Jon Meek calls it double dipping.
The money that Vineyard Church has paid Tyner Middle Academy over the last two years has not only rented worship space for the congregation, it also has allowed members to invest in the community.
"It's doing something more than renting space," says Meek, one of the pastors at the nondenominational church. "That dollar for the space" is serving a "larger purpose."
Vineyard Church is one of six young churches that rent space on Sundays from individual Hamilton County schools. Along with Vineyard, Bridge Christian is at Westview Elementary, Harvest Bible is in East Brainerd Elementary, Olivet Baptist North is at Lakeside Academy, River of Life Ooltewah is in Ooltewah Middle School and Sojourn Community is at Center for Creative Arts.
All but two are independent churches. Olivet is an offshoot from the downtown church of the same name, and River of Life Ooltewah, known as ROLO, is an outreach of River of Life in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.
"It's been a mutually beneficial thing," says Lee McDade, assistant superintendent for support services for Hamilton County Schools. "It's worked out well for the school that had them. And for those it didn't, they ended it."
IN THE COMMUNITY
One of the draws about starting a church in a school, officials say, is landing smack in the middle of a ready-made community.
David Sternberg, pastor of Bridge Christian Church, says the East Brainerd/Ooltewah community was the target for his church.
"We love being embedded in the community. It helps us be focused."
It's "a major plus," he says, that the church's rental dollars go back into the school in which it worships. "We're in the community and for the community. [It's] a great partnership."
Scott Kimball says the Ooltewah area was "the place the Lord impressed [River of Life] to go." Numbers weren't considered. Kimball says he and his wife were asked to pray about the possibility of leading a new church in the area, and Ooltewah Middle School proved to be a perfect location.
"It gives us a connection with the community through the school itself," he says. "We're making our presence known. We can be in a school and pray for a school. We're becoming a part of the community and can pray for the community."
Rusty McKie, lead pastor of Sojourn Community Church, says when his core group began to cast about for a place to meet, it wasn't looking for a school. But Center for Creative Arts seemed to be the "ideal place to carry forward our identity."
Now, he says, we're "where we desire to be as a contributing part of this [North Chattanooga] community -- by renting back into the community and in a school that cares about the community. And we're excited by that."
Each congregation has made its own deal to share the space. One deals directly with its partner school, three others work with their partner schools with the sanction of county school administration, and one deals directly with the Hamilton County School Board.
Pastors did not want to divulge what they paid in rent, and McDade said he did not know.
The online form for Hamilton County Schools leaves the rental fee blank -- worked out between church and individual school -- but stipulates a $25 per hour charge for utilities and a $25 per hour fee for custodial services if the applicant is not eligible for a fee waiver. The form also says the applicant must have general liability insurance with at least $1 million in coverage and $50,000 in coverage for property damage.
However the money changes hands, church officials say, there is usually more to the deal than the money exchanged every month.
"We try to be a blessing to the school," Mike DuBard, pastor of Harvest Bible Church, says of the church's agreement with East Brainerd Elementary. "We look at it as a partnership."
One of the benefits of the partnership, he says, is being able to provide the school with resources it wouldn't otherwise have. The congregation, which draws 150 to 200 people per week, has purchased tables and other storage items for the school and, among other things, provided meals and Christmas wrapping for the teachers, he says.
Sternberg says he understands the money paid to Westview Elementary by Bridge Christian, which attracts some 150 people per Sunday, goes back into the school. The rent, among other things, helped purchase computers for the computer lab, he says.
"One of the things that I love the most is the fact it goes into the local school," he says. "That's a major plus for us."
And Sternberg says Bridge members also have assisted with teacher appreciation events, sponsored school families with gifts at Christmas, helped with various school parties, and allowed the school to use some of the commercial inflatables owned by the church.
"We've talked about doing a little more," he says, "but we need to be managing those energies. We'd rather under promise and over deliver."
Meek says Vineyard's rent has helped Tyner Middle Academy to revamp its library, but beyond that members have assisted with Career Day, Spirit Day, helped with a school garden and greenhouse project and nurtured a relationship with the staff.
"It's so cool to see these kids and see them learning as they were working," he says. "It's a big deal to have been able to be a part of it. Some we met in middle school are now at the high school. That's the greatest thing -- to build relationships where not a ton of people are reaching out."
ADVANTAGES OUTWEIGH DISADVANTAGES
Church officials say not being able to use the buildings when they need them and the weekly time spent setting up and taking down are drawbacks to the rent-a-sanctuary deal, but not major ones.
"In the season we're in as a new church, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, in our mind," says McKie, whose weekly flock averages 45.
Since River of Life -- which draws 28 to 35 people per week -- is contracted to use the school only on Sundays and Thursdays, Kimball can't schedule a conference or small group meeting at Ooltewah Middle School, so "it's an inconvenience," he says.
"I can't go whenever I need it. But, relatively speaking, it's not been an issue."
DuBard has to arrive at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday to get things set up for the 10:30 a.m. service at Harvest Bible, but he says that job has been easier since East Brainerd Elementary allowed his congregation to park a trailer at the site.
"It's a huge blessing [because we] don't have to haul things back and forth," he says. And the school offers the practical benefit of "not having to purchase a building of our own."
Meek says Vineyard Church has been sharing space so long -- previously at Tyner Academy and before that at Hamilton Community Church -- that congregation members readily pitch in.
"It's a hassle," he says. "It's required a lot of folks, but they have become very skilled at it."
But Sternberg says a school can offer several things a brick-and-mortar church or a storefront congregation can't. People who have an interest in attending a service may feel more comfortable walking into a school where their children go than a traditional church building, he says. Schools are "pretty well the same," he says. "They know how to navigate them."
And parking is a bonus, Sternberg says.
"Where else are you going to find 90 parking spaces?" he says.
A wide open school also offers infinite possibilities for weekend tenants, according to McKie, whose congregation uses CCA's cafeteria and auditorium lobby.
"There's plenty of room and space to grow," he says. "It's a beautiful space to us as a young church trying to get on our feet."
LEAVING THE NEST
Late this month, Vineyard Church will leave Tyner Middle Academy and take up residence in its first permanent home in a former commercial building at 6028 Shallowford Road. The congregation, now more than 10 years old, attracts 150 to 160 people per week.
Meek says church leadership has always maintained the area "doesn't need another box [church]" but, by renting up to now, the congregation "has been blessed in order that we might be a blessing."
The other young churches schools aren't ready for permanent homes quite yet.
DuBard says the idea of looking elsewhere for a long-range home for Harvest Bible is "always in the process but not super intentional." For one thing, he says, a large amount of money would need to be raised.
"We're very happy with the partnership, with the PTA president, with the staff," he says. "We're very happy."
Similarly, McKie says Sojourn Community Church would have to be more established financially and attract more people to consider a permanent home.
"At this point," he says, "we're incredibly happy with our relationships with CCA. We're happy to stay there and grow."
Since River of Life puts an emphasis on home-based small groups, it's in a position to stay where it is until the size of the small groups become prohibitive, Kimball says.
Right now, with 175 seats available in Ooltewah Middle School's auditorium, "we're happy where we are."
"We're not pro-building or anti-building," Sternburg says of Bridge Christian. "We're wanting to be a church that's out there -- that's in the community. So it's our intention to keep our eyes open, but we're loving where [we are].
"I don't see us living there forever," he says, "but it's a great first step."
Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at email@example.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.w