Before You Build

By Brian Walsh

An expert in church construction outlines a practical strategy pastors can use to plan expansion projects well and avoid potential pitfalls.

To build or not to build? That is the question many churches are asking–or at least should be asking–before embarking on a building program. The importance of asking a lot of questions up front cannot be underestimated. The fact is, a church that does not ask the right questions before starting an expansion project is headed for a disaster that has the potential to completely ruin its ministry.

Most aspects of life are a planned event, and planning takes time. This is especially true of building projects. Planning to expand a current facility or construct a new one should never be rushed and cannot be done during a weekend planning retreat with church leaders.

Nor should the building program be started because someone in the congregation was praying and received a vision of a new building filled with thousands of people. We need to remember the church is the body of believers, and building a church should not be confused with building a church building. The building of a church facility is a very practical thing, and we need to be very practical about our approach to be successful. If we are successful in a practical sense, then the opportunity is there for the ministry of a particular church body to grow and, therefore, be successful in the spiritual sense as well.

After more than 20 years of involvement in the design and construction of church buildings, I have found that if a church body is not practical, reasonable and realistic in its approach to the building process, then it creates unnecessary and sometimes fatal strain on the ministry or spiritual side of the church body. In short, if you begin a building program at the wrong time or for the wrong reasons, it will certainly do more harm than good.

That is why the first step we take when we are approached by a church to discuss the planning for a new facility is to ask a series of simple questions before we begin any work. Often, we even suggest to the pastor or the building committee that they read When Not to Build by Ray Bowman. This book details many common misunderstandings in the reasons to expand facilities and lists some practical ways to better utilize the current church campus.

Here are a few sample questions a church should ask to determine if it is ready to move forward into a building program. Test yourself: If you answer yes to any of these, it is a possible reason not to build or at least a reason to delay building for a while.

1. Do you expect a new facility to grow the membership of your church?
2. Do you expect a new building to cause your congregation to give more generously?
3. Do you expect a new building to cause your congregation to be involved more in ministry?
4. Do you expect a new building to make a “statement” in your community?
5. Do you need a building to allow your whole church to meet at one time?
6. Do you have a large debt on your current facility?
7. Do you need to increase membership to pay for the increased debt of a new facility?

More than 50 percent of the churches that come to us don’t have answers to some of these very basic questions and are not ready to build. Unfortunately, many choose to move forward anyway. But if a congregation has prayerfully considered the motivation, spent the proper time in planning and truly counted the cost, it can move forward with a lot more confidence in the project’s success.

The People

If after extensive research it is determined that the church needs to physically grow to properly fulfill its ministry, then the church leadership needs to get a team in place to direct the path for future facility growth. Typically this involves a call to anyone in the church that has or has had anything to do with design or construction. This may not be the most effective way to get an overall balance in the team to get the job done. It is imperative to involve the right people.

The planning and construction of a church facility will be done in phases, and it is critical to have individuals with specific areas of expertise for each phase. Clearly the people planning the facility should be the end user. The best people to determine how ministry functions and the physical space needs are the people involved in actively directing each ministry program.

It is important to have a person experienced with finances to oversee the project budget, the construction budget and the accounting for fund raising or project loans. Nothing will stop a building program quicker than a misappropriation of building funds or the lack of a detailed budget.

The construction phase of the project is the perfect time to ask for involvement from the construction professionals in the congregation. However, make sure you empower people who have the knowledge for what you are asking them to do. Just because an individual works as a salesman for a material supply company or has worked as an apprentice for a summer job does not give him the experience to head up your new building program.

One of the most challenging experiences we ever faced as a company was when we were building a new facility for a small congregation and a man who had run his own residential roofing company was put in charge of the building committee. It was clear this was the most authority he had ever been given, and he was put in a position to make decisions of which he was not capable. He was a nice man, but he made the contractor’s job almost impossible, and the project ended with strained relationships on all sides.

The key characteristic of the person in charge of the building team or committee is leadership. It is helpful if he has a good general knowledge of construction, finance or business. But it is his job to lead, and he needs to see the big picture and have a clear understanding of the goal the entire team is trying to achieve. The influence of the person in this role will definitely have an impact on the overall process. Choose this person wisely.

The Program

After a church has sufficiently answered the question of why they need to build and who will be involved, the next question is what to build. The vehicle that is used to define the question of “what” is called the program. It is a complete, written document that will tell the design/build team everything they need to know about your church’s needs and wants. It is a list of ingredients, or table of contents, and it should do the following:

1. Inventory the existing facility. This includes size, location and function of all ongoing activities. Provide any current drawings and surveys that are available.

2. Analyze the projected new space based on realistic estimates for growth. This should include all the functions of the church: administration, education, childcare, fellowship, youth meetings, community space, recreational space, worship space and other large group gatherings, including activities such as music and drama. Additionally the program should give thought to outside activities such as open space, ball fields, covered drop off and parking requirements.

3. Conceptualize the overall project. Each church has a specific personality. This is something an architect needs to listen for and understand from the church leadership. This personality needs to be an expressed part of the program. Without a defined personality, church buildings become the traditional “cookie-cutter” buildings we often see throughout our communities–buildings that don’t always meet the real ministry needs of a particular church.

