Mistakes to Avoid!
Before your church gets involved in a building project, make sure you count the cost.
-By Jeff Dunn – updated and expanded upon with the assistance of ChurchPlanSource.com
The decision to expand St. James United Methodist Church’s building was an easy one to make. “We knew it was time to expand,” says Jeffrey Johnson, associate pastor of the Tulsa, Oklahoma church, “when we couldn’t squeeze one more child in a Sunday school classroom.”
For others the decision to build is not as clear. South Dayton (Ohio) Presbyterian leased an auditorium from a local Seventh-day Adventist school for 6-1/2 years before breaking ground for their own complex. “We could have waited another year to collect more funds,” reflects Don Ward, pastor of South Dayton Presbyterian.
Both Johnson and Ward confess to making mistakes during the planning and building process. These pastors, along with several construction and financial planning experts, talked with MINISTRIES TODAY about what to do and what not to do when launching a church building project.
Here are mistakes often made by pastors in building or expanding their churches. We hope you can avoid the same pitfalls.
Yes, you realize you need more space. But what kind of space do you need? Can existing space be utilized, or will you have to add to your building? Do you have the land to expand?
Design is probably the 3rd or 4th step of a building program. Before you can design, you need to have a fact-based understanding of current and projected needs. Secondly, you need to understand what you can afford and how you will pay for it. Lastly understand what the land will support, make sure it will handle the vision. This process will proceed every successful church design project, and is commonly referred to as understanding needs and feasibility.
“Don’t think of building what you need now,” says Johnson. “Plan to build what you will need five years from now.” Johnson explains that shortly after the first phase of St. James’ building was finished in 1988, they were already overcrowded in classroom space. Wise use of space above several rooms allowed for a temporary solution until the second phase could begin in 1996.
“Build a building that can be added onto,” says Johnson. “Start from the end- what you want it all to look like- and work back. Picture what the whole campus should look like after all the phases are completed.”
“A healthy church will grow,” says Johnson enthusiastically. “Build your church to accommodate growth.”
We believe it is imperative to choose a Christian church architect.
A Christian perspective allows the architect to ask the right questions, and his expertise in churches allows him to understand the use of your building. After all, a building is a tool for ministry. The fellow down the block who designs strip malls won’t have the proper understanding of your needs, no matter the depth of his faith.
Ward chose a Christian builder and trusted that as a Christian he would do everything in an upright manner. Now he wishes he had not been so trusting. The contractor was using money given him by Ward’s church to pay subcontractors on other jobs. Money soon ran out for Ward’s project.
“If he had been a secular contractor,” says Ward, “we would have held his feet to the fire. Now I know that just because a worker is Christian doesn’t mean we should fail to hold him accountable. Set up procedures and then stick to them. Don’t take excuses.”
Ward admits he did not check the builder’s references closely enough. He suggests checking the two or three most recent projects completed by the builder rather than ones done several years ago.
“If he has any history of late payments,” warns Ward, “you don’t want anything to do with him, whether he is the lowest bidder or not.”
Scott Rolfs, assistant vice president with B. C. Ziegler and Co., a firm specializing in church financing of large-dollar ($1 million or more) projects, sees this problem arise constantly.
“We look at any number of multi-million dollar projects every week,” he says. “The architect tells the church it is a $1.2 million to $1.5 million project; then the bids come back from the builders 10 to 20 percent higher. The problem is the pastor has sold the congregation on the architect’s price. The congregation gets ‘sticker shock’ when they are told what it will really cost to build.”
Then there are the costs not written into the original plans that can end up adding tens of thousands of dollars to the project- or shutting it down completely. Things not foreseen by the architect, such as street improvements or the addition of a traffic light can drastically increase the overall cost.
CDS has the advantage of being BOTH an experience church design firm and builder. We have real-life construction data for current projects around the country. We don’t have to rely on theoretical prices out of a manual, we know what real buildings cost.
Proper site selection is the key, says Ward. “It makes all the difference,” he insists. “We chose a site on a high-traffic road. We get a lot of visitors just from drive-bys.”
But it is a much more difficult chore than it was a decade or so ago, today there are numerous environmental and zoning issues to deal with. Environmental issues are all too often an unseen trap that can cost the church a great deal of money. But environmental issues aside, you need to also make sure the zoning and land use are suitable for your needs. Site development costs can make an otherwise wonderful piece of property financially unrealistic. The availability of utilities, road improvement costs, mitigation of wetlands, bad soils or endangered species can all put a building program out of reach. Last, but not least, will the land support the future vision of the church?
