Handling the hurdles of church construction

Carefully deciding how and where to spend money is a wise exercise anytime. Doing so during the recession is an absolute necessity, and the same is as true for churches as it is for anyone, particularly when it comes to construction projects. Avoiding common pitfalls and cutting building costs are essential tools for churches to survive and thrive in the building process. “We see a lot of churches get their building together and survey members on what they feel needs to be built,” Kurt Appel said. “A lot of times the first place churches will go is to an architect and tell them, ‘This is what we are doing’ with some general parameters about size and scope. “At that point, it can become a wild card and many times we’ve seen an architect come back with a plan a church just can’t afford.” Appel is a senior consultant for the Church Division of Cargill Associates, a stewardship consulting services company. An ordained United Methodist elder from Gulfport, Miss., Appel is in his sixth year of a bishop’s appointment to work for Cargill on developing fundraising strategies. While Appel said he doesn’t slight architects for doing their job, he did say churches can be put in a difficult position. “What people want to do is step out in faith that God will provide,” he said. “What we see a lot of times is where churches get into financial trouble and can’t pay for what has been done. We have done a lot of debt campaigns. “You don’t want to have two successive campaigns over one building project. People get tired of that and it can create problems.” Appel advises churches to do a feasibility study before construction, meeting privately with select members of the congregation and surveying the entire congregation for feedback. Doing such homework in advance helps create realistic expectations of what a church wants and what it can afford. “It helps manage the size and scope of a project,” Appel explained. “For example, if a church is looking to build a Christian education building, they can approach an architect with particular parameters to design around.” Studies can score and rank costs and what a congregation is willing to support. “In economic times as they are today, these tools are good things to have,” Appel said. “There are some instances where we have gone back and told a church they are not ready to begin a process, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “The other important thing is helping a church discern what for mission and ministry can’t be done in the current building. That is a big part of the equation. What will we be able to do by building we can’t do now?” Different building materials can help save money, but that can only go so far. “You could go to a brick façade as opposed to stucco, but a lot of that has to do with preference and what part of the country you’re in. You could have an old historic church and may have no options architecturally. Depending, you can do a lot with building materials or, for example, taking 20-foot ceilings down to 15-foot ceilings. Let the ministry dictate what the needs are.” One unique option is to leave the building behind completely. That was the decision of Pastor Ken Eastburn, who launched The Well, a network of house churches in Orange County, California. The decision to take ministry outside of the traditional brick and mortar setting was anything but easy. In 2004, Eastburn’s church, First Southern Baptist of North Orange County, sold its 1960s-era facility and the previous pastor had also rented out of a business park. “That was 5,000 square feet costing $5,000 a month, and that’s just a lot of money,” Eastburn said. “We looked into having a mobile rent space and a woman who was our treasurer at the time suggested we buy a house and start there. When you look at what it costs to buy a home in Orange County, it just wasn’t feasible.” After prayer, online research and being inspired by a house church conference, Eastburn launched The Well. Groups meet at different members’ houses where fellowship and intense spiritual discussions are the norm. “A group of us spent a weekend praying together and talking and decided this is really something God was directing us to do. We started with three homes and it has been good for us in a lot of ways other than just financial,” Eastburn said. Adding that it’s “hard to be passive in a small group of 10 to 15 people in a living room,” Eastburn said one of the hardest things for Christians entering a house church is how it differs from the traditional North American worship. “I think it will work over time,” Eastburn said. “I’m working with a pastor in L.A. trying to plant house churches in the Santa Monica area and it is such an expensive area to build anything. When you ask, ‘How do we plant churches and get started?’ when it is so expensive to build buildings that can be half-empty with church attendance declining. “It might not have been something many people would have considered five to 10 years ago. When you go around the world and see how successful it has been, it makes it that much more appealing. I do think it is a little more difficult concept for people here to grasp.” Links: Cargill Associates: http://www.cargillassociates.com/ Blog for The Well: http://leavethebuildingblog.com/

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