Walking into my first building committee meeting as a young pastor I had two simultaneous feelings: feeling proud that the church was moving forward and feeling scared that I was traveling in uncharted waters. I was thrilled that we were moving forward with a grand building project, but I had no training or background in construction.

In time the new sanctuary was erected, but not without a few blunders and mistakes. At the dedication service, I commented to my close friend and building committee member, “We may have built this building, but I feel that I know more about what not to do when building a new building than what to do.”

Here’s what I learned.

We chose the wrong architect.

The building committee was wise enough to interview several architects, but we chose the one who awed us with pictures and drawings. Ironically, we did not use any of his original drawings; in fact, his first design was so elaborate that when it went out for initial bids it came back three times over our projected budget. That design was eventually scrapped and a more simple design was used instead, but not until after the church had spent over $100,000 in architectural fees.

In addition, while our architect had designed a few churches, he had not designed one in our denomination. He did not understand our worship needs and our emphasis on Sunday School.

We chose the wrong contractor.

Based on the architect’s recommendation, we choose a contractor that he had worked with before. The contractor seemed capable and knowledgeable, but what we did not know was that he was not making payments on other jobs. About halfway through our building project, he informed me and the architect that he could not complete this job and was quitting. When he walked out the architect and I sat in stunned silence and disbelief. What would we do? How would I inform the church?

We didn’t have the right people on the building committee.

The building committee was made up of good hearted people with a great love for the church. We had the former CEO of a major retail company, several small business owners, and others who had been chosen for their reputation within the church. But none had any experience with a major construction project. As time went on this became more and more apparent.

We built too soon.

The need for the building was apparent. We had two worship services and several Sunday School classes were meeting in the sanctuary because we lacked adequate Sunday School space. In hindsight, however, we could have gone to three worship services and two Sunday Schools to provide additional space and to have a larger congregation base before we began the construction.

We didn’t start raising money soon enough.

In conjunction with the above issue, we should have started raising money for the building prior to our construction. Instead, the capital campaign for the building ran simultaneously with the building construction. And being a three-year campaign, much of the money pledged would come in after the building was constructed, leaving us with a short fall.

We had to borrow too much money.

The shortfall necessitated that we borrow more money than we had projected. While the bank was more than happy to lend us money, we borrowed an astounding amount for a small congregation, leaving us highly vulnerable and hindering ongoing ministry. Consequently, we followed up the first three-year capital campaign with another three-year campaign, followed by three one-year campaigns, followed by another three-year campaign. In other words, we were in a capital campaign for 12 continuous years. Members during that period felt the financial drain and that they were carrying an unfair load.

We weren’t able to complete the entire building.

Once the sanctuary was completed, we did not have enough money to complete the lower level, which was to house needed Sunday School space. Worship space, therefore, was out of balance with the educational space.

We did not take into account miscellaneous expenses.

Once the sanctuary was completed we still had to have furnishings. We conducted a separate campaign to raise money for pews and chairs, which was over and above the capital campaign. The city’s requirement for the over three hundred shrubs and trees was mind boggling. We lacked the funds for several years to install the video projection system.

We did not plan for adequate parking.

Initially the parking to support the sanctuary would have necessitated that each car would bring 5-6 people. While it may have looked good on paper, we knew that the ratio of our congregation was more like two people for each car. Additional parking was needed as soon as we opened the new sanctuary.

We were not adequately prepared.

The old saying, “Never take a knife to a gunfight,” paints a graphic picture of being at the mercy of someone better equipped. I realized quickly that just about everyone I dealt with on our building – banker, architect, builder, inspectors, planning department and zoning officials – all knew more about what they were doing than I did.

If I had it to do all over again, here’s what I would do:

1. Spend the time and money to develop a master plan that looks beyond the immediate building needs, perhaps as far reaching as 10-20 years.

2. Seek outside help through a consultant or resource that is objective and doesn’t bring emotions into the process.

3. Select an architect that understands our denomination, our church, and our needs.

4. Do a thorough reference check on architect and contractor.

5. Be realistic about fundraising and budgeting. (As a rule of thumb, a church should raise 1 to 1 ½ times its annual budget and a lending institution will lend a church approximately 3 times its annual budget.)

6. Select the right people for the building committee and especially to represent the church in this process. The problem with most pastors is that we are too nice. We don’t ask the hard questions. And we let others walk over us. Jesus said we need to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. During a construction program a church needs some “serpents” in their corner.

7. Pray, pray, and pray. Before, during, and after the process make prayer a priority. A church is building more than a building; it is a holy place where spiritual warfare will occur.

8. Celebrate. Looking back, I realized that we should have celebrated all the accomplishments along the way, not just at the completion.

There is a happy ending to my story. Through all of the disappointments and setbacks, the sanctuary was completed. In time, the other parts of the building were finished and completed. The older building was remodeled. God seemed to bring the right people along to help at just the right time. Many dedicated people stepped up to do their part, including giving more money. And nine years after the sanctuary was dedicated, the church was debt-free. God is still in the miracle-working business.


Rick Ezell is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Greer, SC.


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