Silver Spring United Methodist Church shares many of the same problems besetting other mainline Protestant congregations.

After 50 years of declining membership, the formerly named Woodside UMC merged with another waning congregation in a bid to survive.

With two large buildings that were old and in need of upkeep, its utility bills totaled more than the pastor’s salary and the budgets for Christian education and outreach combined.

But the Maryland church, less than 10 miles north of Washington, D.C., has dramatically reduced its inflated utility costs, and it is slowly reversing its falling membership as well.

Four years ago, the church joined the D.C.-centered Community Purchasing Alliance to buy basic services such as electricity, natural gas and waste hauling. The annual savings -- $11,450 this past year -- have allowed the church to double its Christian education and outreach budgets and give its pastor a raise.

“For institutions looking to live out their values and create partnerships in their community, getting involved with a cooperative is massively beneficial,” said Aaron Siirila, the church’s director of operations.

The idea behind the alliance is simple: buy services such as energy, trash hauling, janitorial and landscaping in bulk, negotiate better deals on contracts, and direct the savings to member institutions’ primary missions.

“If there is no flour (sustenance), there is no Torah.”

-- Rabbinical adage

And while cooperatives have been around for hundreds of years, the Community Purchasing Alliance may be the first of its kind to sign up multiple D.C.-area congregations. Of its 130 participants, two-thirds are churches and synagogues (the remainder are charter schools and nonprofits). Together, they have negotiated and contracted for a host of services including snow removal, office supplies and payroll administration.

Since its start five years ago, the alliance has proved a real value. In 2014, member organizations saved an average of $7,500. Larger institutions contracting for three or more services saved closer to $15,000; smaller institutions, closer to $5,000.

Across the country, many congregations are in a downward spiral. A recent study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research shows a steady and significant increase in the number of congregations with fewer than 100 people in attendance for weekend worship. As membership declines, maintaining aging sanctuaries has become an ever-increasing burden.

Just this fall, two mainline churches in Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington sold their land to nonprofit groups that will build affordable housing. Many others are selling or renting their spaces to help pay the bills.

The Community Purchasing Alliance, led by Felipe Witchger, an energy markets expert, thinks it can offer practical solutions to ease some of those economic pressures.

Felipe Witchger“Our advantage is helping congregations, schools and nonprofits be more strategic in the money they spend on utilities, facility maintenance and service purchasing,” Witchger said.

“If we can build a self-sustaining model that generates additional revenue to do more community organizing or more community development, or to have other social impact, that’s the transformative model we’re beginning to provide that’s different and new.”

Laying a foundation

The idea for the alliance began with the pairing of two sets of skills: old-timey community organizing and energy efficiency know-how.

Martin Trimble, a veteran organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation, had worked across the country with religious groups and other nonprofits on issues such as affordable housing, immigration and community policing.

After the recession of 2008, Trimble noticed that fewer religious congregations were able to contribute dues to community organizing efforts. Looking into the stressors facing congregations, he was astonished to learn that utilities took a huge bite out of their budgets.

If you examined the financial stressors facing your organization, do you think you'd find any surprises?

In 2001, the District of Columbia had deregulated its energy markets, giving consumers the ability to shop among different suppliers for the best deal on electricity. Trimble began to wonder: What if churches organized to buy power together?

Then he met Witchger, a University of Notre Dame engineering graduate who was working as a clean energy consultant with IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

Witchger, who grew up Roman Catholic in a family committed to community organizing, had a passion for economic and environmental justice.

Together, the two reached out to 11 congregations in the D.C. area with a proposal to help them save money and buy cleaner energy.

They succeeded, saving the group $100,000 in the first year. The congregations not only opted for lower-costing electrical suppliers; they also took advantage of renewable energy credits to invest in wind power.

When the district began offering an attractive incentive package for making sustainable-energy improvements, the alliance began encouraging D.C.-area congregations to invest in solar panels.

Solar panel equipment
Temple Sinai in northwest Washington, D.C., expects to save 20 percent on its energy bills with a newly installed solar system.
Photo courtesy of Community Purchasing Alliance

Temple Sinai, one of the first congregations to join the alliance, jumped at the opportunity.

Housed in a 1957 building that was enlarged in the early 1990s, the Reform Jewish congregation was already experiencing some of the upkeep expenses that were testing other houses of worship.

Last year, it contracted with the energy company Nextility to install solar panels with no upfront capital or maintenance costs. The northwest Washington congregation expects to save $150,000 in electricity over the 15 years of the lease, which amounts to about 20 percent of its power bills.

Rabbi Jonathan RoosRabbi Jonathan Roos said joining the alliance helped him better understand a basic economic lesson summed up by a popular rabbinical adage: “If there is no flour (sustenance), there is no Torah.”

“You can’t just be pie in the sky,” Roos said. For congregations to succeed, they must pay attention to practical issues such as upkeep that help lay the foundation for religious learning and devotion.

Other congregations have found additional benefits.

