St. Luke’s is a small congregation in the heart of Ballard, a bustling Seattle neighborhood. Like many churches these days, we occupy buildings that have suffered deferred maintenance (small trees in the gutters) and are too many, too large, and too expensive to maintain. We set out with a simple goal: to make our original church building accessible. The $1,500,000 estimate we received was beyond our reach. Rather than give up on making our property usable, we decided to see how we could steward our 55,000 square feet of land better.

Discerning Our Values and Vision

We began with prayer. In our prayer group, meetings, and worship, we expressed gratitude and asked for wisdom, strength, and guidance. We continue to pray for God’s help and that we will respond to the call to love all our neighbors.

We spent a year identifying our core strengths, vision, and mission through Appreciative Inquiry, a process developed for organizations that takes a positive approach to institutional change. It helps you recognize what you do well and what’s working for you, and to build on that. We began in pairs, asking “What has been your best experience at St. Luke’s and what are the values that underlie that experience?” Throughout that process, we included people connected to St. Luke’s in many different ways: our congregation, building users, gardeners at St. Luke’s Urban Garden, neighbors, social service providers, the Ballard business community, and our guests and volunteers at Edible Hope Kitchen (our feeding program).

After sifting through the answers, five values stood out: Beloved Community, Loving Service, Sacred Space, Spirit Filled, and Sustainability. We posted them on the wall with examples of the comments that defined them. This exercise strengthened St. Luke’s congregation both because we felt unified in our work and because we realized that those around us saw us the same way, affirming our identity. If we never built anything, this was worth doing.

We regularly tell churches asking for development advice that defining your values is essential work. Remember, you’re building a church, which is the people. Then the building is easier.

Next, in large group meetings, we identified project goals, rating them as Essentials, Wishes, and Wild Dreams. For example, the kids’ group included a candy store, unfortunately not an Essential. Participants cemented their commitment to the redevelopment, which helped immensely when we needed community engagement in the permitting process.

Realizing Our Vision

St. Luke’s is part of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, which is the titled land owner. As a rule, the Diocese prefers to not sell land. Ground leasing consequently took front and center, but it is a good choice for many other reasons. It keeps control of the land in the church. It provides an income stream for the next 100 years. And it can’t be drained, unlike endowments. The income stream continues each year, and the land lasts forever.

A small team of members began exploring possibilities, identifying St. Luke’s needs for parking and square footage. We interviewed professionals (real estate, owner reps, experienced ground lease attorneys) through Request For Proposals (RFP), interviews, and reference checks. We wanted a new St. Luke’s, as much affordable housing as possible, and an income stream. In those early days we thought we could bargain for 46 units of affordable housing, 12,000 square feet for St. Luke’s, and an income stream to cover our property expenses, keeping St. Luke’s alive no matter how small the congregation became. This was a real concern because in the last decade, St. Luke’s fell to fourteen members. Now we’re sixty and growing. This death and resurrection story will likely repeat, but with this new plan, the congregation will be able to maintain their space.

From our early work, St. Luke’s described its values and hopes in the RFPs. We asked the professionals about their experience with projects that had affordable housing, new church space, and an income stream. A few insisted they could meet our goals but admitted that financial demands caused other churches to forgo affordable housing. We kept interviewing until we found a firm that showed us similar projects already completed.

Our real estate professionals advised us to divide the property into two parcels, increasing the affordable housing units to 84. The second building adds 40 units of workforce housing (for the missing middle) and 166 apartments, as well as the shell and core of a new St. Luke’s. Those apartments create an income stream. Altogether, there will be 124 units of affordable housing—almost three times our early dreams.

You might notice that we didn’t bring architects into the project early on. The only thing they did in the beginning was a massing study, which shows the mass the code allows you to build. It’s important to hold off on involving architects for several reasons. First, the developer you partner with has their own needs the drawings must meet. Second, the developer will pay for all the drawings, except for the interior of your own space. Third, if you have pretty drawings early on, people get attached and then are unhappy when things have to change.

When our developer was chosen, St. Luke’s was able to negotiate for almost 14,000 square feet of space, plus a large courtyard entry and 20 parking spaces. Responding to St. Luke’s history of gardens and trees, the developer saved trees in a 30-foot setback of green space. This is different than most Ballard apartments, which are built sidewalk to sidewalk. More trees will be added on the streets and an olive tree at the entrance to the courtyard! Amazingly, the developer also placed the church space on the prime corner and set the apartments above, back from the roofline to make the church stand out. Different exterior materials and glazed red brick on the chapel will make St. Luke’s condo pop.

Behind the scenes, those making decisions on details in the development always fell back on the shared vision we had from the beginning. The design includes an interior cross that lights up when we’re being church and turns off when we’re welcoming a multi-faith or no faith community (core value: Beloved Community). We insisted on the chapel’s red glazed brick and protected 19-foot ceiling heights (core value: Sacred Space). We gave up a parish hall to provide multi-use space for childcare during the week and classrooms on Sunday (Loving Service). The grove of trees will preserve green space, and an olive tree and special flowering plants will grace the church exterior (Sustainability).

