Slick flexible working spaces are everwhere, but faith organizations offer a more basic service with some unconventional benefits

Last summer, Ted Henken, a 47-year-old sociology professor at Baruch College, New York, was searching for somewhere to get some work done when he passed a sign advertising a co-working space. Although there is no shortage of these in Manhattan, this one was different: the sign was outside a 90-year-old Lutheran church. Henken was intrigued, but wary; if he joined, would someone try to convert him?

Curiosity, a sticker price of a $5 or $10 suggested donation and convenience won out. The unhip mess hall-esque kitchen of Our Saviors Atonement (OSA) with its red concrete floor and farmhouse-style cabinets became Henkens summer workspace.

In 2017, the number of coworking spaces increased of 16% in the US and 36% globally, as freelancers and small businesses have turned to them over traditional office set-ups. The global market value of flexible workspaces is estimated at $26bn. Now faith organisations, from a conservative Jewish community in Brooklyn to a Christian church in Texas, are experimenting with dedicating their spare spaces to the trend.

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The work area at OSA homey rather than a polished space such as those offered by WeWork and The Wing. Photograph: Gina Ryder

Their offer tends to be low-cost and homey a distinct alternative to the more slick and corporate offerings of established brands such as The Wing and WeWork. The downsides to church working? There is generally no dedicated spaces for phone calls, storage, mail access or printing services, all of which are offered by WeWork and its ilk. For some users, those are minor inconveniences when you consider that rates for the WeWork closest to OSA start at $430 per month and go up to $850 for private access.

At a time when a growing share of Americans (especially young people) are abandoning traditional religions and just 36% adults attend religious services weekly, faith leaders view coworking programs as not just a modest source of revenue but a secular arm of their ministry. For workers, the spaces offer an economical place to get things done, plus the possibility of local social connection, even if they are not a believer.

For the past 10 years Ive had a latent desire to be a part of a community thats not just digital and thats not just from my past, says Henken. [Being at the co-working space] feels like a revelation or a rediscovery of something I thought I didnt need or didnt want.I could very easily see myself not becoming a parishioner, but becoming a member of the community.

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No printer services, storage or private spaces for phone calls are provided at most faith-based coworking spaces, although basic services are provided. Photograph: Gina Ryder

OSAs co-working program was inspired by St Lydias, a Lutheran dinner church located in a storefront on Bond Street in Brooklyns Gowanas neighborhood. With its Shaker-style chairs, mismatched mugs and colorful aprons lining the back wall, St Lydias looks as though it could be a farm-to-table restaurant or a rustic bakery. In reality, its where churchgoers gather for a meal, a homily and worship every Sunday and Monday evening. From 2014 until March this year, it also ran a co-working space. Costing from $80 per month for part-time use to $240 for full-time use, it attracted a group of around 25 workers, ranging from a remote-working day trader looking for space to scan the markets to an artist needing a paint-free place to tackle administrative tasks.

St Lydias founding pastor, Emily Scott, believed that co-working was an extension of the churchs mission to dispel isolation and reconnect neighbors.

St Lydias has now decided to end its co-working program, but for others the idea appeals as an answer to the perennial problem faced by congregant-and-cash-starved urban religious communities: how to build and sustain a faith community while paying the bills? Financing a church in decline can be close to impossible. Each year in the US 6,000 to 10,000 churches close each year and donations to congregations have been dropping for decades.

For some, the answer is not to run their own co-working space but instead to rent out unused areas to co-working companies. In Dallas, the basement of White Rock United Methodist Church is home to the Mix, a flexible space for workers in the creative industries. For $150 a month members are given full-time access to a dance studio, conference room, sewing station and artists studio.

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A WeWork space. Photograph: Katelyn Perry/WeWork/PA

Daryn DeZengotita, founder of the Mix and SyncLife Coworking at Central Christian Church in Dallas, Texas, believes the key to a successful program is cohesion between sacred and secular spaces. At Central, we are using a model that can more readily be replicated by any church: leveraging existing space, furnishings and staff and recognizing the co-working space as a ministry of the church rather than a separate entity within the building.

This chimes with Scotts experience at St Lydias and she warns that opening a co-working space is not as simple as some might think. Theres this misconception: Oh, this will be easy because we have space and well just open it and well put out some desks and people will use it. You really have to have events happening to call people back to the space. At St Lydias, that mean a shared weekly lunch and activities such as meditation.

As for the ministry aspect, church co-working doesnt include pamphlets about the state of your soul. But it is a place where all sorts of people cross paths. One aspect of co-working in New York City is [the idea that] the more exclusive your co-working space, the better because you will meet people who are, like, fancy or what have you. That was absolutely not the dynamic we wanted to play into, Scott said. DeZengotita said members of a drug recovery group meeting at Central began to use the co-working space to search for jobs.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

 

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