Seven Ways to Avoid Building Mistakes


The pastor motioned toward the empty pews. “You can see our problem,” he said. “This auditorium seats 400; we seldom hit 150. Sunday mornings this place feels almost as empty as it does right now. Our little group rattling around in here week after week gets to be depressing. I’m convinced it’s keeping us from growing. We’d like you
to recommend a way to remodel this sanctuary to make it smaller, warmer, more comfortable. Then maybe we can grow.”

How had this situation come about? Twenty years earlier the leaders of this Oklahoma City church had said, “If we build a big sanctuary, people will come to fill it.” They had built the building, but the people had not come.

I could have drawn up plans for corrective remodeling, but the church, still saddled with debt from that earlier building, could not afford it. Because they expected the building to generate growth, they had built too big too soon.

Another church in New York state faced the opposite problem. Innovative ministries to teens and young adults had attracted new people. Every Sunday saw double worship services and Sunday school, with classes spilling over into a house, the parsonage, and the restaurant next door. Their full-to-overflowing buildings testified to the excitement of belonging to this church family.

But their growth had bumped against the limits of their space. With no more room, growth had stopped. Not only were they crowded, but one building-the one the teens used was leaky, poorly heated, and structurally unsafe. This church faced the problem of too little too late.

Building too big too soon and building too little too late are both costly mistakes, but both can be avoided. In my consulting work I recommend that churches follow seven steps to plan their buildings wisely.

1. Know your community. A church in a bedroom community near San Francisco was considering whether to build. When I asked what future ministries they envisioned, they mentioned, among other things, a ministry for the poor, perhaps a soup kitchen or clothing closet. But when the pastor checked the local demographics, he found that almost no poor families lived in the neighborhood. Instead, the church’s neighborhood attracted upper-income families. His people, this pastor realized, were fantasizing about ministry to a group not even present in their community.

The pastor believed that to reach their neighborhood they needed a building appropriate to their changing surroundings. Their older, poorly maintained facility with an amateurish sign tacked to its side hardly looked inviting to their upwardly mobile neighbors. I suspected the pastor was right when, as I spoke to the congregation, mice scampered across the platform and ran beneath the pews in front of me.

This congregation awoke to what they needed to do and did it. The last I heard they were getting ready for a neighborhood get-acquainted party to introduce themselves to their “future members.” For the occasion they planned to raise a big, brightly colored tent on the site where their new building would soon appear.

Before your church can tailor its ministries and facilities to those it hopes to reach, you must first get to know the needs of your community.

2. Evaluate current and long-term needs. To find out how well current facilities serve a church’s ministries. I recommend an effectiveness review. Write down on the floor plan of your building what happens in each room during the various hours of the week. Then identify anything needed to improve each ministry’s effectiveness. Does it need new leadership? Additional training or support for leaders? More money?

Since facilities often are blamed for nonfacility needs, it is important to identify nonfacility needs first. For example, to try to revitalize the church’s ministry to teens by building or remodeling a meeting space is pointless if the fundamental problem with that ministry is unqualified leadership.

Once non facility needs have been separated from facility needs, the next step is to create an itemized list of space needs, both immediate and long-term. For each ministry, include how much space is needed and what kind of facility would work best.

Sometimes defining facility needs involves more than determining the amount and kind of space needed. A church near New York City had a major ministry to the poor, the homeless, and runaway teens. Even with two services they had outgrown their sanctuary, so they bought land to build. On further reflection, though, they realized that relocation would separate them from the very people to whom they ministered. While they needed more space, the location of that space was critical. They sold the new land and used the money to remodel their worship space. By fully using space in two adjacent houses and a commercial building they were able to expand in the same location.

The process of itemizing current and long-term facility needs is valuable to any church. For the church that considers major remodeling or new construction, this step must be completed before an architect can draw up appropriate plans. For churches that consider building and for those that do not, this process lays the groundwork for using present space more effectively.

3. Use present facilities to the maximum. Once a church has clearly defined its space needs, it is ready to find ways to meet those needs. That search should always begin at the same place: the church’s present buildings. Churches that think they are running out of room often are surprised to learn that they can double or triple in size without a
major building program simply by changing how they think about and use their present space. Until a church fully utilizes its existing building, a need for more space does not exist. Following are some ways to solve space problems without new facilities:

Move groups to the right size rooms. Many churches have at least one little class in a big room and one big class in a little room.

Change the group size to fit the room. When a group out grows its room, sometimes it works to divide the class. If a church has small classes in big rooms, a teaching method that combines classes may solve the problem. Large-group team teaching may make better use of space and improve learning. Some children’s classes can grow in the same
room with the addition of an assistant teacher or workers.

