Do your church facilities seamlessly serve or are they simply frustrating? A well-run campus is a blessing to every church ministry. But building troubles strain our operations and our people. So how do we run facilities so they help—not hurt—our church mission?

Vision Meets Brick and Mortar

Every church building started with a vision. If your church is relatively new, you probably know how that vision played itself out in the building’s physical space. If your church is older, you may have need to research or to use your imagination to figure out what designers had in mind.

Have you ever been to a medieval cathedral? Anyone who has been to Europe has probably been to several. In their time, cathedrals were impossibly large. They represented the enormity of God. High ceilings and abundant light drew minds toward heaven. Most medieval church-goers were illiterate, so stained glass windows were used to visually tell Bible stories. The building reflected the needs and the vision of the age.

Fast-forward to the 1990s. Visionary pastors like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren discovered that the people they wanted to reach for God were turned off by traditional church trappings. Out went the organ, pews, stained glass and cathedral-style ceilings. In came rock bands, stadium seating and sanctuaries that were like civic auditoriums. The form of these church buildings reflected the function of outreach to non-churched people.

That brings us to the present day. Churches desiring to reach young people are again reinventing their spaces. A new generation wants to experience God, not be spoon-fed facts from the pulpit. Some churches are throwing out projectors and sound systems in favor of a more authentic “unplugged” style. Some are returning to candles and stained glass as part of the worship experience. Services are being held in storefronts, bars and homes.

Regardless of the decade, the form of church buildings always starts with church mission and the vision of the church leadership.

Differing Perspectives on Church Buildings

Walk into any church and what you see is largely a reflection of three people: the senior pastor, the executive pastor and the facilities manager. Each of these brings a differing view.

The Senior Pastor: Senior pastors are generally wired as biblical teachers, big-picture visionaries with a desire to help/please people. As such, they want a church building that “just works.” If they want to hold concerts, the building should simply be able to do that. If they want a certain kind of seating arrangement or worship style, the building should simply accommodate that desire. The vision for ministry trumps all other considerations in the minds of many senior pastors.

The Executive Pastor: Many executive pastors are wired as generalists. They understand the differing needs of various church ministries. This is because they work directly with ministry leaders and know their hearts. Executive pastors hear needs, understand what is behind them, and want compromise so that everyone can be effective. Executive pastors also can be the most concerned about facilities-related expenses because of their intimacy with the overall church budget.

The Facilities Manager: Facilities managers are generally wired as pragmatists. They schedule room usage, ensure rooms are clean/well stocked and make repairs/remodel. It’s natural for them to place value on systems and procedures (because that is what’s needed to make the facilities work in the real world). Facilities managers need to please church leadership (managing up), serve the competing needs of church ministries (managing across) and care for congregation members using the facility (managing down).

The first step in a healthy facilities operation is understanding and valuing the strengths of each of the above leadership roles.

A Tension to Manage, Not a Problem to Solve

Given the diversity in roles and wiring, relationships between the senior pastor, executive pastor and facilities manager can be problematic. We have found a principle that can really help. We view church facilities as a tension to manage, not a problem to be solved. This idea came to us from Andy Stanley and his excellent DVD “The Upside of Tension.” I highly recommend it to show at your church staff meeting.

Every month there are new challenges managing our facility. There is always conflict between scheduling, maintaining and updating rooms. If we view this as a problem we must fix, we are always going to be frustrated and negative. However, if we more accurately view this as a tension to be managed, we can be positive, patient and flexible. We don’t expect the tension to ever disappear. We accept it as part of our ministry responsibility.

Secrets to Good Relationships

Despite their different roles and wiring, the senior pastor, executive pastor and facilities manager need a good working relationship. Some tips:

Communication: Most problems are caused by lack of communication within the organization. Set up a weekly facilities meeting. Invite the senior pastor, executive pastor, the facilities manager, the person who schedules the rooms and any ministry leaders who are major users of the facility. Review any problems that have arisen in the past week. Preview the week ahead with an eye towards fixing any conflicts/problems in advance. Discuss plans for regular maintenance and remodeling in advance.

