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Starting From Scratch





An expert's guide through the church building process
As a church leader, the need to accommodate growth rarely sneaks up on you. Instead, it's something you shove to the back of your mind and ignore—or forget. There are always more pressing concerns such as crafting sermons, teaching classes, visiting the sick or deciding what the newest outreach should be.

Your own apprehension about starting a building project is probably hidden below the surface as well. You fully understand the risks and pressures of growing your facility, and if things are otherwise going fine, you might be asking yourself, "Should I rock the boat now with a new construction project?"

If your answer is "Yes!" then you'll obviously need the right plan for carrying your project through to completion. That will include first defining the risks and then deciding how you'll minimize them, as well as simply knowing exactly how you'll put your plan into action.

That's where some help comes in. Absolutely vital to the building process is finding a knowledgeable church design-and-construction specialist who can pull together a diverse team of professionals with experience collaborating together on projects like yours. It's important that you feel assured they have a proven process that will successfully lead you through the obstacles.

Your church members will want to feel the same confidence. Ultimately, they won't be compelled to give their support by a vision of bricks and mortar but by knowing that their resources are going to a work that will change lives.

Define the Risks

Hosea 4:6 says a lack of knowledge can be destructive. Equally as damaging is ignoring the risks involved when taking on something as extensive as building or expanding a church site. The truth is, almost half of all church building projects will suffer delays or setbacks. Although that shouldn't prevent you from starting the process, it should cause you to rely more on the assistance of proven experts.

Your congregation needs the assurance that you are following God's lead in the new venture. Delays and setbacks can jeopardize their confidence that God is at the center of the project, and the consequences of their doubts can be long-lasting.

Yet as difficult as it is to endure setbacks through a building process, there's something even worse than temporary snags: building the wrong facility. If you're like most church leaders, the cultural shifts and changing ministry practices today prompt you to wonder what your own ministry should look like in five to 10 years. How should these cultural shifts impact a facility design for the future? What will it take to build trust and acceptance of the project from the young couples in the church, many of whom will lead the church into the future?

Many building committees typically try to answer questions like these by visiting other church ministries and facilities. The problem is, it takes at least two to three years to design and construct a building. That means even the most recent church buildings you tour may become quickly outdated in terms of new innovative designs fit for potential ministry in 2015-2020.

Add to this matter of risk one that often weighs the heaviest on a pastor: campaign fundraising. This again cannot and should not be shouldered by the senior pastor or the building committee alone. It is vital to include your banker, architect and builder in the process as early as possible. Just as important is ensuring that church leadership is unified in its support. No person should ask for a pledge unless he's first made a pledge—which means a staff member, elder or deacon needs to have shown financial commitment to the campaign rather than just verbal.

Experience also proves that 60 percent of churches that try to raise funds without a consultant never reach their goal. Clearly, it behooves churches to rely on expert help through every step of the building process, from securing a loan to designing to building.

Minimize the Risks

One such company is Rainer Research, which was commissioned in 2005 by a network of church construction-related companies to determine the key activities needed for a successful building program. Rainer surveyed 321 churches with building campaigns that were deemed a success. They came away with three key conclusions or "lessons."

Lesson 1: Leadership "readiness" is the most critical attribute of success. Having a unified team of church leaders that understands the mission and is focused on the project impacts your ability to manage change, discern a clear ministry future, ensure the right facility design, communicate effectively to raise the funds, and keep the church growing through the two or more years required for the process.

Lesson 2: A church must understand its "compelling call" from God. This means key questions have to be answered: Where is He directing your focus as a congregation? Why should people invest their lives in your compelling call? What makes your church different from another one down the street?

Lesson 3: The "chase time"—the time needed for interviewing and selecting all the vital disciplines necessary to the project—was overwhelming to leadership teams, Rainer discovered. No building committee or leadership team can undertake that much work without eventually neglecting other important responsibilities.

One way to correct this overcommitment of time is to hire a church-construction specialist with a proven "bundle" of partners that can help carry out the key phases of the project. It is critical that your specialist has a proven process for successfully completing the campaign. This will first ensure your team is ready for change and then that you have a clear and compelling call from God that will focus the effort.

Stay the Course

Aspen Group, a church design-and-construction firm, uses a trademarked process to help building committees and leadership teams stay on track through the many details of a construction campaign. Their process comprises four key activities: visioning, feasibility, architecture and construction.

1. Visioning
The compelling call of your ministry is made up of three elements: leadership passion, congregational gifts and community needs. "Visioning" is an exercise in which you walk through the process overlapping the three. It clarifies your calling, which enables you to minimize the risks of ending up with a facility that poorly fits your ministry calling. If you have a fuzzy calling, you get a fuzzy facility design. On the other hand, a clearly identified compelling call allows those in partnership with you to better incorporate those subtle spiritual nuances into the building design process.