“Leave room for growth,” is the advice of Rolfs. “If your lot is full, visitors won’t stop.” Ward knows this to be true. They have been in their new building for only two years, and already their parking is overflowing.
“We have 20 cars a week parking across the street,” says Ward. “On Easter Sunday it was more than 40.”
Most city zoning codes call for a ratio of 1 car to every 4 or 5 seats in the sanctuary when it comes to planning parking. But Ward and others agree that a more realistic ratio is 1-to-2 or 1-to-2.5. Local building code is often times insufficient to provide adequate parking to fill the building. This can lead to investment in building square feet of space that you can never use.
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This sixth mistake can easily outweigh all the others up to this point. You can have great planning, great drawings, a beautiful and environmentally friendly site, and room for all the cars Ford will make in a year. Yet without proper financing, all your plans will lie in a drawer gathering dust.
The church financing game has changed. A church can no longer afford to keep financing as a final afterthought. It must be done very early in the process. Before 2008, money was easier to get and lending requirements were more relaxed. Now the project equity percentage has risen dramatically, as well as documented disposable cash needed for payments. Church financing has become very difficult and specialized.
If your church isn’t in some sort of formal capital campaign, lending institutions view this as the congregation not being committed to the project. Congregations must remember that financial institutions are no longer looking for reasons to say ‘Yes’, they are looking for reasons to say ‘No’. A capital campaign will improve the likelihood of getting a church loan and well as improve the terms.
Rolfs also encourages churches to be realistic about the sale of their existing site. “Church properties don’t turn quickly,” he says. “The normal marketing time for church property is 8 to 30 months. And, if you are in a smaller town, your prospects are limited.”
Says Johnson, “You never want to make the city your enemy. ”We’ve taken huge shots from the city. Fifty thousand dollars to install storm water management when we first built, another $75,000 during our second phase to correct it. They said it wasn’t up to specs- but it was their specs we followed in the first place!” Ward concurs, “We’ve had mega-problems with the city. They are extremely inflexible and legalistic.” It would seem that “friends” like these could easily become your enemies.
You only get one chance to make a first impression, so get an architect and site engineer involved early in the process to insure the plans you want to build are compatible with the zoning and land use, and don’t expect special treatment because you are a church!
The very week Don Ward was to witness the dedication of his new church building to the service of the Lord, he almost left the church. ”I got too emotionally involved,” he says. “I felt I was carrying it all on my back. As a result, my wife and I felt burned out. I had a job offer the week before our dedication service.” He turned it down and is glad today he did.
“It would have been a mistake,” he admits. “We have had dramatic growth since the dedication. I just didn’t have a good infrastructure under me in the church. Now we are talking expansion again, but I won’t make the same mistake. I’ve told the church, ‘If you want to build, you do the work.’ I’m not even going to all the meetings.”
Take a queue from Moses and Solomon. Both of these men of God got outside help for their building programs.
Mistake #9. Not praying for the construction workers.
How easy it is for us to miss opportunities to see God work right in front of us each day! Johnson was able to see God’s faithfulness in answering prayer as the first phase of St. James was being built in 1988. ”We prayed for the safety of the workers everyday,” says Johnson. “One afternoon a carpenter put his foot through the roof and fell what would have been about 40 feet. He reached out and grabbed a beam in the sanctuary. One of our members walked in right then and was able to get him down. What a miracle from our Lord! And that worker was in church the next Sunday.”
Don’t lose sight of why you are building - to expand the Kingdom of God. Workers on your building project are a captive audience to which you can show the love of Christ.
Johnson tells how his church celebrated the completion of various steps. For instance, when they had completed their fund-raiser for the second construction phase, the church hosted a catered dinner at a nice restaurant for all the adults in the congregation. They held an “Enlarge the “Harvest” concert one Friday night just to gather the members in an attitude of praise to God for His faithfulness thus far in the project. ”And celebrate big when you finish,” suggests Johnson. “Be sure to recognize all those who helped make it possible.”
Many church boards are lured into the possibility of saving a substantial amount of money by ordering a “package deal” offered by steel building dealers. In many instances, the building package has a limited number of door and window openings; any additional openings create a heavy additional charge or surcharge. In the worse case, it is misleading sales practices for which at least one major supplier of steel buildings has lost a class action suit.
Even if you are in one of the few places left in the country that do not require sealed architectural plans, you still should get get them. The seal of the architect removes the liability of faulty design from the church. If at a later date someone gets hurt, or worse, in your building due to an issue of design, the architect is liable, not the church. In our litigious society, that is a wise investment. We would recommend you find an architect that specializes in churches as the space needs, traffic flow, and overall design are unique – not something that you can pick up from a book.