Leading a church in the 21st century is hard enough. Add on the stress involved with managing a process that requires an average of 50,000 decisions and you can see how quickly pastors or church leaders become overwhelmed. Building your church's new space doesn’t have to be unpleasant, however. You just have to know what to avoid. Here are 5 of the most common mistakes churches make early in the building process:
1. The Growth Deus Ex Machina
Tossing resources into a new building is not a growth strategy.
A little elbow room goes a long way when it comes to a person’s opinion of the built environment. It’s an observable fact that design has a significant impact on the human experience. A common sentiment I hear is “the only thing limiting our growth is our building.” Reality? The quality of your facilities is not the only factor that contributes to the health of your church. Churches often come to us with the idea that a new or improved building is all they need to remedy their growth issues. I call this the “Growth Deus Ex Machina.”
The term Deus Ex Machina (Latin: “god from a machine”) is derived from a literary device used in ancient Greek/Roman theater where a playwright would have a god lowered from the rigging above the stage at just the right moment to save the day. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines it as “a character or thing that suddenly enters the story in a novel, play, movie, etc., and solves a problem that had previously seemed impossible to solve.”
In our context, it refers to the false belief that pumping money into a building will result in radical church growth. Since we haven’t been called to build buildings (Acts 7:48-50), we must be careful stewards of the resources we have been given. We should focus on the ministry first and build only when it hurts.
2. “I Know a Guy…”
Hiring the right team is crucial.
There are many ways to structure a team for a building project. They each have their various pros and cons. A church will often have design and construction professionals within its membership, and they typically want to be involved. While I can’t speak for every scenario, this is rarely a good idea.
The building process is usually political, complicated, time-consuming and involves money. Any combination of these factors can mix in a way that results in emotionally-driven disagreements that could have a lasting negative impact on your ministry. Likewise, hiring the wrong professional can lead to the same result. The team you assemble will be working together for several years.
Each member of your building team must be candid, humble, experienced, thorough, and honest. Talk to other pastors who have gone through the process. Find out who they used, what they learned, and what they recommend. In the digital age, don’t be afraid to venture out of town to find the perfect fit. Go to dinner with them and get to know the individuals you’ll work with. Find and interact with them on social media. Talk to their clients. Pray.
Once you are confident you’ve found the right architect, contractor and consultants, bring the team on board early and keep them informed of what you’re thinking. Then, trust them to help you make the right decisions throughout the entire process.
3. Skipping the Masterplan
Planning is for future generations.
Building is exciting. Planning is (usually) not. For this reason, there will be an overwhelming urge to breeze past one of the most important components of the design process: the Masterplan. If you’ve hired the right design professionals, the development of a Masterplan will actually be one of the more enjoyable stages of the process.
A great Masterplan will address your immediate needs and look ahead to establish the church for the future. Nothing is more heartbreaking than encountering a church whose ministry is crippled by a facility that came about as a result of poor planning. Don’t skip this important step!
4. “We Already Know What We Need”
The power of evidence-based design.
One of the most challenging parts of my job is helping churches think realistically about what they really need from their facilities. I’ve had churches averaging 350 on Sunday mornings tell me they need at least 1,000 seats in their new Worship Center. While I’m sure there are plenty of architects out there who would love to collect design fees on a project of that size, I told the church this: You would end up with a $250,000 roll of drawings sitting in the corner of your office detailing how to build a beautiful building... that you can’t afford.
A better approach is finding an architect who will take the time to collect real data about how you use your current facility, how many people come through your doors each week, and what their needs are when they get there.
This data is powerful evidence. This evidence, along with historical and comparable data kept and studied by the design professional, should be used in a scientific approach to determine what you really need.
Keeping people informed without letting them down.
Communication is one of the most important things a pastor can do when it comes to maintaining the trust of his church. There are many great resources for churches explaining how to do this often and with excellence. When it comes to a building project, proper communication is paramount.
Every person who gives to the building campaign maintains a strong emotional connection to the process. They give sacrificially because they imagine their grandchildren hearing the Gospel within the walls of these buildings you worship and teach in. Therefore, a caring pastor’s first instinct will be to convey every possible detail of the process as often as possible. I would caution you to avoid this common mistake.
Certainly, there are things which need to be communicated often to the entire church, such as overall design intent, cost, and timeline. However, pastors should carefully avoid “hyper-communicating” the minute details and specifics of the project. The last thing you want to do is present your Conceptual Design and promptly announce the exact date you will be in the building the following year.
No one will forget this… and if there is a delay, they will make sure you don’t either. Instead, commit to specific ranges such as:
- “Spring of next year” (Instead of “March 21”)
- “16-18 months of construction” (Instead of “17 months at the most”)
- “Around $6 million” (Instead of “$5.923 million”)
- “Warm & friendly lobby” (Instead of “Stained concrete floor with dark gray rubber base”)
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