A new nondenominational church, Tribe, has outgrown its space. So Pastor Brian Hunter and his wife, Lissa, recently applied to rent space on Sundays from Teton County School District No. 1.
After their first request was denied by Facilities Director Paul Rossolo, Hunter went back and asked again. Rossolo, who was not available for comment but answered questions through information coordinator Charlotte Reynolds, told him he could make a case in front of the school board.
Superintendent Gillian Chapman and Assistant Superintendent Jeff Daugherty were also consulted, Reynolds said, “because this request doesn’t fit the typical types of facilities requests we receive.”
“It’s a little outside the norm,” Reynolds said.
The district has a policy stating that it will rent out space when it isn’t needed but that educational purposes always take priority.
Hunter said that while he understands it might be a sensitive request, there’s no motivation other than to find a bigger space to use for worship.
“If I were able to sit down and have a cup of coffee or a beer with the school board and we were able to just talk casually with one another, I’d want to express my empathy for the position that they are in,” he said. “They have a lot on their plate with building a new school and a heavy load on their shoulders. My goal is not to force or push some type of larger political agenda or cause consternation or stir the pot.”
Tribe is just a “small fledgling faith community looking for a place to have meetings and build community,” he said.
During the board’s August meeting, Hunter gave public comment asking for the status of his request. Tribe is asking to pay for use of the Jackson Elementary School commons area and classrooms on Sunday afternoons from 3 to 8 p.m. starting in September.
Hunter reiterated that Tribe would be willing to pay the going rate of the facility, if not more. A multipurpose area like the Jackson Elementary School lunchroom that Tribe desired costs $30 an hour on the weekends. Classrooms also cost $30 an hour, and there are additional opening and closing fees and cleaning fees.
The church was formed in November 2016, but the Hunters have been in the valley since 1999.
“Tribe is new to the valley, but the Hunters are not,” Hunter said.
Tribe focuses on building strong families, connecting through community, developing servant leaders and making disciples who will change the world, he said.
Now any reconsideration of the request is in the hands of the board, which listened to Hunter’s pitch Aug. 9 but didn’t discuss it.
Reynolds said the initial request was denied because “our first priority is to be prepared for school on Monday mornings” and it was “just beyond what we would be able to provide.”
“Requests on Sundays have not traditionally been granted,” she said. “It is a significant challenge for our staff. Paul said his stance for quite some time has been no usage on Sundays.”
Being ready for students as the week begins, Reynolds said, is “what our schools are for.”
“We are not a community center,” she added.
Reynolds said district facilities, excluding sports fields, have not been used on Sundays over the last 12 months and that they’ve declined requests from community organizations and their own staff for Sunday usage.
A facility use request form says in all capital letters that “no rentals will be approved for a Sunday.” It is unclear when this sentence was added to the form.
Reynolds also said that requests for classrooms by outside groups are also usually declined due to confidential student information and expensive technology in the rooms.
Religion and public schools
Reynolds said denying Tribe’s request was not due to it being a church.
“The determination for not allowing the use was not directly related to the type of the organization that was making the request,” she said. “It was more the timing and the duration and the impact.”
It might not be well known that Shepherd of the Mountains Lutheran Church paid for the use of school district facilities, including the board room, at least 10 years ago.
“I was just as shocked and surprised to learn that throughout America and even in Teton County, there is a historical precedent and a tradition of established churches getting their starts in public schools,” Hunter said. “But if there was a less politically charged option we would pursue that.”
‘Outgrowing the nest’
Tribe has been meeting at Shepherd of the Mountains. Hunter called it a “nest” where they’ve been able to “hatch” their little church. But between adults and children, Hunter said, they are between 120 and 130 members.
“We are just outgrowing the nest,” he said. “We are not looking to grind an ax with the school district at all.”
They are currently on a month-to-month extension on their lease with Shepherd of the Mountains. Hunter said they’ve looked “high and low, far and wide for a new village for our tribe.”
But with little land availability and high rents, Hunter said, options are limited. Jackson Elementary is a good option, Hunter said, because it is a reasonable location, has parking and plenty of room to meet. Rates are reasonable too, he said, for weekly meetings.
Tribe has held services at the Center for the Arts and Snow King Mountain Resort, “but for weekly meetings we have to be really conscious of our budget,” Hunter said.
Hunter said he wants to make sure people know the church isn’t asking for a free handout and isn’t asking for taxpayers to subsidize the building of their church and their congregation.
“That’s false,” Hunter said. “We would never expect that or ask for that. We would be more than happy to pay the going rate that is published, and if that’s not adequate we are happy to discuss a higher rate.”
Tribe, he said, would be “happy to offset” the cost of things like toilet paper, electricity and ice melt. If this option doesn’t work out, Hunter said, he’s still optimistic about the future.
“Because we are a faith community, we believe that another even better option will present itself,” he said.