that we didn’t know what to do with.”

Preservation is about taking care of the historic fabric, but also making good use of spaces. Partners for Sacred Places worked with Lancaster Seminary to assess the physical state of the buildings, including their condition and patterns of use, and then helped seminary leaders identify ways to use its space to engage with the larger community and garner new capital, new energy, and new friends. “The trick is how to move from seeing the campus as a burden to seeing it as an asset,” says A. Robert Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places.

Community engagement

As researcher Barbara G. Wheeler has noted, seminaries are unrecognized neighborhood resources. And it’s true that community leaders often know little about theological education, but they are interested in the preservation and use of local buildings — especially when the structures are architecturally significant. At Lancaster, representatives of the seminary and Partners for Sacred Places reached out to the mayor, the head of the local Chamber of Commerce, and the president of the local community foundation. All were receptive, asking, “What can we do to help?”

Staff of Partners for Sacred Places then facilitated an asset-mapping process, inviting civic leaders to discuss what is remarkable or special about the campus — for example, its acoustics, location, gardens, and gathering spaces. “As we make our interest in opening the campus to the community known, we become more visible, and we find that people do care a lot about our presence here,” says Lytch. “They may not care about our mission. They may be of a different or no religious faith. But they like us here, want us to flourish, and want the campus to be well maintained and updated.”

Economic advantage

Next, Partners for Sacred Places used research-based formulas to estimate the institution’s “economic halo effect” — the economic value that the seminary offers to the community on an annual basis. This process evaluates employment, campus spending, visitor spending, green space, and facilities, and the data become the basis for a fundraising case statement. “Understanding its value can help a seminary tell a powerful new story that includes economics, history, culture, and architecture,” says Jaeger. “That gets people excited to be a part of sustaining the campus.”


You probably have more resources than you realize,” says Lytch. “You may think that there are scarce funders, few people who are interested in the seminary, but once you open your doors, there is an abundance of resources that you never knew about.”

She adds that it has required staff time for this project, including an on-site project manager funded by the Luce Foundation. Determining the halo effect required help from the librarian, director of facilities, dean, and CFO, each of whom needed to answer questions about the school. “Also, when you gain these new friends, you make much more work for yourself, because you want to build the relationships,” Lytch says.

Lytch concluded with praise for the collaboration with Partners for Sacred Places: “They are experts in historic preservation, architecture, and group process, and they are motivating and positive. We were so grateful for someone who appreciates our character as a religious institution.”     

Lancaster Theological Seminary’s Lark Building, designed by Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, architect John Smith, was completed in 1894.

Questions about preservation and fundraising

Q.What concerns do religious institutions have about historic preservation?

A. Ann Friedman, director of the Sacred Sites Program of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, is an expert in this field. “In my experience, particularly working from our New York City base, religious institutions like churches and seminaries are leery of landmarking, because local landmark ordinances do impose regulatory oversight,” she says. “However, a listing on the National Register of Historic Places has no regulatory implication and can qualify seminaries for potential restoration funding.”

Friedman says that some substantial grant sources, like New York State’s Environmental Protection Fund, do require that the nonprofit sectarian property owner enter into a covenant agreement, which generally runs for 20 years, to protect the public investment in the privately owned religious property.

Many religious institutions shy away from historic designations, like the National Register, for fear of intrusion by the designating bodies. However, it is important to distinguish between national, state, and local designations. Being listed on the National Register of Historic Places has no downsides — it is solely honorific, indicating special places to the public. 

“The National Register can list your campus on Monday, and you could tear it down on Tuesday. There is no impact,” explains A. Robert Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places. “Local designation will often impose some restrictions on demolition and alteration, but there are often good reasons to pursue a local designation anyway."

Jaeger says that designation as a local or national landmark represents the consensus of the community that the building or campus is an important asset. “It can excite and motivate neighborhood leaders, city government, and preservation organizations to be helpful when investments need to be made,” he says. “Any designation can be a dramatic way for an institution to tell its story to the community. By capturing the power of that story, it can lead to new partnerships, new supporters, and new funding.”         

Q.Does it help if a religious institution has a separate nonprofit entity for fundraising? 

A.”‘Friends’ groups can help local religious institutions ‘friend-raise’ and can provide a conduit to funding not available to sectarian property owners,” says Friedman. “Separate nonprofits work best when the board of the religious institution and the secular nonprofit share members, maintaining cordial and allied goals and missions for the operation and future of the historic facility. Sometimes, a nonprofit arm can provide transitional leadership for a religious institution in decline, like at Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs, New York.” 

 She adds: “Other times, it can support revitalization — that was the mission of the Friends of First Presbyterian Church of Hudson, New York. If programming of one portion of campus has transitioned to new nonprofit use, a separate entity may be prudent.”

Online resources

National Trust for Historic Preservation -

National Trust Community Investment Corporation -

Partners for Sacred Places -

Sacred Sites Program, New York Landmarks Conservancy -

List of state historic preservation offices -


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