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 ChurchPlansForLess.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
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
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
Here are mistakes
often made by ministers in building or expanding their churches.
We hope you can avoid the same pitfalls.
(Click on the list below to view more info.)
Failure to conduct a needs analysis.
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?
These questions and others should be answered during a needs analysis
or feasibility study. Such a study should be done by an architect
before any other phase- even before the selection of an architect
to design your plans.
"Having a professional outside source do a "needs and feasibility"
study allows a better overall picture view of the church's
requirements now, and for several years out, says Alan Stroh of
Renaissance Church Consultants LLC. "Once a congregation gets
beyond their emotions and personal areas of concern, they can
see the overall picture. Otherwise, you can end up with a church
poorly designed by committee."
Stroh cautions pastors not to confuse "planning" with buying
a set of plans. "Planning," he explains, "is taking us from
where we are to where we want to be. A plan- the drawing of a
building- is where most architects want to start. The architect
asks, ‘What do you want to build?' What most churches
need is someone to ask, ‘How can we help you determine your
"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
"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."
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Selecting the wrong architect or builder.
Stroh believes it is imperative to choose a Christian church architect.
"His Christian perspective allows him to ask the right questions,"
Stroh says, "and his expertise in churches allows him to understand
the use of your building. After all, a building is a tool for
use in your 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
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."
Stroh warns about attempting to use builders within the congregation
itself, and bringing in the builder after plan completion. "For
the same reasons as above, it is best to use someone outside the
church for the project. Also, be sure your builder, or preferably,
your construction manager, is on board early on. This will streamline
the design and building process and save money when all "three
legs" of the stool are present early in the process."
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Relying on the architect's cost estimate.
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.
Stroh's firm, Renaissance Church Consultants LLC, has an
answer to this issue. "We have a plethora of stock plans available
for sale and modification to save the churches money" Stroh
says. "To help determine actual construction costs, we can provide
the church for a nominal price a ‘full set sample plan'
of the church they like, or one similar in size and scope, which
they can put out for bid. This verifies the project being within
the required budget without the need for a preliminary design
or construction drawing contract."
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Improper site selection.
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
"Gone are the days when you could just go out, buy a chunk of
land and build a church on it," says Stroh. "Now there are
numerous environmental and zoning issues to deal with."
Stroh and Rolfs both stress the importance of the completion of
an environmental study before bidding on property. "It's
the best insurance you can buy," insists Rolfs. "It's
comparable to having a home inspection before buying a residence.
The Phase One environmental study tells if there are contaminants
on the property. The owner is responsible for the proper removal
of these contaminants, whether or not he is the originator of
the hazard. And the removal of these wastes can be very costly."
The cost of the Phase One study, according to Rolfs, covers a
broad range. "Sometimes you can get the seller to pay,"
he says. Stroh suggests you check with local planning commissions
to see exactly what environmental studies should be undertaken
before deciding on a piece of land, and what zoning issues you
will confront. "This is another reason for purchasing a ‘full
set sample plan'", says Stroh. "The planning commission
will have a greater level of comfort if they can see what the
church is thinking of building".
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Failure to plan for adequate parking.
"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 seats
when it comes to planning parking. But both Ward and Stroh believe
a more realistic ratio is 1-to-2 or 1-to-2.5. "If the sanctuary
is a touch crowded but the message is good, folks will return.
But, if they can't find a parking spot, you have lost them"
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Unrealistic projection of income or inadequate cash on hand.
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.
"Most churches start by talking about their needs," states
Stroh. "They should start by talking about their financial health
and capabilities. Based on the size of the church, how much money
can they realistically raise and borrow?"
Stroh continues "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. As little as two years
ago, 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 so difficult and so specialized that
I no longer hazard a guess on a congregation's ability to
borrow" says Stroh. "I have professional associates that
work specifically in these areas. I introduce them to the church
and work from their conclusions."
Stroh adds "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
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
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Getting on the bad side of city government.
According to Stroh, zoning issues for churches are getting more
difficult every day.
"I think its Satan's last attempt to retard the growth of
the church," he says. "Churches don't add to the tax
base, therefore most planning commissions have minimal incentive
to be assistive."
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.
"Be sure your testimony extends to the city," exhorts Johnson.
"We're here to minister to the city. We pray for the city
"This is one area we did right," exclaims Ward. "We responded
to objections raised at the zoning board hearing. There were concerns
raised about drainage, so we made improvements to the plans that
helped the situation in the whole neighborhood. We didn't
have to do that, but it created a win-win situation. And if the
city leaders want to take all the credit, let them!"
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Allowing the project to overwhelm your life.
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
"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."
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."
Perhaps not the ideal church growth method, but if it works...
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Waiting to celebrate until the building is complete.
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."
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Mistake # 11. Ordering that
"On Sale for a Limited Time Steel Building Package"
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.
These buildings are usually designed as a single story open structure
with a warehouse effect. The surcharge for increasing the steel
sizes to accommodate for future second floor expansions is again
very heavy. The steel members and panels that create the exterior
walls may also need to be re-sized depending on the requirements
of the final exterior finish whether it is brick masonry, stucco,
etc. We have assisted several churches that have purchased these
"package deals" only to discover the costs to upgrade doubles
or triples the original price for what they want or need. These
costs can equal or surpass regular steel building quotes.
Some churches have purchased these kits without having the land
to build upon. It is much wiser to build from the ground up, than
to buy a box and build from the inside out.
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Mistake # 12. Failing to understand
the need or value of a Registered Architect.
Lots of people will spend time to sketch and draw their building
themselves, planning for all they need in their church. Folks
also purchase "uncertified"drawings because their particular jurisdiction
doesn't require certification.
Even if your jurisdiction doesn't require certification, there
is an inspector waiting to red tag your project. When a city or
county says "Not Required", it's their way of kicking it upstairs.
Somewhere up the line, ending with the State Fire Marshal, someone
needs to see those certifications and approve those drawings.
With today's national codes for construction, energy compliance,
ADA accessibility, fire suppression, life safety... the list goes
on and on. A licensed architect and engineer registered in your
state eliminates these issues, for once they stamp and certify
your drawings, they accept responsibility for complying to these
codes. And remember, these codes are a moving target and subject
to interpretation. Don't spend dollars to save pennies... make
sure your architect and engineer agree to cover revisions to compensate
for differing code interpretations.
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