The congregation on whose board I serve as chairperson recently completed a $4.7 million dollar building project. The congregation has grown over thirteen years and the vision for a building has taken ten of those years to achieve fruition – at least stage one! I have served as chair of this board for the past four years, the time when the congregation decided to go for it. We have enjoyed the new facility for six months.
When a church board decides to lead their congregation in a significant building program, it has implications for the life and work of the church board chair. Risks of various kinds escalate – many of them new. Sustaining and strengthening congregational unity through the process generates significant challenges. Discerning and accumulating the resources necessary to complete the project are daunting. Enabling the board and the staff to keep the congregation’s focus on ministry and not the facility requires deep spiritual trust and determination. Finding the right expertise within the congregation to provide leadership in facility planning, oversight of the project, fund-raising, and various legal and financial matters becomes a matter of serious prayer. Perhaps the greatest concern in this is the significant impact that such a project accrues to the lead pastor. Many pastoral leaders will not survive a church building project. Although the board chair usually works at an arm’s length relationship in most of these matters, he or she nevertheless carries significant responsibility to enable the church board to keep the pace and the peace over several years and see things through to a successful conclusion.
Let me offer the following reflections based upon my recent personal experience.
- Discerning and appointing the right people to lead the building committee and the building finance committee are critical elements. I think the success of the entire project will depend largely upon the spiritual maturity and overall competence of these leaders. These are people who must be willing to make three to four year commitments that will require many meetings and constant oversight of many details. If it is necessary to change the leadership of either committee mid-course, this will create difficulty.
- Ensure that the lead pastor is committed to the project’s completion and will stay in the role for at least six months after the facility’s occupancy. Pastoral change mid-course will probably bring the project to a halt until a new lead pastor is appointed and confirms support of the project. The lead pastor must expect and be willing to give additional hours of work to ensure the project’s completion. However, it is also important to protect the lead pastor’s time by not involving him in the day to day work of the building committee. Many decisions did not require the lead pastor’s input in the early stages. As construction accelerates it will be necessary for key staff to give input and become more involve.
- Build complete consensus on the church board for a positive decision. If the church board is not united in its vision for the project, then wait. You can expect some variance within the congregation (perhaps up to 10% is manageable), but I would strongly urge you to secure unanimous endorsement and support from the board to proceed.
- Construct a financial model and resourcing plan that works. It is irresponsible to propose and recommend to the congregation a building project which is not supported by a workable financing model and plan – one that the congregation can accomplish with reasonable expectations. What amounts need to be raised? What mortgage can be sustained? What congregational growth can be anticipated in order to provide additional financial support? What is the long term impact on the annual budget to operate the facility? How will this be financed? What previous history of giving provides comfort that the congregation has the resources to support the project? What is a responsible faith gap? How will the congregation fund costs for future replacement of items in the facility? In the event of a financial crisis, what contingency funding would be available to sustain the mortgage for three or four months? Thinks these matters through very carefully and require the board to take the time to get it right. If the congregation senses that the financial model is not trustworthy, then the entire project will be vulnerable. Our approach was to ensure that the operational costs of the building plus financing not limit ministry. The advice we received was to cap this at approx 35% of total budget. And the operational costs are significant!
- Delegate the proper authority to the building and building finance committees. It would wise to establish the building committee as an adhoc subcommittee of the board and the building finance committee as a subcommittee of the building committee. This keeps lines of accountability with the church board clear. If at all possible the church board should appoint one of its members as chair of the building committee, or least to be a member of the committee. The board should define carefully the limits of the authority that the building committee has and should monitor compliance. Building committee reports should come regularly to the church board with recommendations for specific actions. Authorization to borrow funds or expend funds should be vested with the board and not the building committee. However, once the building project budget and financing are approved, then the building committee should be authorized to proceed within those established limits. Any significant variations should be approved by the board. One way to manage this is for the board and the building committee to agree on the major decision points in the course of the project. Before the building committee can move to the next phase, require the board to give its approval. This keeps everyone fully and appropriately involved.
- Keep faith with your local civic officials so that the building plans receive official approval in ways that develop good relationships with community leaders as much as possible. Similarly, seek financing through a local bank or credit union, if possible, to support community relations. Be fair with the contractors and on time with your financial obligations. Be honest in all dealings and conform to legal requirements. This project is an opportunity for the congregation to express its Christian values in the community by the way it manages these affairs.
- Although it will be a challenge, encourage the board to keep the vision for ministry at the centre of the congregation’s life. Remember that the facility, as wonderful as it will be, is only a means to an end, i.e. enhanced ministry! The congregation exists to pursue the Great Commission, not to build a great facility complex.
- Keep good and full communications open between the board, the building committee, the pastoral staff, and the congregation. This is important to sustain harmony, to encourage giving, and to keep the vision in front of the people. Plan for more communication, rather than less. Let the congregation know what decisions they will be asked to make and how they will have input into the process and then keep your promises. Make sure that in these processes you follow the bylaws carefully and consistently. Listen carefully in all congregational meetings, take suggestions seriously, and respond to concerns in a timely and responsible fashion. The board is asking the congregation to take a strong step of faith and you will need their full participation throughout the process.
- Remember that the building project for the congregation and the board is a walk of faith, an opportunity to trust God. It should be supported by specific prayer days; there should be testimonials to God’s special provisions; when challenges arise, bring them to the congregation for prayer; let the congregation know when the answers come! Celebrate every significant step with thanksgiving to God. At the end of the day, be generous in your thanks to all who contributed.
As chairperson you will need to determine whether you are willing to provide leadership to the board over a two to four year period, depending upon the size of the building project. If you are not prepared to offer that leadership, be frank with the board and work with them to discern the leadership that will help them to achieve this vision. Perhaps stepping aside will be your greatest contribution to the success of the project!
Conversely, if you believe God desires you to remain chairperson through this project, this period of your Christian life and service can be a most wonderful, spiritual experience as you see the evidence of God’s remarkable provisions.
Finally, let me encourage you to dialogue with your local denominational leadership as you begin this process. They will have some wisdom to share.