Let's Talk Church Buildings

One pastor recently shared with me that their church is facing a $500,000 expense to replace a worn out boiler in the basement.  Another pastor shared that they have an estimate of $800,000 to replace their entire heating and cooling system.  This morning, I am meeting with a deacon from a church that has ceased meeting, and  we are discussing what they should do with their building.  Last week, I visited with a pastor who shared that their church building is so worn out and out of date that they are considering abandoning it and starting over.  Their main question is how to pay for it.

Our churches invest a HUGE amount of resources in their facilities.  But seldom do we sit down as a church and talk about our relationship to our building.  Time, labor, money, and energy are all dedicated to obtaining, keeping, and using a facility, but in 10 years we don’t even have one Bible study or town hall meeting to discuss what is our relationship to our building?  And what should our relationship to our building be?

Through my experience as a church planter, pastor, and now as a Director of an Association, here is my list of top five mistakes churches make in regards to their facilities:

1. We over-identify with our church building - to the point that it becomes the church. And it becomes something to save.  And it drives the decisions of the group.  If the focus of the efforts and energies of the Pastor is on the building the church will not thrive.  Churches need buildings, no doubt, but it cannot be the primary concern of the pastor.

2. We eat the capital. This is where churches regularly underspend on maintenance and updates on the building and use all their money for personnel or other diversions. The 5% rule will help to keep a facility in good shape and up to date.  Churches should plan to spend, on the average, about 5% of their annual income on updating and fixing their facility.   Special attention is needed to pay attention to the things that will deteriorate over a long period of time like HVAC systems, sound boards and restrooms and parking lots.   When we accumulate a long list of things that are broken or out of date, that list can then actually become fatal to the life of the body that is meeting and worshiping there.

3. We change our church’s mission to “We must save the church” (meaning the building).  Observe which committees continue to function long after the church has been in decline.  They are the building & grounds committee, and the finance committee.  The other functions of a declining church cease to function long before these two groups stop.  The topics of business meetings and church council meetings and deacons meetings become increasingly about how in the world are we going to maintain and fix this huge facility with so few people?  Even when the remaining few are faced with hard budget choices, saving the facility always wins.

4. We limit thinking and imagination to what we currently enjoy.  Many of our churches started off in shared space with other churches.  Bruceville Baptist Church and  Bosqueville Baptist Church are two examples. The Leroy Church still does this very successfully.  We often think we need more space than we actually can afford to build and maintain.

5. We don’t plan for the church’s demise.  It will come to a close one day. There should be some good sound documents put into place to anticipate that.  A reversion clause in the Bylaws is a helpful start.  Get some help (call the Association or the state convention and get some advice about these matters).  As a church body winds down, there has to be an honest conversation about what is going to happen to these facilities.  It is better to put these things in place while the church is still vibrant and strong.  Everyone in McLennan County is familiar with the story of the demise of the old Hillcrest Hospital.  Even as I type these words, I can see out of one of our office windows large cranes and excavators demolishing the remains of that enormous facility.  It is now a nub compared to what it used to be.  Thank goodness they had the integrity as an organization to (1) know when they had to move, and (2) not to walk away from the building that would have become a huge eyesore and dangerous piece of property.  Yes, those decisions were painful.  Yes, they faced a lot of criticism. But they did the right thing to stick with their mission and to make the question of facilities serve the mission instead of the reverse.  I have seen more than a dozen churches close in my tenure as the Director of the WRBA.  Almost all of them have held onto the building until they had no money and could not pay the insurance or the light bill.  Then they just walked away.  This leaves the facilities vulnerable to fall into the hands of the most unscrupulous characters around, or else perpetuates a series of increasingly failing attempts to occupy it as a church facility.  We are loath to admit that the time has come to do something significant and good with our facility. And I think this loops back to error #1 the mistake of identifying the church as the property.

We all think that we won’t commit these mistakes. But look around: most of our space ends up storing junk and is unused for most of the week year after year.  This is not sustainable.

We are very reluctant to downsize, but we don’t realize that keeping it large is killing us. It is depressing to new guests and to us too…when we repeatedly walk by unused and abandoned spaces. By the way, this blog is written for Baptist church members and leaders since we have a tradition that the local congregation owns the property and has sole authority to make decisions about that property.  Almost every other denomination has a different structure that actually works much better when answering these kinds of questions because they have a healthy outside independent board that can make rational decisions about properties.

I will talk about options for the future for churches that are in decline and in need of making major decisions about their facilities in a future blog post. Stay tuned.

In His Love,