Short accounts: Relational challenges are part of managing facilities. Keeping short accounts means the challenges are discussed immediately when they arise. Items don’t get ignored because they are difficult to talk about it. In advance, the senior pastor, executive pastor and facilities manager should agree to keep short accounts. Everyone gives permission to the others to openly discuss challenges (without fear of reprisals). When you keep short accounts, relational offenses don’t get collected and the “air” is kept clear.

Mutual respect: All involved in the meeting should have an understanding of how group members are wired differently. How we view challenges is a result of how we view the world. Churches have a lot of personality types. That doesn’t make them wrong, just different. If the visionary leader understands that the facilities manager is wired for pragmatism, the visionary will better understand the pragmatist’s position (and vice-versa).

Communication “language”: In addition to wiring, there is the factor of our individual communication styles. Knowing how each other likes to receive direction and appreciation can significantly improve working relationships. This is similar to knowing someone’s “love language” in personal relationships. A great way to learn more about this is the book The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People by Gary D. Chapman and Paul E. White.

“Second chair” leaders: The executive pastor and facilities manager are second chair leaders to the senior pastor. Second chair leaders should be empowered to bring their best ideas and to strongly make a case for them in a “behind-closed-doors” environment. That case should be heard and genuinely considered by the first chair leader. However, once a decision has been made, the second chairs leaders need to publically support, with unity, the decision that is made (regardless if it was their preference.)

The Joys and Pains of Multi-Use

The greatest source of tension in managing church facilities is sharing space. Churches have classrooms that are used by kids on the weekend and adults on weeknights. There are large meeting rooms used by several ministries over the course of a week. There are multiple groups that use the auditorium. There are churches, like ours, that share space with a Christian school. Our church is all about multi-use. Here’s what we have learned:

Leadership: Senior leadership must make multi-use a ministry value (part of the organizational culture). Individual departments will naturally want to claim space exclusively for their own use. Leadership must make clear that good stewardship means that we maximize building use for God’s Kingdom. We are more effective as a church when we share our precious building resources.

Attitude: Sharing must also be seen as a virtue at the department level. The attitude should be, “I am blessed to be given this classroom to use for my ministry during the time I need it.” The attitude should not be, “This is my classroom and I hate it when other people come in and mess it up.” We like to say that our church is a big family sharing a house. It takes extra effort to live together, but it is well worth it.

Storage: Storage enables sharing. When constructing shared space, make sure there are sufficient closets. Each ministry using the room will need to store supplies and equipment in the space.

Neutral décor: Shared space should not appear to be dedicated to any one purpose. It should be like hotel meeting rooms, stylish yet broad-use.

Everyone does their own set-up and cleanup: It is the church’s responsibility to provide meeting space for ministries. However, if your facility is truly used a lot, the church most likely doesn’t have enough paid facilities staff to set-up and clean/reset each room after it is used. We have found it most effective to establish a default configuration for each of our rooms. Anyone using the room may set it up as they need, but they are to return the room to its original configuration when they’re done.

Everyone contributes to upkeep: Higher building use means equipment and furnishings wear out more quickly. Every major user of space should budget for replacement of these items (so that major expenses are fairly shared by those using the facility). All major users should also pay their fair share for facilities personnel and building supplies. For instance, if a school is using the facility 60% of the time, it should pay for 60% of the mortgage, power, paper towels, facilities personnel, etc.

Equipping Your Facility for Success

Many times churches are tempted to default to the cheapest option, which is not always the best stewardship. A prime example is equipment purchases. When buying a vacuum, there may be a temptation to purchase the $200 home model, rather than the $10,000 commercial riding model. This seems to make sense from a purchasing standpoint. However, it may take several hours a week more to clean the carpets with the home vacuum versus the riding vacuum. The cost of those additional paid staff hours very quickly eclipse the money saved on the original equipment purchase. Spending more on equipment and less on personnel enables maximum cost efficiency.

Is Your Building a Place Where People Want to be?

Churches spend an amazing amount of money purchasing land and constructing buildings. However, sometimes very little money and attention go to aesthetics and functionality … the things that make a building a desirable place to be. When building or remodeling a space, budget enough money for attractive furnishings, flooring, counter surfaces, bathroom fixtures, big windows, landscaping and lighting. Consult an interior designer when making décor choices (chances are there is one in your congregation who may donate their services to the church). Your choices don’t have to be expensive. