Breaking New Ground

A close partnership of the client, architect and builder helped this Florida church build a facility fit for future generations.
Florida pastor Alex Clattenburg has a warning for ministers who are big on vision, but short on funds. Speaking with the wisdom of one who has learned from his mistakes, he warns of the pitfalls of massive church debt. "Most churches overbuild and get themselves in debt," says Clattenburg, pastor of Church in the Son (CITS), based in Orlando.

"They [pastors] get prophecies such as, 'You're going to do this and that,' and 'Don't make it too small.' But to commit a church to long-term heavy debt is to put the congregation under pressure. I've been through that, and I've done that."

This Easter, Clattenburg officially opened the sanctuary doors on his congregation's new 33,000-square-foot facility, completed at a price tag of $6.5 million ... and built virtually debt-free.

Although he admits that fund raising in the current economy is a challenge, Clattenburg is convinced: "Money is never the problem. It's always the vision and whether you will capture others who are also visionaries, because the money is there."


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When he planted CITS in 1990, Clattenburg immediately began to raise money for a permanent facility, with the goal of building without incurring significant debt.

Formerly employed in the real estate world, Clattenburg understood the importance of location when planning a church building. "We wanted to be seen, wanted to be a base of operations," he says. "We see this church as a place of training, equipping and sending. It's not just about going to church once a week."

Clattenburg selected a plot that he thought was ideal.

"But the Holy Spirit said, 'Don't buy that land,' and I didn't," he recalls. Soon after, Clattenburg was given the five-acre plot on which CITS now stands.

That's lesson No. 1 in church construction, says Clattenburg. Don't leave God out of the process.

"We have more faith in going to the bank than we have faith for God to give us the money," he explains. "Stepping out in faith to build phase one for cash required much more dependence on God and prayer than had we gone to the bank.

"We pastors do too much building in the natural. When it comes down to it, there's got to be more prayer, more faith, more anticipation of the supernatural, but we have to pray our way through it and plan our way through it."

Although dependence on God was a key factor in CITS's building process, Clattenburg also attributes the success of the project to careful planning and building when the resources became available.

Because a church is a specialized building, Clattenburg began looking for an architect and a contractor who specialize in designing churches and understand its unique needs. Enter Robert Miller, president and founder of R. Miller Architecture, in Maitland, Florida, with 28 years of experience and several hundred church designs in his portfolio; and Brian Walsh, president and founder of The Collage Companies contractors in Lake Mary, Florida, with 21 years of experience and 36 churches under his (tool) belt.

Clattenburg put the project out to bid and received four bids before choosing a contractor. After this, CITS went through the process of "value engineering," asking the builder to provide ways that the project could be accomplished better and cheaper.

Regarding the search for a good architect, he says, "Locate a building the prospective firm has designed and like it, rather than going through the yellow pages, getting four architects and interviewing them. I felt that we could get somebody to lay out the plumbing and the tile on the ceiling, but not just anybody could give us the latest design."

Utilizing a recent trend in construction called "design-build"--a close partnership of the client, architect and builder from blueprint to ribbon-cutting--the team began bringing CITS's vision to life.

Describing the design-build process, Walsh says: "It used to be more typical for a church to go out and hire an architect independent of a contractor, do a design, then ask some contractors to come in and bid the job out. Now owners will hire a design-build team, having an architect and a contractor work in tandem."

Does the design-build process save money? "Not necessarily," Walsh says. "Instead, the process assures the owner that the project can be built for the budget that the owner establishes." He contends that building within a budget is more important than building inexpensively.

The team opted to build the church in two phases. Phase one included a building shell and offices for the church staff, which was working out of rented space near downtown Orlando. Phase two included the auditorium and classrooms. After phase two was complete, the church was able to open its doors for worship on Easter Sunday 2003.

Although it allowed CITS to construct a large part of its new facility without incurring debt, the unusual two-phase process posed its own set of challenges. "Systems which we built in phase one were not optimum until we began phase two," Walsh says.

Still, he says, the results speak for themselves. Far from a bare-bones look, forward planning and careful budgeting resulted in a facility that conveys a sense that no corners were cut, and no expense was spared.

A warm atmosphere is as important as technology for the new generation, Clattenburg says, and this "feel" was accomplished by avoiding the two extremes of high-tech office building sterility and the pretentious stuffiness inherent in many church buildings.

The 850-seat sanctuary reflects the warmth of the rest of the facility, with a coffered ceiling, flexible seating and massive 9-by-16 theater-perspective video screens. Large windows above the platform and on the sides of the sanctuary let in light and contribute to its open feel, and panes of plate glass separate the foyer from the sanctuary.

Nowhere is this intentional marriage of technology and community more evident than in the gathering space shared by the senior-high students and 20-somethings.

With its leather sofas, snack counter, coffeehouse-style stage with candles and walls painted in warm earth tones, "The Living Room," as it is affectionately known, exudes the warmth and sense of community treasured by the younger generation. Unconventionally shaped video screens hang on either side of the stage and a state-of-the-art sound system in the rear of the room stands ready.

The junior-high meeting room is equipped with audio and video technology, and almost vibrates with the energy needed to capture that generation's attention. An adjoining room is set up with restaurant-style booths, video-game stations, a pool table and a sound system.

A cafe on the second story offers fellowship opportunities before and after services. "Every church building has to have a cafe--in my opinion--over a bookstore," Clattenburg says. "It gives a laid back, nonreligious feel to the whole campus. It knocks down the high walls of formality."

Youth and adults aren't the only age groups CITS serves, however. "People come, and one of their first questions is, 'Are you going to minister to my children?'" Clattenburg says.

A soundproof parent care room with comfortable chairs and one-way glass is conveniently situated at the rear of the sanctuary, offering refuge for mothers with fussy infants who don't want to miss the worship service.

Elementary classrooms and the nursery are conveniently located on the first floor. Each classroom is animal-themed--lions, frogs, bumblebees--according to age groups and is decorated accordingly. Even the colors of the chairs in each room reveal an attention to detail: green for frogs, yellow for lions, and so on.

Says Clattenburg plainly: "Every church should have as a high priority to win the lost and to touch a city. However, if you're not going to minister to children, then that's the end of the subject."


Instead of simply planning a church construction based on projections of future growth, Clattenburg advocates building with careful regard for current financial resources. A large debt can cripple the ministry of a church, tempting the pastor to become fixated on finances.

"Each parishioner represents money rather than a soul. This affects how you do ministry," Clattenburg says. "To commit a church to long-term heavy debt is to put the congregation under pressure. I've been through that, and I've done that."

Walsh agrees. "I don't subscribe to the idea that 'if you build it, they will come,'" he says. "I think that you should be forced to build because of how your ministry is growing."

Clattenburg believes that a building program can ultimately become counterproductive, hindering the growth it was intended to accommodate. "People who come into the church do not want to come into a church burdened with debt," he says.

The tendency to incur debt is caused by impatience, he believes. "I think you can rent buildings and stay where you are longer than you think."

Clattenburg also cautions setting up a building committee composed of people not involved in the daily ministry of the church. "The people who are using the building in their ministries are not a part of the planning process--at best they are asked to submit a piece of paper with their needs."

He contends that failing to include ministry leaders in the design of a new church building is "like building a house and not including your wife in the planning process. Most churches are structured that way. It's a pitfall and is demoralizing to the people who use it."

Walsh has his own reservations about the effectiveness of building committees. "A church needs to have a 'point man'--someone who has the authority to manage the process more efficiently." He points out that the committee-based method through which most churches are designed and built is often fraught with difficulties and results in a mismanaged project.

According to Walsh, the point man in any church does not need to have construction experience, however. "The important thing is that they have leadership," he says. "They need to understand how to control the dynamics of a group, give direction, delegate and facilitate."

Clattenburg challenges pastors to loosen their autocratic grip on the building process. "The minister is dominant, and what is he interested in?" Clattenburg asks. "He's interested in the sanctuary, and everything else ends up being inferior. You can do an 'A' on the sanctuary and do a 'D minus' in the children's area. The children's room is as important as the sanctuary, because they are your children and my children."

Architect Robert Miller reflects on the trends that influenced CITS's design as well as the distinctives that set it apart from other projects.

"Many churches are moving ahead with cost control being their guiding principle," he says. "The results are disappointing in so many ways." Miller points out that some churches that were built more than 100 years ago are still in service, while some new buildings look worn out after three or four years.

The design and functionality of CITS reflect the simplicity of its vision, he adds. "There is a de-emphasis on the traditional aspects associated with a church building, such as stained glass, church furniture and pipe organs. And a new desire for intimacy in the worship setting."

"The ministry had to have a feel to it, a design to it that was open, with windows and an atrium--a new feel," Clattenburg explains. The foyer of CITS is spacious, yet functional, with a moveable information center, flat screens mounted from the ceiling to display announcements and a bookstore. Rays of sun stream through skylights and ceiling-to-floor windows.

"The use of glass inside and out can link the occupant with other spaces inside or to the outside," Miller explains. Additionally, in the evening, windows allow light from within to be seen from outside, creating a welcoming ambience.

Careful planning and budgeting allowed CITS to utilize the latest technology in carrying out its mission. Computerized lighting and video, a professional recording studio and networked offices were all within reach of a church like CITS, because of patience and a desire to harness technology effectively.

"This is a technological age," Clattenburg says. "If the sound and lighting aren't good, it would be better to do a smaller sanctuary and do it right than do a larger one and put in inferior product."


Looking back, Clattenburg says he has no regrets. A focused vision, innovative design and an unwavering expectation of God's intervention in the building process have resulted in a facility that will serve as a tool in effectively reaching a lost generation.

"Christianity is always one generation away from extinction," Clattenburg says. "What they [young people] see and what they feel when they come in will determine whether we get to minister to them.

"We have to ask ourselves, 'Who are we building this for?' If you're building it just for Mamma and Daddy, who have been in the church for 25 years, that's a whole different perspective."

People in your congregation want to reach the lost, and they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, Clattenburg says. But it's up to pastors to cast the vision.

"Your facilities will forfeit the opportunity to minister, even though your ministry might be great," he concludes, "If you speak with faith, and your faith is faith that will capture the heart of God, you can capture the hearts of the people."

Matthew Green is the associate editor for Ministries Today.

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