Church Building Program 101: The 10 Most Common Mistakes Church Leaders Make and How To Avoid Them

You’ve heard of Murphy’s Law: whatever can go wrong will go wrong at the worst possible time. If you want to prove it valid, just start a building project.

Many pastors who’ve guided their churches through building projects say it was the most difficult time in their ministries. There are, however, ways to make the process a bit easier. Some mistakes you don’t have to make, such as…

  1. Not having financing in place first. Here’s a common scenario: A church decides to build, so they hire an architect and draw up plans. They then seek out a contractor and complete the contract phase of the process. Then, they go to a financial institution and, sadly, learn they don’t qualify for a loan to build what they want.
    As a general rule, you’ll be able to borrow up to three times your church’s annual unrestricted income but not more than 70 percent of the market value of your facility. You’ll probably be limited to total debt service at no more than 35 percent of the monthly income. Make sure you know how much you can borrow before you get too far along in the process.
  2. Not having a capital fund-raising campaign in place. A capital fund-raising program is designed to obtain financing pledges from church members over and above their tithe for a stated period of time (usually three years). A good campaign will generally accomplish two objectives: 1) It provides cash so the church will not have to borrow as much for construction, and 2) That money will be available to help make the mortgage payment once the building is completed. Too many churches have built new facilities only to find that to make their monthly mortgage payment, they must scale back ministry to save money. Most churches understand that it’s still ministry that grows a church, and to cut back on that part is seldom a desirable option.
  3. Not checking out the contractor. Far too many church leaders have gotten far along into a building program only to discover the contractor they chose can’t complete the job or isn’t doing quality work. A common-sense approach is to ask for references beforehand and to check them out.
    Some churches have gone so far as to contract with a church management consulting firm to oversee the building process. Oftentimes a consultant can save a church more than the consulting fee by pointing out potential problems before they occur, or even calling out areas of potential cost savings.
  4. Building too small. Church growth experts claim an average church that completes a successful building program will experience 50-percent growth within 18 months of completing a new facility. It’s just an estimate, but if 200 is the average attendance in a sanctuary that only seats 220 people, and a new sanctuary will double the capacity to 450, that church will be two-thirds full in less than two years. Then, said church will have the same problem all over again, this time with a mortgage that must be paid down before it can build again.
  5. Too many change orders. The two major reasons churches are foreclosed upon are problems associated with a pastor leaving and cost overruns. Many cost overruns are the result of changes made after the building project has begun. A church might not have control over its pastor leaving, but it should be able to manage cost overruns.
        Remember that a contractor will base the contract price on the plans he or she is given. Once construction begins, any changes in those plans will likely result in a cost increase. In the building process, it’s important to make sure all questions are answered and all needs addressed before construction starts. Once actual construction begins, the costs of making changes will escalate tremendously, creating undue stress and major problems.
  6. Not researching local zoning restrictions. It’s well worth the money to pay someone to research regulations before purchasing land. Make sure the property you’re buying will allow your church to meet your present and future needs without having to break through a lot of red tape and endure time-consuming zoning changes.
  7. Lack of a master plan. Too many churches haphazardly locate buildings and parking on their property without regard to efficient land use. There are architects and building consultants who will, for a reasonable fee, study your church’s needs and your property’s potential, then draw up a master plan to most efficiently meet those needs. From providing adequate ministry space to the best place to park cars, they can spare many headaches and lots of money.
  8. Not building congregational support beforehand. I’ve heard it said that if you want to find out who the “problem people” are in your church, enter into a building program. Simply keeping the congregation informed throughout the process can solve a lot of problems in this regard. From the start of planning to the completion of construction, let everyone know what’s happening.
  9. Adding another responsibility to the pastor’s duties. The pastor of a growing church is busy with prayer, sermon preparation, visiting the sick, administration and other responsibilities. What he or she probably doesn’t have is the time or the expertise to manage a building project. Make sure someone in the congregation is assigned detail and administrative responsibilities, and let that person keep the pastor informed.
  10. Not understanding that you’ll face problems. Sometimes workers won’t show up on time. Some days, you’ll contend with rain or snow or something else that causes delays. As Vince Lombardi said, “unless there’s opposition, you can’t achieve victory.”
    There will be problems and challenges to overcome, but remember this: It’s God who gives us the vision, and it’s His job to give us the victory. So sit back, relax and get started.

Russ Priddy is the Lead Consultant for Ascend Stewardship and Consulting. He has a B.B.A degree in marketing from Marshall University, an MBA in finance from the West Virginia University College of Graduate Studies, and a Master of Divinity from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.


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