The following article is an edited version of an interview with Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows and was listed by Alban at Duke Divinity School in their Faith and Leadership publication 9 February 2021.
Talking about church buildings is fun for the bishop of the Diocese of Indianapolis — not just because she is trained in architecture and historic preservation, but also because it leads to questions like, “What is this congregation for?” When Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows was growing up in New York, she walked all over the city, revelling in the historic buildings all around her. She was inspired to study architecture, urban planning and historic preservation as an undergraduate and graduate student. Then, encouraged to discern a call to ministry by leaders at Trinity Church Wall Street, where she was an active member, she earned an M.Div. from Church Divinity School of the Pacific.
“I was being called to be a priest who also knew something about preserving all of these old church buildings,” said Baskerville-Burrows, who wrote her master’s thesis at Cornell University on the role of church buildings in revitalizing downtown communities.
In her current role as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, she continues to combine these areas of expertise.
“Instead of seeing buildings as albatrosses, I have always seen them as opportunities for ministry,” she said. “To me, they are part and parcel of the work of being bishop.”
Baskerville-Burrows, the first Black woman to be elected diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church, oversees 48 churches in central and southern Indiana. She spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about the role of religious buildings in ministry, in communities and in the work of racial justice.
Faith & Leadership: How do these interests combine in your work now?
Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows: Bishops have oversight over people and assets that make ministry possible, and buildings are usually the largest asset that congregations hold if they don’t have endowment funds.
If a congregation is going to have a place out of which to do ministry and worship, then it’s got to have a building that’s connected to and appropriate for that purpose. And if a congregation is going to be planted in a community that it has relationships with, then ideally the building is serving a role in the community beyond that of just the congregation.
I am always asking the question, “Who else shares your space?
“Who else has access? I entered your building, and I didn’t know even how to get in. How are you thinking about your signage? How are you thinking about your neighbors who are adjacent to your property?”
Those are all signs and signals about the vitality and possibility for ministry of a congregation, to me.
Buildings come with all kinds of anxiety, because often people don’t know what to do about them. I see that part of my role pastorally is to help congregations and their leaders not see them only as sources of anxiety.
F&L: How do you do this?
JBB: I talk about it a lot. We try to create a context where the building is not just a topic for when there’s an emergency — the roof fell in or there’s a flood or we can’t get in our buildings because there’s a pandemic.
I meet with all the priests and deacons of the diocese who are active every year. We talk a lot about how if you’re going to have a building, it’s got to be tied to the mission. And congregations then need to know what their mission is.
This time that we’re in a pandemic, we’re saying, “Well, what kind of use do you want these buildings to serve, now that you’ve been out of them for all this time?”
I can set the conversation. It’s a lot of fun to be able to do that.