When deregulation came to the district, Brian Best, the parish administrator at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, signed a three-year contract with an alternative supplier, only to realize one year in that because of dropping rates, the contract was costing the church more money.

Would this form of collaboration work in your context?

“I was in over my head,” Best said. “I didn’t have enough knowledge or expertise to understand what the markets were likely to do, or what a good deal was.”

The alliance proved to be a lifesaver. When the electric contract ran out, the church joined the alliance and signed a far more advantageous deal.

“The CPA brings expertise to the table,” Best said. “The huge benefit is that people who know more than I do can give me advice on what to do.”

Deep religious roots

Through the years, no group has championed cooperatives as much as Roman Catholic religious orders, particularly the monastic orders, where communal living has spurred all kinds of cooperative enterprises -- from brewing beer to building caskets.

Secular cooperatives are no novelty, either. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt allowed for the creation of rural electric cooperatives to help provide electricity to sparsely populated areas where few of the major electric companies wanted to go. Eighty years since they were introduced, locally owned rural electric cooperatives supply power to some 42 million Americans.

Across the U.S., an estimated 29,000 cooperatives provide child care, energy, financial services, food distribution, health care, housing, retail, agriculture and telecommunications.

Recently, cooperatives have gotten a lift from Pope Francis himself. A member of the Jesuit religious order, Francis has spoken passionately about cooperatives as opportunities to create “work where there were only crumbs of an idolatrous economy.”

And while many Protestant denominations have a long history of supporting cooperatives for social and economic change -- note all the congregations providing Equal Exchange coffee, for example -- getting different religious congregations to come together has been more of a challenge.

In what ways do those who handle practical issues for congregations play an important ministerial role?

“You tell people about it, and they get it,” said Paul Hazen, the executive director of the U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council and board president of the Community Purchasing Alliance. “But when you have to convince volunteer members of a congregation to do this -- a board of trustees, a finance committee or a church council -- that’s when the process slows down.”

Hazen, a member of Foundry United Methodist Church, is hoping to help the alliance sell the idea to denominational leaders.

“There are 600 United Methodist churches in the Washington-Baltimore area,” he said. “The average church could save between $6,000 and $8,000. I told the bishop there are millions of dollars on the table. We can negotiate better prices. The word ‘millions’ got his attention.”

While no agreement has been inked, Hazen is confident there is room for growth. He knows that the secret to all successful cooperatives is size. When they are able to scale up, cooperatives move from being “price takers” to “price setters,” dictating to corporations the best deals for their members.

A social mission

Alliance members like to say that even when they take out the trash, they’re changing the world.

And they mean it. Literally.

St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church is a case in point. For years, the church relied on the services of a beloved custodian. But church leaders, who had contracted his services through a cleaning company, knew he was earning a low hourly wage and receiving no benefits.

Last year, the alliance hired the custodian and got him to join a union. His hourly wage went up by $2. He has health insurance, paid vacation and sick leave.

“We finally have this guilt off our back that our janitor wasn’t getting health insurance,” Best said.

And while the church is not saving money on cleaning services, it has a clean conscience about treating its employees fairly.

Indeed, some alliance members are willing to sign on to alliance-negotiated contracts that don’t necessarily save them money. Foundry United Methodist, for example, bought into the alliance’s trash hauling service even though it costs them a bit more.

The reason? The service is committed to recycling and guarantees its workers a fair wage.

“To the extent that we can use our purchasing power to further our mission and ministry, that’s a very powerful thing for the congregation,” Hazen said.

And there’s another benefit to cooperatives: they build trust.

As a Jewish congregation, Temple Sinai has participated in many interfaith prayer services and study sessions with Christians and Muslims. But Roos said that no program has had as powerful an impact on interfaith cooperation as the cooperative.

“We’re making purchasing decisions based on values, and we want to identify vendors who meet our ethical standards,” Roos said. “That makes it easy to pick up the phone and talk.”

In the coming years, the alliance hopes more congregations can cash in on the savings.

Witchger wants to see churches become “anchor institutions” in the community, able to serve as catalysts for building wealth by buying locally, purchasing from minority-owned vendors and caring for the environment.

“We can actualize our social justice mission through our budgets,” he said. “The hope is that we can have significant impact on that and have broader and broader reach, all the while lowering costs for folks.”

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • What kind of partnership is at the core of the Community Purchasing Alliance? Would this form of collaboration work in your context?
  • If you examined the financial stressors facing your organization, do you think you'd find any surprises? Are there creative ways to address those stressors?
  • Do you agree that practical issues help “lay the foundation for religious learning and devotion” as Rabbi Jonathan Roos proposes? Why or why not?
  • In what ways do those who handle practical issues for congregations play an important ministerial role? How can we include them in broader ministry planning and better celebrate their contributions?
  • What do you think of the idea of churches as “anchor institutions” helping build wealth in a community by “buying locally, purchasing from minority-owned vendors and caring for the environment”? Is that a strategy the people in your organization would support?