Space to Live and Heal in Mercy House

Founded in 1830, Bethesda Episcopal Church in Saratoga Springs, New York, has a proud history of community service. The congregation has provided housing for the elderly since 1870, assisted in relief efforts during the influenza epidemic of 1918, brought comfort and aid to individuals and families during the Great Depression, and has helped those in recovery from alcoholism and addiction for the past 75 years.

So it is perhaps not surprising that listening to one another, the city and to God over the past five years has led to an expansive vision to serve people in need of transitional housing in Saratoga. The core of that vision is Mercy House, a new parish hall and community center, with ample first floor space for parish needs and three floors of apartments, space to live and heal, for race-track workers, victims of domestic violence, military veterans and people with mental illness or addiction, along with a café operated by In Our Name, affiliated with Skidmore College’s Restorative Justice project.

Financial trouble and a capital campaign bring ECF on board

In 2013, however, Bethesda’s congregation was facing a rector search for the first time in nearly 50 years. On top of that, an audit, their first, had revealed that the church had been operating at a serious deficit, probably for a decade or so, according to senior warden Darren Miller. “Our thought,” he recalls, “was that calling a new rector while running at a deficit would be difficult.” They would need a new approach to managing Bethesda’s finances — and a capital campaign.

They brought in the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) in 2013, and capital campaign consultant Leslie Pendleton began working with the vestry on stewardship and communicating their budget. She remembers thinking that the congregation had been operating “old school,” relying on the rector “to tell them what to do and when to do it.” Discernment, the first and most important phase in ECF’s capital campaign strategy — engaging the entire congregation in a process of visioning and identifying needs — would be a new experience for the congregation and its leadership.

Discernment meetings get the people talking

A series of discernment meetings with the congregation began in June of that year in people’s homes and with specific ministries at the church. Leslie trained facilitators for the gatherings and provided a format. Gordon Boyd, capital campaign co-chair with Mary Withington and building chair, says, “These meetings were the first time that parishioners had been able to talk about how they felt, what they liked about Bethesda and what they wished for it, what it could become.” He remembers a congregant who comes up to Saratoga with the horses remarking, “I’ve been coming to Bethesda for sixteen years, and this is the first time anyone’s introduced themselves and asked my name and asked me to do something.”

“Almost every meeting came up with ideas for outreach to the community,” he recalls. “We began exploring the idea of a building with more room than the church needed.” City planning called for three- to four-story buildings in the church’s downtown location, so they needed to go to the planning board with a 20,000-30,000-foot building. They might only need a quarter of that for church school, parish hall, classrooms, etc. “We realized that inviting others in would work out better economically,” says Gordon.

They had also begun looking at their resources, which included an underutilized 19th century parish house located across a busy downtown street, an old rectory that hadn’t been renovated in decades and a vacant lot next to the church. Darren remembers that their thinking was: We’re $80,000 in the hole, so let’s look at our property. We have a mission to use what we have to serve others. If we do that, it will help grow the church. They discussed this line of thought during the discernment process and the congregation’s feedback showed their support for the model as a way to move forward.

An ambitious campaign

The old parish hall and rectory were sold for $2 million and a third property outside of town for about $600,000. The church hired an architect to design a four-story parish hall and community center. It would be built on the vacant lot beside the 1840 church designed by Richard Upjohn.

In 2015, ECF conducted a feasibility study for Bethesda’s campaign to fund restoration and overdue improvements to the church building and development of a new parish house and community center. The overall goal was $3,300,000. The parish goal was set at $330,000. Additional contributions would be sought beyond the church. Because of the two-pronged approach, ECF created a stand-alone brochure that could be used anywhere and an insert that addressed the particular needs of the congregation.

The campaign kicked off in February 2016 and surpassed the parish goal, with $450,000 in pledges from the congregation. “Launching the campaign and realizing that they were making a dent in what’s needed was energizing to the congregation, both spiritually and as a community,” says Leslie. “They needed that win to realize, ‘we really can do this big project.’”

A new mission emerges

The plan for the new parish hall and community center has evolved since the original capital campaign. In 2017, when the first idea to rent space to a daycare or Head Start hit a wall due to the lack of parking, the church learned about the scarcity of downtown space for the city’s poor and homeless population. They began to think that might be the very mission to which they are being called. “It was almost like the skies opened up and the light came down and we saw that this was what we were supposed to do,” says Darren.

This spring, Bethesda is poised to begin a community phased campaign for Mercy House of Saratoga, Inc. corporation, a (soon- to-be) 501(c)(3) non-denominational entity that will manage the three floors of housing and sublet to five organizations:

  • Backstretch Employee Service Team, (BEST), which helps race-track workers who are either injured and recuperating, or have substance use disorders and are participating in recovery programs
  • Wellspring, which helps victims of domestic violence, including homeless families
  • Veterans and Community Housing Coalition, which helps homeless military veterans
  • Transitional Services Association (TSA), which helps homeless individuals with mental illness or substance use disorders
  • In Our Name, part of Skidmore College’s Restorative Justice project, which plans to offer an occasional café operation where people can pay according to their means

With city approval under RLUIPA, The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the church is ready to begin community solicitation with confidence and hopes to break ground this calendar year.

“A lot of prayer has gone into this and not just corporately on Sundays, says Dean Marshall Vang, Bethesda’s interim rector. “People have taken this on as more than just a project. It’s a very creative endeavor, something you can get into with your hands, your feet, your whole being.”

“We found ECF to be an invaluable partner in getting this off the ground,” says Darren. “They didn’t say this is what you have to do. They listened to us and had a dialogue and developed the program from there. In promoting the idea of helping the homeless, we used some of the concepts we learned from them — talking, asking questions, asking people to pray about it. We took fundamental concepts from our work with ECF and have been able to continuously implement them as we carried the project ahead.”

Bethesda is still looking for its next rector, but whoever that may be, he or she will find a transformed church with its finances in order, strong and committed lay leadership and an informed and energized congregation deeply engaged in Christ’s mission in the world.

Susan Elliott is a writer and editor, working with the Episcopal Church Foundation, Forward Movement, RenewalWorks, and parishes and other organizations in the Episcopal Church. She is the writer of ECF’s 2015 Vestry Resource Guide, and collaborates with Jay Sidebotham on “Slow Down. Quiet. It’s Advent,” now in it's 23rd year and published by Forward Movement.

Architect's renderings provided by John G. Waite Associates, Architects, Albany NY