Seven Common Mistakes Churches Make When They Think about Building

(One of an occasional series of posts about church life)

I was invited recently to speak to a group of church leaders who are thinking about building a building.  They need to, but like most teams put together for this purpose, they have quickly shifted to what before they think about the why.

Preparing for my time with them, I thought about common mistakes Churches make when they are thinking about building:

  1. They make money the main deciding factor in every decision.  Money is a critical issue and must be a factor, but it cannot be the factor.  When money becomes the driving issue, decisions are rooted in fear, not in vision.
  2. They build rooms that can only be used for one thing.  The era of single use rooms is over.  The only rooms in a church building that need to be designed for single use are bathrooms and preschool rooms.  Even offices can be used for Adult classroom space if they are designed large enough.  For fifteen years, my office was used a classroom.  Never once was my desk messed with.  Because of the cost of building and the reluctance of people to support capital projects, multi use space helps people see good stewardship by church leadership.  Never build a room so everyone can be in worship at one time.  It limits growth and is poor stewardship.
  3. Churches build monuments, not tools.  A building is a tool, not a monument.  The quality of the tool you buy is based on how long you plan to use it.  Monuments, on the other hand, are created to make statements.  I’ve never seen a church that was built to make a statement that didn’t have a long list a deferred maintenance items.  Thought must be given about how the tool is to be used.  For example, one of the mistakes we made when we built our building was we forgot everyone would drive to church.  Our architect designed the building so all parking was at least 50 feet away.  He wanted everyone to admire his monument.   We all forgot that people wanted to get close, drop off senior adults and children.  It cost us $400,000 to fix that design flaw and get better accessibility to the building.
  4. Designers, builders, and leaders forget the inter-dependence of spaces.  For example, code might a require a certain width in the hallways.  The width is fine, if all the people in the building aren’t trying to move at once.  But most churches will have narrow windows of time when they are trying move everyone on campus from one place to another.  The question is not what code calls for, but how the space will be used.  I remember sitting in meeting with the Heating/Air engineer and contractor.  I pressed them to make sure the system had enough capacity (hot Baptists are grumpy Baptists).  They assured me it did.  I pressed a little harder: “You are saying the building will stay cool in July, when we have three services in a row from 8:30 to 12; and the building is full of children and adults in educational space?”  Silence.  Then the engineer spoke up:  “You mean you have more than one service on Sunday?  The system isn’t designed for that.”  Pause.  Engineer:  “I think I need to redesign the system.”  Things like hallways, bathrooms (everyone at church needs to use the facilities in a 15 minute window),  and parking (1 space for 2 people) all inter-relate.
  5. Churches get in a hurry.  They want to solve the space problem now.  As a result, they don’t see problems new space can create or new costs it can incur.  One church I know launched out with a large relocation project, wanted to build in a hurry, started with incomplete drawings, built in a million dollar contingency fund and wound up with a functional building.  They also wound up with a poorly designed site plan, with one way in and out.  Every Sunday there was a traffic jam.  You’ve got to slow down and imagine how an average Sunday will go, how Easter will be, what it will be like for a new mom.
  6. Churches build to solve problems instead of building for mission.  If buildings are tools we use, the question arises:  Are we solving problems or are we acquiring a tool that will help us advance our mission?  This means they must first clarify the mission of the church and the mission the building will accomplish.  To build a tool for a mission means if something in the building doesn’t fit the mission, it doesn’t go in.  Likewise, if something in the design does fit the mission, it stays in.  Our building came in a million dollars over budget.  Cutting a million dollars out of the building was excruciating.  We needed one last cut of $10,000.  Our stage was designed to have steps all the way around the front.  I sensed the steps would also function as a place to come and pray.  If we cut the steps, we could save the $10,000.  I thought the steps were essential to our mission.  I dug in, and thanks be to God, we kept the steps (and did away with the dishwasher in the kitchen).  In the over 15 years we’ve been in the building, that decision has been validated many times.  The steps fit the mission; the dishwasher didn’t.
  7. Churches must pay attention to the size dynamics to come.  If a church is growing and must build because they are at the 200 barrier, it is essential to recognize once the building is built, there is a high probability that growth will resume.  Therefore, the church must begin to think about how to be a church of 400.  How will the role of the pastor change?  How will the role of the lay leaders change?  Too often, church build the space they need and fail to staff the space.  They also fail to change governance and expectations to match what is coming.

So what mistakes have you see churches make when it comes to building?

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