Faced with declining revenues, Central Union Church members vote to allow the church council to lease or sell some of its land.

The Central Union Church has been serving parishioners on its eight acres of grassy grounds along South Beretania Street for nearly a century. Weddings have been held for residents and tourists, and free food handed out each week for the needy.

But the Protestant church — recognizable for its steeple and Colonial Revival architecture — has seen sources of revenue dry up in recent years, forcing church leaders to ponder drastic steps to make up the deficit.

Members agreed on Sunday, voting to authorize the church council to enter into long-term ground leases or to sell portions of its land.

Almost 200 years after its founding, Central Union Church finds itself in a financial struggle. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The meeting was the culmination of years of work from Central Union’s vision committee, formed in 2018 to chart a future in the face of the church’s declining revenue stream.

“If we want this church to continue in the future, we need to be very serious about looking at what steps we can take,” said Carl Schlack, chair of the church council and one of the vision committee’s six members.

Don’t expect luxury high rises to suddenly loom over the chapel. The ideal scenario, said Schlack, is to lease out land for pursuits that further the church’s mission – something like workplace housing for nurses or teachers, for example. 

But as church attendance has declined nationwide, congregations like Central Union are having to get creative with how they make money. Formerly dependable revenue streams like donations and weddings have rapidly decreased.

Repairs have fallen by the wayside. And community programming continues to sap money. Central Union hosts a preschool, an adult daycare center and a thrift shop, as well as serving free food to anybody in the community every Wednesday.

“The reason we want to become financially solvent is so that we can continue the mission of the church,” said Schlack. 

Fewer Wedding Bells

Revenue began declining before the pandemic, but the public health restrictions aimed at protecting against the coronavirus dealt a major blow, especially to the wedding business.

Meanwhile, the need for repairs to the aging buildings have continued to mount, including “spalling in certain places,” Schlack said, referring to what happens when bits of concrete and other building materials chip away and crack.

Then there are the “leaks that we get when it rains hard,” he said. “There are all kinds of things that need to be fixed or completely replaced or repaired.”

Donations and weddings – especially from Japanese tourists – used to help offset such expenses.

Schlack didn’t know the exact income that Central Union used to receive, and wouldn’t say what the size of the deficit is now. In 2005, Pacific Business News reported that Central Union averaged about 1,300 weddings each year, including from many who were already married but just wanted to reaffirm their vows.

Directly before their Vision Committee vote, about 100 people attended Central Union’s 10 a.m. Sunday service. (Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2023)

It was against this backdrop that the church’s congregation gathered in the Parish Hall to vote after a Sunday morning service in the large, light-filled sanctuary.

In her sermon, the Rev. Mary Herbig referenced a passage from the Book of John, when Jesus Christ meets a woman at a well. The congregation would have a similar meeting after the service, Herbig said, explaining that in both scenarios, vulnerable people are coming together during their times of need. 

Exploring Options

In the end, the vote was decisive, Schlack said.

“It was basically 2-to-1,” said Schlack, an estimate echoed by member Dian Cleve.

Cleve isn’t thrilled about this new direction for the church. A member since the late 1980s, she’s contributed her interior design skills to the Family Life Center, where the Sunday school and adult day care center are based.

She wishes that Central Union could get more support from the community. But, she added, she trusts that the Vision Committee did their homework.

“They’re smart people,” she said. 

Members generally recognized that long-term ground leases might be needed, Cleve said. The central concern was whether the church council should be allowed to actually sell the land.

“Nobody wants to sell,” she said.

Schlack – a real estate attorney in his day job – agrees with this sentiment. Long-term leases would provide a steady revenue stream while also retaining ownership of church assets. 

But sometimes developers aren’t content with just being offered long-term lease. Sometimes they want ownership. And a “very large” offer from a developer could, in theory, yield very high returns on the church’s endowment – potentially even higher than a lease could provide over the same time period, he said.

“We just want to be able to explore that as an option,” he said.

Schlack referred to New York City’s famous Trinity Church as an example of a church leveraging its massive real estate assets to make money. 

He emphasized that the recent affirmative vote is only the first step of a new process. Now, the church council and the real estate committee will start soliciting developers.

Conference Challenges

These challenges aren’t exclusive to Central Union. 

Central Union is part of the United Church of Christ’s Hawaii Chapter, whose website lists almost 120 churches associated with it across the islands. 

In a Zoom webinar in November 2021, Andrew Bunn, executive director of the chapter’s real estate management arm Hawaii Conference Foundation, explained that the entire chapter was facing financial difficulties.

He lamented that churches too often resist change, even when that change can be lifesaving for the institution. 

“Sometimes innovation, sometimes experimentation, sometimes investigation may involve some level of failure,” Bunn said. “But you have to try and experiment and test, and eventually you will get to new creative solutions that are more sustainable.” 

Volunteers at the Central Union Church in Honolulu prepare bags of food donations to give away to approximately 450 community members in need, Wednesday, December 15, 2021. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
The church provides valuable services for the community, including food drives. In this photo, volunteers prepared bags of food donations to hand out to approximately 450 community members in need. (Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2021)

Bunn did not respond to requests for further comment.

The consequences of stagnation can be grave. Earlier in the webinar, Bunn mentioned that of the conference’s 60 properties, only 36 had some sort of formal church activity.

The other 24?

“There’s no (official) church presence taking place at all on those properties,” he said, displaying a slide showing a dilapidated church on Maui.

Sunday’s vote also applies to the church’s satellite campus on the Windward side, which was given to it in the 1950s by landowner and developer Harold Castle. Deed restrictions mean that the Council would have to get approval from the Samuel N. & Mary Castle Foundation if it decides to lease or sell land there.

Cleve said the vision committee presented the issue very clearly at the meeting on Sunday, stressing that Central Union operates with a very large annual deficit.

“We can’t make up for that with a bake sale,” she said.

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