If you have a very specific answer to the question of why you are building, your purpose or personality should become clear. Personality is expressed as a church describes how it handles praise and worship, or whether it needs a fellowship hall or more recreation space or more room for education and community outreach. This critical part of the written program is where a church body describes itself or its ministry for the design/build team in the size and relationship of the spaces in the new facility. It is not the architect’s job to define a church or ministry but to design a building that will allow the church to function and grow.

Putting the ideas of the church leadership into a written document is a milestone in the process of building a church building. At this point the project has been conceived and has the necessary DNA to be a building at some point in the future. This creates a momentous sense of excitement within the church members who have been involved in the process. But this time of excitement also requires a levelheaded voice of reason that would ask the question: “Are we moving in the right direction?”

This milestone is possibly the last time you can count the cost without it really costing time and/or money. Someone should ask these questions: “Are we really going to grow 10 times in the next two years?” Or, “Do we really need a 10,000-seat fellowship hall?” Or, “Can we do some of these things we want to do in our current facility?” Or, “Can we afford to do this now without negatively affecting our present ministries?”

The biggest problem we have found in dealing with churches is that they let their enthusiasm in the early planning stage set unrealistically high parameters, particularly regarding growth and the need for seating in a new facility. For some reason they think building a new building will suddenly cause their membership to double or triple or more. This has never been proven by studies of church growth.

We have had churches of 200 members come to us to build a worship space to seat more than 1,000 people. This creates unreasonable strain on a project budget. Frankly, I believe it is a misconception for a church to think that it needs to build a worship space large enough for all the members to meet at one time. Although this may sound like a nice idea, it has potential to actually stagnate the growth of a church. Without trying to damper the enthusiasm and faith of any church, I would strongly suggest that bigger is not always better when planning a church facility.

When the program is complete, then you are getting ready to present a building plan to the congregation to ask for their consensus and support. Be sure the vision you are asking them to see and become a part of is a realistic, obtainable goal. Building a church building is a practical thing–this is not the time to walk by faith and subscribe to the mind-set, “If we build it, they will come.”

This is a point in the process to take time to stop and review where you are as a church and to prepare for where you are going. Take time to visit other churches that have done what you are getting ready to do. Ask questions. Tell them what you are planning and get their input.

Churches are not in competition; we are all part of the same body and are walking according to the same purpose–His purpose. One idea may be to partner with another church to meet a need in the community, and you could change your program to add or reduce space. Maybe you don’t even need that big building.

When you have invested some time and thoroughly reviewed your program, make any adjustments you feel are wise and, once again, count the cost. Only then are you ready to move forward.

The Process and Project

Now that the project has been conceived and confirmed, a decision must be made about the process to be used to get you from concept to completion. This involves choosing the consultants, or team, that will come alongside your committee to make this project a reality. In choosing consultants, you must first determine which method, or “delivery system,” will work best for your church. There are libraries of articles and books about this subject. Following is a summary of the common delivery systems:

1. Design-Bid-Build. This is the most traditional process, in which a church hires an architect to design a project, then asks for bids from a certain number of general contractors.

2. Design-CM (Construction Management). Using this method, a church first hires an architect, then a contractor to work with the architect to manage the construction process, without providing a lump sum bid.

3. Design/Build. With this method, a church hires a design-builder or a design/build team (architect and contractor) to provide total design and construction service, often providing a guaranteed maximum price.

Each delivery system has specific advantages and disadvantages, depending on issues such as size and complexity of the project, schedule, budget and so on. Regardless of the delivery system used, it is important to realize that the choice of a particular consultant will have a great impact on the final results of the project. Reputation and references from past clients as well as a history of specifically working on church buildings are critical to the overall success of the building process.

Another way of looking at the design or design/build team role is that you as a church have defined a final destination (size, location, budget and personality), and the design team will tell you what path and what vehicle you need to get there.

It is important at this point in the process to let the consultants you have hired do their jobs. They are bringing years of experience and results from many churches, all of which will benefit your particular project. It is important to maintain a balance between keeping everyone, including the architect, focused on your particular ministry personality and taking over the architect’s role in designing your church building.

A way in which this can be achieved is to establish a strict list of priorities that will govern decision-making during the design process. One example is to number each of the activity areas in order of importance (1. fellowship, 2. education, 3. worship, etc.) to allow you to make adjustments if the overall square footage is too large. You might choose to keep the square footage in the most important areas (1, 2 and 3) and reduce it in areas that are less critical to your program. Another idea is to list the activities that could use the same space in order to minimize the size of the new building.

Probably the most important priority, or governing value, is to treat the construction budget as a critical part of the program all the way through the design process. If while planning the initial design, someone suggests to add two more Sunday school classrooms, a red flag should go up. Two more classrooms could cost tens of thousands of dollars. It is always better and less costly to make tough decisions early in the design process.

It is the responsibility of the design/build team to keep the owner informed of all the issues related to the program, but ultimately it is the building committee leader who needs to keep the project going in the right direction and staying under control.