Change furniture. You can increase worship seating as much as 20 percent by replacing pews with individual seating. If that seating is movable, the space also becomes available for multiple use.

A room that uses appropriate tables and chairs can hold twice as many people as one filled with overstuffed furniture. For preschool or kindergarten classes, the solution may be to get rid of the furniture and have the children sit on a carpeted floor for their activities. Oversize play equipment-such as a slide-may waste space. if full-size cribs are eating up needed nursery space, replace them with half-size or stacked cribs.

Find new uses for any space not already fully used. One of the first places to look is the worship area. A church in western Pennsylvania with excess worship seating removed several back rows and installed room dividers, carving out needed space for a foyer, a fellowship area, and a Sunday school class.

A foyer can be ideal for receptions, board meetings, or Sunday school class dinners. The foyer of one church in Kansas City doubles as an office reception area; along one wall-in space not otherwise used-they’ve installed six staff and secretarial modules.

Consider what minor remodeling can do. Can you increase usable space by taking a wall out’) Putting a wall in? Installing a folding wall across part of the foyer? Enclosing a hallway with a folding wall?

Build or rent a storage building. if you now use potential meeting rooms for storage, this is an inexpensive way to free up space in a hurry.

Use creative scheduling. A children’s ministry brought in scores of children from the community. Because they met on Saturday, they could use the only space big enough to hold the group: the worship area.

In addition to multiple Sunday services and Sunday school sessions, how about an additional worship service on a weeknight? One church has a Monday evening “Sunday school.” Not only is this good stewardship, it also ministers to those who can’t come on Sundays.

4. Use alternate space. Almost every community has meeting space churches may use, often just for the asking: homes, motel party rooms, schools, lodge halls, community rooms in banks or apartment complexes. Young singles classes often work better in restaurants than in church buildings. Some people who are uncomfortable coming to a church building will gladly participate in groups that meet elsewhere.

5. Consider a modest addition. A Massachusetts congregation started holding double worship services, but a lot of people were unhappy with the arrangement because they couldn’t visit with friends who attended the other service. Recognizing the importance of such fellowship, the church made two changes. First, they extended the period between services to 30 minutes to give worshipers leaving the first service time to visit with those arriving for the second; and, second, they built a larger foyer to provide a place to visit. While neither change by itself would have done the job, providing both time and space for fellowship solved the problem.

A modest addition may also be called for when multiple staff work in a building originally designed with office space for only one pastor. When professional and support staff offices are scattered, teamwork suffers and the staff is less accessible to the public. While some congregations can create a centralized administrative complex by remodeling, others will need to consider an addition.

6. Repair and redecorate. A church building should feel warm, pleasant, and comfortable. In a word, it should look loved. When a new pastor came to a church in upstate New York, he found a badly neglected building. Years before, the congregation had realized they needed to relocate and bought land elsewhere. They then quit spending money to maintain their old building.

Partly because of the unloved appearance of the church building, the congregation had quit growing. But until the congregation grew, it would not be able to afford to build.

This pastor, then, was able to challenge the people to repair and redecorate their old building as a necessary step toward resuming their growth. They cleaned out junk, replaced outdated signs on classroom doors, put new furniture in the nursery, and fixed the plumbing. Once again, their building looks loved. It no longer stands in the way of growth.

7. Seek creative parking solutions. When one church needed more parking, a doctor in the church offered the parking lot at his clinic two blocks away. The church leaders agreed to park there to free parking space at the church. A church near Philadelphia uses stacked parking. Members volunteer to park bumper to-bumper at the back of the
lot and wait patiently when it’s time to go home. This leaves the most convenient parking for visitors.

Can you use the school parking lot across the street? Could you create a “park and ride” center a half mile away, with the church providing a shuttle bus? Most parking problems, however stubborn they may at first appear, have solutions.

While all these solutions to parking problems have been used successfully, several of them also create inconvenience for church members. It’s the same with some of the other suggested space solutions such as multiple use of space, movable furnishings, use of off campus meeting space, and meeting at nontraditional times. I’ve discovered that a distinguishing mark of practically every growing church is that the people of the church are willing to be inconvenienced for the work of the church. When church members will not volunteer for some inconveniences, the church is unlikely to grow.

Solomon wrote: “Any enterprise is built by wise planning, becomes strong through common sense. and profits wonderfully by keeping abreast of the facts” (Prov. 24:3-4). The seven suggestions are no magic formula. They simply represent wise planning, common sense, and a way to keep abreast of the facts. Churches that apply them can avoid the most common and costly building mistakes.

By following these seven suggestions, a church can avoid either building too little too late or too big too soon, and can instead build just the right building at just the fight time.