Obviously, this doesn't happen overnight. The leadership team of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill., thought they understood the compelling call of their church. Their mission statement was simply: "Welcome. Grow. Serve." As they started into the design process, however, they realized their lack of clarity created great risks for the project and the church.

To assist them in the clarifying effort, the Aspen Group brought in a ministry-planning partner called TAG that utilizes a powerful congregation-assessment tool known as the Transforming Church Index (TCI). TCI assesses five key church readiness indicators: how church members relate to one another; the clarity of a church's DNA; the extent to which a church shares leadership responsibility; the strength of a church's ties to the local community; and how confident church members are of the future.

Good Shepherd discovered that, although their overall church readiness score was solid, they needed a clearer sense of direction and a more effective way of communicating it. TAG not only helped define their leadership desires and unique congregational giftedness, but also used demographic studies based on the latest census data to assess the specific needs of their community.

Good Shepherd found that the young families that had moved to Naperville several years ago were growing up. These families were experiencing difficulties that the church could help them address.

Keeping this in mind, the church's leaders then formed a distinct compelling call. Good Shepherd would "reach and transform spiritually distracted families in the local community so that they can come to know and love God. We will do this by: welcoming them into an inspiring and intimate worship experience; growing them into followers of Christ; serving alongside them to benefit our community and world."

With their church specialist and partners in place, along with a clearly written compelling call, Good Shepherd was ready to begin discussing facility priorities. The leadership team explored ways to ensure their facility was a place that was welcoming and comfortable for these families. One result being planned, for example, is a café where families can enjoy a meal and attend classes or receive counseling.

2. Feasibility
Feasibility determines if the project can actually be done and, if so, how each phase of it should work. It requires carefully matching potential sources of funds with potential uses of the funds.

Among the most common money sources are cash on hand, the potential sale of current facilities, funds that can be raised or borrowed, and the elimination of current debt. When it comes to uses for the funds, there is rarely a shortage of options. Common possibilities include land purchase; land development and site improvements; professional fees; fundraising or financing costs; facility costs; costs for furniture, fixtures, audio-visual equipment or lighting; and building- and site-maintenance equipment.

It's easy to overlook significant places where funds must be applied. To reduce the risk of neglecting these costs, "master site planning" is a vital step.

This again involves long-term vision. You'll need to conceive a five- to 10-year site plan and building design based on your compelling call. The plan should be driven by the ministry priorities that you fleshed out during the visioning process. Both the master plan and building design must be unique to your passions, giftedness and community needs.

Feasibility concludes with the prioritizing of your master plan. It's in this step where you will decide which details of the project need to be included in Phase One, Phase Two and so on. The scope of each phase needs to be defined by potential funds available. This requires a careful and honest matching of your priorities and your funds, as clarified by your compelling call.

By carefully defining each phase, you'll keep from creating building plans that exceed your financial capacity or do not effectively propel your ministry. Most important, you'll have a smooth process that builds the leadership team's confidence and the congregation's peace of mind.

When the project and the phases are determined to be feasible, a stewardship campaign can be launched. The design team will then be able to provide the necessary graphics, such as video animations, that can communicate the compelling call and how the proposed facility enables or enhances the church's ability to act on its call.

3. Architecture
This third stage of activity involves detailing the master plan for construction. It is a collaborative effort between your church design-and-construction expert and their diverse partners.

Your expert could be a design-build firm with both design and construction expertise. Or it could be a partnership made up of an experienced architect and experienced church-construction manager. In either case, the team needs extensive experience at working with churches and at working together on more than five church projects.

Having an experienced team is key. They will ensure creativity, stewardship and schedule integrity, which will build your congregation's faith as they design and construct the building.

4. Construction
Construction is the step that naturally flows out of good planning and good design. It's not an area to overlook, however.

Because of that, it's important to choose a partner at the outset of visioning that delivers quality and excellence in all areas. If you do so, a comprehensive process will ensure that your construction partner has the information and the details needed to minimize surprises and change orders throughout the construction process.

Counting the Costs

Church readiness, a clear and compelling call, and an experienced partner with bundled services are the three critical keys to success. When your church follows an effective process, starting with visioning, your congregants will feel integrated into your program. Before the process is completed it's likely they will have heard the leadership team communicate the church's vision dozens of times in dozens of different ways.

Though some may feel this is tedious, it is nonetheless crucial—as the overall results will prove. The more church members are included throughout the process, the more they understand and catch the vision. Then, when the preliminary designs are presented, they feel a sense of ownership. They see themselves worshipping in the sanctuary, helping in the children's ministry area or relaxing in the café with friends or neighbors.

In the end, the most critical costs are not measured in dollars but in lives and communities transformed through clear and compelling ministry—all enhanced by innovative and relevant facilities.


Ed Bahler is the CEO of Chicago-based Aspen Group, which provides integrated, single-source design/build services to churches. He also helps direct the Cornerstone Knowledge Network, a group of companies providing research and education to churches on construction-related issues and trends.

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