The solution for a successfully built church building does not really come down to how well the design/build team puts together the pieces of the puzzle or the size and color for each room. Success is determined way before the last nail is hammered and the seats are installed for the first service.

Success is achieved in correctly answering the questions of who, why and when. Who are we as a church? Why do we have to build? Is this God’s timing for when we should move ahead?

If the answers to these questions are prayerfully sought out, then the solution for how to build the church building that is best for you will come much more easily. And the end result will be something you will enjoy instead of regret.

Dos and Don’ts of Church Facility Planning

Following these recommendations and warnings can save you from making costly mistakes.


1. Pray, plan and proceed. Success is a planned event. Make sure to follow a logical process in building a church facility.

2. Choose the right leader and team. It is imperative to put the proper team in place. The main characteristic for the person in charge of the building committee is leadership. This person must see the big picture and have a clear understanding of the overall goal.

3. Think out, not in. The ultimate purpose for a church building is to help a ministry bring more people to Christ. Make sure your new building will help your church serve a purpose in the community, not just make it more comfortable for those already in the church.

4. Count the cost. It is critical to fully understand the financial impact a new facility will have on the current and future ministries of the church. Establish a realistic total budget for a building project and consider the cost of future operations and maintenance.

5. Let the professionals do their jobs. When you hire a design/build team, let the people you have empowered do the jobs you are asking them to do. Take time to interview consultants, check references and give clear direction; then trust your team to achieve the results.

6. Choose the right delivery system. Low bid does not always mean the best price or the best finished product. Pick a company you really trust and put a system together so you can monitor the progress and measure the results.

7. Have a contingency. Construction is not a perfect science. Unforeseen situations do happen, and people change their minds. Make sure you make provisions to handle changes to the plan without having to stop the project.


1. Rush. The statement, “Anything that is worth doing is worth doing right,” certainly applies to the building of a new church facility. Don’t make short-term decisions that will cause long-term problems.

2. Have false expectations. If you think building a new building will increase membership, improve giving or involve more people in the work of the church, then you are building for the wrong reasons and are headed for possible disaster.

3. Over-build. If 100 people attend your services, do you really need a building that seats 1,000? Be realistic and practical. There may be more creative ways of using the facility you already have.

4. Over-borrow. The idea of building a facility totally debt-free may sound too idealistic and may not be realistic for most congregations. However, the idea of being burdened with extreme debt is even crazier–it’s very risky. Nothing will stop the growth of a church more than the straining of ministries and missions work due to a large debt from a building or expansion program.

5. Do it yourself. Some churches underestimate the value of employing the best consultants possible. Saving a few dollars now with insufficient planning could cost big dollars at a later time.

6. Think short-term. A quick solution is not always the best solution. Have an overall “master growth plan” before you make any decisions about new facilities.

7. Be Rigid. Just as each of us has a unique personality, churches each have a unique and special purpose. You don’t have to build a church with a steeple just because that’s the way it has been done for years. Express the traditions of your church in a new way that is both practical and dynamic and invites people to know and experience God.

Do the Math
Use these rules of thumb in the early stages of planning a building project to calculate what you will need and how much it will cost.
The following guidelines are general approximations for preliminary planning only.

Site Planning
**Worship Center (includes education and administration): One acre per 100 to 125 individuals in attendance. Consider additional space for sports fields. Note: Site work for a new church could cost between 20 percent to 25 percent of the overall construction budget.

**Parking: One space for every 2.5 seats; 110 to 120 spaces per acre. Parking space dimensions: Standard, 9 feet by 18 feet; compact, 8 feet by 16 feet; handicapped, 14 feet by 18 feet.

Building Size
**Total Building: Approximately 50 to 60 square feet for every regularly attending member. (It is important for churches to be realistic in counting attendance.) Note: This includes circulation space.
**Worship: 15 to 20 square feet
**Education/Nursery: 25 to 30 square feet
**Administration: 10 square feet.

Recreation/Multipurpose Building
**Minimum: 70 feet by 104 feet equals 7,280 square feet.
**Basketball Court: 50 feet by 84 feet
**Ceiling Height: 20 feet
Note: Additional storage required. Always consider handicap requirements in the design of all spaces.

Building Cost
The cost of building construction varies depending upon many factors, such as new church vs. existing location; building function, such as multipurpose vs. sanctuary; and building structure, such as pre-engineered vs. brick.
**Minimum: $75 to $85 per square foot
**Moderate: $85 to $100 per square foot
**Detailed: $100 to $250 per square foot.

Note: This is building cost only. Add 20 percent to 25 percent for site work. It also is highly recommended to maintain a contingency to handle unforeseen issues. Construction costs will usually be only between 70 percent to 80 percent of the total project budget.

There are many considerations during the design of a new church facility, ranging from building a separate worship space or a multipurpose space to the type of floor covering to the color of the restroom tile. Based on a detailed “list of ingredients” from your program, the design/build team should be able to design a facility specifically suited to meet the needs and goals of your church body.

Brian Walsh is president of The Collage Companies, a general contractor and construction management firm. For more information, visit their Web site at

This article “Before You Build” by Brian Walsh was excerpted from: web site. October 2009. The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study and research purposes.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”