Bringing Coworking To Idle Church Space: A Q&A With Daryn DeZengotita

WITH Daryn DeZengotita
Daryn DeZengotita is transforming idle church space into coworking space and showing church leaders how to do the same

Daryn DeZengotita is breaking new ground in coworking. Or, more accurately, she’s repurposing old ground. A longtime community builder and shared workspace advocate, DeZengotita is bringing coworking to churches in Dallas, Texas, and helping churches around the world do the same.

DeZengotita founded Table Coworking, she founded and was community manager of The Mix Coworking & Creative Space in the White Rock United Methodist Church in East Dallas, and she has now launched SyncLife Coworking in the Central Christian Church of Dallas. She’s on a mission to put idle church space to work as coworking and community space, to help church staff and clergy reimagine their buildings and resources, and to build community between coworking members and the churches themselves.

Allwork.space spoke with DeZengotita about her work, the unique challenges she faces, and her vision for coworking in churches. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Allwork.Space: Let’s start with a big picture. What are you working on bridging coworking and churches?

Daryn DeZengotita: It kind of comes from both directions. We’re helping folks who want to cowork understand that this is a space where they can be comfortable and get all the same amenities that you do in a traditional coworking space. We’re also helping the church understand that welcoming these people into their empty space is another way they can be the church in the world for the 21st century.

Allwork.Space: I know many churches are sitting empty, not only during off-hours, but that there’s been a widespread waning of attendance. Is that correct?

Definitely—especially mainline Protestant denominations. They’ve had a precipitous membership decline. They’re literally dying because their core membership congregants are in their late-70s, 80s and into their 90s.

They still have these very large physical buildings with thousands and thousands of square feet of space that the denomination is loathe to sell or close because they still have the commitment to that neighborhood. In so many of these neighborhoods, if you let go of that real estate, you’re never getting back in there. There’s no foothold for it, at all.

Changing the perspective to see your building as an asset rather than a liability is a long road, but they can get there. They can begin to see that these spaces can become community centers, if they want to use that word. We’ve seen dance classes and cooking classes and everything that would happen in a community center happen in these spaces.

Allwork.Space: Who do you see coworking in churches? Is it freelancers, independent professionals and remote workers or do you think there’s an untapped segment of people here?

I don’t see that it’s untapped. The folks that have been coming around are the same that come to any coworking space. But we have a lot more room. The first space I did, we had 14,000 square feet; this one we have 37,000 square feet. So you can really envision different types of spaces—you just assess the assets of each space. The space I’m working on now, we have a dog park, and perfect little rooms to take care of kids, and we have beautiful lawns, and there’s room for a meditation room.

Churches are tucked into neighborhoods, which is different than most of the coworking landscape. These churches were founded, literally, around a neighborhood. Folks like to walk to these spaces because they live just a few blocks away. This gives them a way to connect with people who they only see at their homeowners association on another level.

Allwork.Space: What’s your background? Were you interested in making this connection before you started working with The Mix?

Five or six years ago I was a founding member of The Grove, which was one of the original coworking spaces in downtown Dallas. Like so many in the coworking movement, I can think back on times in my life where I created shared, collaborative workspace just out of need and because it gave me joy to work with other people. If we were all doing the same thing anyway, why weren’t we doing it together?

In my mid-20s I was a freelance graphic designer and, back then, that was an expensive proposition. You needed a lot of very expensive tools. I had an idea to create small living spaces that radiated off of a common space. It would let creatives come together and share expenses. We needed a fax machine and a Xerox machine that would do sizing. Those were the kinds of things that an individual freelancer couldn’t afford.

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Allwork.Space: What would you most like to see with your work connecting coworking and churches?

I would really like to create ecosystems of churches within a five mile radius of each other that would share even bigger resources. For example, I mentioned that the church where I am now has a dog park. Well, a church three miles up the road has an old scout house that they were about to tear down until I got there and said, ‘Oh my God, don’t tear this down, it’s a perfect makerspace.’ And it is perfect for a makerspace.

I’d like to help create this ecosystem, where the staffs of those churches become peer collaborators and peer consultants. The clergy has some unique challenges in helping their elderly congregants wrap their head around the fact that their church can still be a force in the world; it can still do good; it can still be vibrant—that it’s not just here to have their funeral in a few years.

They have challenges and I’d love to facilitate some peer consulting among them because you hear the same themes over and over. There’s also the shared economy aspect where one church can invite the other churches to their dog park, and another church invites everyone to their makerspace. You don’t have to create a whole new thing for each space because they’re so close together. They can also share promotion budgets and that sort of thing.

Allwork.Space: How do you introduce the concept of coworking to church decision makers who may be locked into dated ways of thinking?

So far, folks come to me because they’ve heard about my work or have visited The Mix. One of the things we did early-on was to invite every Methodist clergy in Dallas, which was a couple hundred people, to visit. From there, they all fell in love with it and we’d have teams of people coming from churches all over the country to tour and learn and find out what they can do.

The challenge is that I know of maybe two who then went back and did it. There’s a disconnect between them seeing it and buying into the concept, then figuring out how they’re going to do it.

I realized that the model for The Mix wasn’t scalable or replicable because it was a very well-funded nonprofit that went in and put all the money in. Now, we go in and see how we can repurpose existing stuff, slap on an inexpensive coat of paint, and still make this happen without necessarily turning it into a show palace. As we in coworking always say, it’s not the space, it’s the people.

Allwork.Space: I love the lighter, quicker, cheaper approach to projects, where you just start. Then, when you find that you really need x, y or z, you figure out a way to make it work. As you know, simply getting people into a space is the key.

Exactly. And I needed to be reminded of that. I am in recipient of Angel Kwiatkowski’s Ultimate Coworking Launch Sequence Workbook because we all need to be reminded of the basics. It’s a good plan and sticking to a good plan is a smart thing to do.

Allwork.Space: You mentioned that it can be challenging to get the idea of what you’re doing across to people. What other challenges do you face with this work?

I’m always working on two sides of an equation. Young folks who are interested in coworking are leery of churches. They think of church as a place where there’s judgement, and not everyone’s welcome, and they’re not really sure how they feel about the spiritual world anyway. I always say, ‘Coworking is afraid of church and church is afraid of everything.’

Churches are afraid of the risks, and insurance, and taxes, and on and on. We have good answers to these questions, but they tend to stop where the fear starts. They’re in such a fear-based, austerity mentality because they’re dying. Sometimes they’ve resigned themselves to the fact that the church is going to die but that it will outlive them, if only by a year. I’ve had clergy tell me that folks literally don’t want it to change one single bit, they just want to have their funeral there.

Allwork.Space: Thanks, Daryn. Is there anything you’d like to add?

In terms of environmentalism and thoughtful stewardship of spaces, these churches are a lot of real estate and they just sit there empty—and they’re air conditioned.

Churches don’t pay taxes because they’re supposed to be contributing to the welfare of the neighborhood. To create an opportunity for these spaces to really be of use to the community seems obvious but it’s a big part of what I’m always talking about: putting spaces to work.