Ansgar Gmür has written the first comprehensive study on the real estate owned by churches in German-speaking Switzerland.
The pews of the reformed town church in Aarau are full. However, not with trade fair visitors, but with larger-than-life dolls. They are gray and faceless. An artist designed it to draw attention to the declining membership in Swiss churches.
Although fewer and fewer people are members of the Reformed or Catholic Church – let alone attend church regularly – the churches still own an immense real estate park that is increasingly empty.
In addition to churches and chapels, they also own countless non-sacred buildings: vicarages, office buildings, homes, even restaurants and schools. “No one knows exactly how much property the churches own,” criticizes Ansgar Gmür (69). The theologian was director of the Swiss Homeowners’ Association (HEV) for almost two decades and was the first to write a large-scale study on real estate owned by churches in Switzerland. The study will be presented to the public today, Blick already has it in advance.
It’s about billions
More than 75,000 protected buildings are owned by the churches. Nobody knows how many more unprotected people will be added. For Gmür, this fact alone is proof enough that the churches are “completely neglecting” their real estate portfolio. “It’s about billions!” He estimates that the real estate owned by the Reformed and Catholic Churches is worth at least 2.5 billion francs – and that’s probably a rather conservative estimate.
Although the churches are sitting on a pot of gold, they hardly make any money from it. On the contrary, real estate is a financial burden for the churches. “Others earn money with real estate, the churches lose money with it,” Gmür notes. According to the study, the Reformed Church of the Canton of Zurich spends 49 million francs a year on its buildings. Income: zero. “Real estate is often the third largest item of expenditure for the churches,” calculates Gmür.
400 francs rent – instead of 15,000!
The churches could urgently use additional income. After all, the decline in members that has been going on for years also means that their income is collapsing. Gmür surveyed more than 100 parishes throughout German-speaking Switzerland for his study. Almost half stated that they did not take care of their own real estate portfolio at all. Almost 90 percent say the properties are managed internally. “Instead of a professional, some member of the church administration or the church council takes care of the property on the side, that can’t go well,” says Gmür.
In many places the churches hesitate to make a profit from their properties. The Einsiedeln monastery in the canton of Schwyz, for example, has been renting boat berths on Lake Zurich for 400 francs a year for years. Others charge up to 15,000 francs for it! If you need a boat place, you are usually not starving. It would not be a problem to ask for more money for the mooring.
At the same time, it is foreseeable that the churches would have to put up with accusations of gentrification and luxury refurbishment if, for example, they were suddenly to charge a normal market rent for an empty vicarage. When the parish of the city of Zurich – in the eyes of Ansgar Gmür the only parish with professional real estate management – decided a few years ago to rent out their properties at normal market prices, this caused criticism. “Where is the social thought in that?” asked the critics. Ansgar Gmür remains firm: “If you don’t have enough money yourself, you have to work economically.”
Offices, libraries or apartments in old churches
The mismanagement of church real estate doesn’t just mean that the churches are losing money. The lack of management also leads to vacancies, while there is sometimes a housing shortage in the same communities. “People complain that there isn’t enough space in Switzerland – and then there are empty churches,” says Gmür, shaking his head. He suggests converting church buildings: “Offices or libraries could be built in them.”
Two years ago, the former church Nairs in Scuol GR, which is being sold and converted into a residential building, made headlines. In Germany and the Netherlands it is already common for churches to be converted into concert halls or shopping centers – or even into mosques. Such a conversion would be a thorn in the side of the theologian and practicing pastor. “But you could make the empty buildings available to the free churches,” says Gmür. The regional churches have so far vehemently opposed this.
But many churches also lack the necessary know-how for a change of use. In 2004, for example, the Reformed parish of St. Gallen sold the St. Leonhard’s Church, which was in need of renovation at the time, to an architect from Winterthur. The sale brought in just 40,000 francs for the parish. The new owner’s plans to turn the former church into a cultural center with gastronomy, classical and jazz concerts, theatre, film and fashion shows have not been implemented to this day. The former church is still empty – in a prime location.
It is threatened with demolition
The sticking point in the conversion of the St. Leonhardskirche – and many other churches – is the preservation of historical monuments. In Basel, for example, offices were to be installed in the gallery of a reformed church. The monument preservation stopped the project.
When parishes begin to rent or sell their real estate due to sheer financial hardship, the next stumbling block threatens: there is an oversupply. In the city of Zurich alone, the churches own 400 buildings. Nobody needs so many new cultural spaces, concert locations or youth clubs all at once.
What to do with churches that are empty, that nobody wants and that cost money to maintain? “I think of it like Zwingli: when you no longer need the church, you tear it down,” says Gmür calmly. Clear words from the mouth of a pastor.
Especially because the churches in many Swiss communities characterize the townscape. They are landmarks, landmarks and identification features. Many non-denominationals are also likely to resist the demolition of the church in the village. “But then the population must also be willing to pay for it,” says Gmür. However, it is questionable whether they will be willing to do so when motionless dolls are sitting on the pews instead of believers.