The sizable suburban Washington, DC, campus that headquartered Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship will soon belong to another evangelical nonprofit: the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). The ministries announced plans Friday to sell the 11.3-acre property in Lansdowne, Virginia.
Back in 2005, Colson’s ministry—which then included Prison Fellowship, BreakPoint, and the Colson Center—built the campus for around $19 million, including a three-story office building, a two-story hospitality center for conference guests, recording studios, and event space.
Of Prison Fellowship’s 245-person staff, 70 percent worked remotely before the pandemic, a part of an organizational strategy to move its workforce into the field. During COVID-19, the rest adjusted to work from home, with just around a dozen coming into the 90,000-square-foot office.
Meanwhile, the Arizona-based religious liberty advocacy group ADF has been expanding and praying for years about adding another office, wanting to prioritize in-person collaboration for the sake of fellowship and the physical proximity required for its legal work.
“When ADF came along, the heart of the board, if you will, leapt,” said Prison Fellowship president and CEO James J. Ackerman. “They thought, ‘This would be so awesome if God’s work could continue on the land dedicated to the Lord’s work by Chuck Colson himself.’”
Ackerman declined to share the terms of the sale, but said that ADF made an offer within the range of the property’s appraisal value. Demand for commercial space—particularly for medical facilities—is growing in the Lansdowne area, about an hour outside DC.
In advocating for conservative causes, ADF has achieved 11 Supreme Court victories and helped churches and ministries defend religious liberty claims during COVID-19. The organization will keep four other offices, including one on Capitol Hill, but move 50–60 of its 200 employees to the third floor of the Prison Fellowship office building as early as fall 2021, after closing on the property and doing renovations this summer.
The group will include leaders of its litigation team, its communications team, and its legal training program as well as ADF president and CEO Michael P. Farris, who has lived in the same county as Lansdowne for 30 years.
“Prison Fellowship is directly carrying on Chuck Colson’s ministry, but we like to think that we remain standing in Chuck Colson’s shadow,” said Farris, who has visited the Prison Fellowship under Colson’s leadership and since. “He cast a big shadow across a lot of big issues, and we’ve been the beneficiary of that work, and we’re just honored to have any connection to him.”
Ackerman said ADF will maintain elements of the campus that honor Colson, including a memorial plaque outside the hospitality center.
Prison Fellowship will lease a smaller space on the second floor of the office building after ADF moves in. Other tenants of the building—the pregnancy center network Care Net and the Loudon campus of McLean Bible Church—will also remain.
Building sales during pandemic
Prison Fellowship’s move to sell its building is the latest example of how ministries are rethinking their long-term organizational strategies during the crunch of the pandemic and rising costs of big cities. The past year has accelerated trends toward remote work as well as cost-cutting for nonprofits.
In January, Lifeway Christian Resources announced it was under contract to sell its Nashville headquarters just two years after downsizing to the new facility. During the early months of the pandemic, the Southern Baptist affiliate—still reeling from closing its brick-and-mortar stores—cut its budget by $25 million to $30 million to offset sales declines.
Even before COVID-19 hit, daily occupancy in Lifeway’s new 277,000-square-foot office was 60 percent of capacity.
“This has led us to think strategically about selling our large building downtown, fully embracing remote work as the norm, and moving into a new era of creative and collaborative work,” said Lifeway’s president and CEO Ben Mandrell. “We are moving away from the idea of a ‘headquarters’ to a fully mobile and agile workforce that intentionally gathers to build strong relationships, celebrate what God is doing and share ideas.”
The Best Christian Workplaces Institute said decentralized and hybrid workplaces “are here to stay” in its list of workplace trends for 2021, referencing estimates that the number of employees who work from home after the pandemic will be double from before COVID-19.
The Christian and Missionary Alliance listed its Colorado Springs headquarters for sale last year, citing affordability concerns as its reason for moving from its building of 31 years. The denomination plans to relocate to Columbus, Ohio, this summer.
“We are pursuing a different concept of officing, with shared workspace options and greater interaction with the local community than we’ve been able to pursue at our current location here in the Springs,” spokesman Peter Burgo told the Colorado Springs Gazette.
Ackerman at Prison Fellowship said the ministry has continued to add staff during the pandemic, praising God that its resources and prison access continued to grow. But over the past few years, the organization has found it could add better talent by a hiring remote staff, since fewer people were willing to make the move to Northern Virginia, where the cost of living keeps rising.
Despite uncertainty last spring, a majority of Christian organizations reported they did not see a significant decrease in income in 2020 and did not have to cut staff, according to a report out this week by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. However, some churches and ministries that already suffered financially prior to pandemic opted to sell their buildings to help make ends meet or better steward resources for future ministry.
The Episcopal Diocese of Chicago announced plans to do so last fall, saying the $750,000 spent maintaining its building is “increasingly unsustainable” and “maintaining an underused diocesan headquarters in an expensive building on prime real estate is not good stewardship of diocesan assets.”
Also in Chicago, the Evangelical Covenant Church put its headquarters up for sale last summer.
“While there were many reasons for the decision, primarily it was due to the current COVID-19 situation, finances, structure, and a renewed focus on mission,” the denomination wrote. “Due to COVID-19, social distancing guidelines, and travel restrictions, Covenant Office staff have successfully been working virtually for most of the year. They will continue to do so while the sale of the Chicago facility is finalized.”
As they wait for the building to sell, leaders are weighing options for fully virtual work or a possible future building.
CT reported in 2018 about how international missions organizations have been moving away from a single headquarters to a more decentralized model with hubs overseas, as Frontier Ventures did with the sale of the former US Center for World Mission in Pasadena, California.
“It all revolves around ministry impact. If that parcel of land does not help us reach more people for the gospel, why do we own it? If it’s holding us back, why do we own it?” said Paul Martin, at the time the president of Advocace, which offers consulting for Christian ministries. “We should start treating real estate as something to support ministry, not as ministry.”
Ackerman said the Lansdowne property was originally envisioned as a center for the Christian worldview, but when Colson’s other ministries split off after his death in 2012, Prison Fellowship didn’t have the same need for the expansive facilities. But ADF will.
“The thing that I’m most excited about for the Prison Fellowship building is the meeting space and hospitality space. The first name of our organization is Alliance. We do a whole lot of convening of other groups,” said Farris. “We have the capacity to convene people, and this just gives us a physical plant that is second to none.”