In April 2024 construction began on the family-focused affordable housing building. The second building will follow when interest rates drop enough to make it feasible. We’re excited about the future!

Advice for Your Church

If your church is considering new ways to utilize your property, you should know that this isn’t a solution for a congregation that needs immediate help. The likely timeline for our project traces ten years from our early investigations to our expected conclusion. That’s about average. You should also consider that these years require strong lay leadership. While it’s critical to have clergy support, they may move, retire, or become ill before the project finishes. The laity will have to step up even more. Even with the same clergy involved, the time demands are such that the laity will have to carry a hefty part of the burden. Remember your pastor has a church to run, a full-time job in itself.

We also recommend bringing your local community in early to this process. Our time assessing strengths and desires with the community was well spent. Building permits require public meetings. This is where the naysayers show up. Our professionals explained that almost everyone has to have a second or third meeting to get approval. Because of the connections we had already made with the community, that wasn’t our experience. At the Early Design meeting, every public comment was positive, even with multiple exceptions to code requested. We passed in one session.

For the second meeting we asked our congregation, neighbors, and business community to show up. So many responded that the moderator explained he couldn’t allow the promised two minutes per speaker. Each would only have 30 seconds. Again, there wasn’t a single negative comment. Of course, some people in the community are opposed to tall buildings and affordable housing, but none bothered to testify. The project passed in one meeting. Our developer jokingly wondered if St. Luke’s would hire out for other projects!

If you are considering doing something similar with your church property, here are our recommendations and a few notes about things we wish we’d known as we began this process.

Recommendations from St. Luke’s experience:

  1. Begin and continue with prayer.
  2. Include everyone you can in your discernment process.
  3. Find lay people with a variety of skills and viewpoints. Work for consensus.
  4. Hire real estate brokers, construction managers, attorneys, and architects.
  5. Use Requests for Proposal. Interview at least three. Check all references.
  6. Start with a feasibility study.
  7. Figure out how to pay for pre-construction costs.
  8. Understand there will be disappointments and miracles, large and small.
  9. Be humble, focus on your mission, and point to God’s presence and love.


What we wish we’d known:

  1. If you will be paying for some of the construction, you need to have the cash/loan in hand to complete the project before the contractor will start. Pledges don’t count.
  2. Likewise, the lender won’t loan if you don’t have the cash in hand to finish the project. Pledges and grant funds not yet received don’t count.
  3. Grants from government agencies require you pay “prevailing wage,” which is more than union wage. Practically speaking, you cannot build paying only some of the workers union wage. Paying everyone “prevailing wage” will significantly increase your costs and paperwork.
  4. Some grants don’t pay until the work is finished. Some of those offer low cost loans. Some don’t. Either way, interest will increase your costs.
  5. You will likely negotiate a letter of intent first and then the lease/sale agreement. Both will be negotiations. There may be some additional negotiations later.
  6. You have the most bargaining power at the front end. See that what matters to you is spelled out. Don’t let too many details wait for negotiation after the agreement to lease or sell is finished.


Building for the Future

Sometimes people ask how we kept going for the seven years it took to even break ground. We think the Holy Spirit worked overtime. We were told we could create 46 units of affordable housing—there will be 126. All our professionals donated some of their time. We stumbled onto grants we didn’t know existed. When we went through permitting with no negative comments, even our secular partners said Alleluia! We point to God for all the surprises and give thanks. Not every moment is easy, but the evidence of blessings keeps us going.

The redevelopment process strengthened our faith and our connection to our community. St. Luke’s has not lost members, even though every building is coming down. New people have joined, attracted by our mission of affordable housing, childcare, and community space. Our small congregation increased the number of pledging units to from 35 to 42 and raised $970,000 for our capital campaign—a jaw-dropping number. People in our Diocese and community have already pledged $400,000 in a campaign that’s just about a few months old. Our community is delighted to see affordable family housing and childcare in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Our legacy is affordable housing and childcare for generations of families, worship and program space that can be reconfigured as needed, and an income stream. The congregation can keep their building, save for the next redevelopment, and more importantly, expand their ministries as God calls.

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and bought contiguous land for the sake of ministry. With God’s help, we are the shoulders for those who come after us, who will continue to build Beloved Community for the next 100 years.


Recommended reading: Gone for Good, edited by Mark Elsdon.


Cover photo credit: Daniel McCullough



  • Barbara Wilson

    Barbara Wilson is Chair of the Property Stewardship Team at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church Seattle in the Ballard Neighborhood on the traditional land of the Coast Salish, the first people of Seattle. With some experience in small real estate investments, she knew enough to speak the lingo of real estate professionals. The rest has been on-the-job training.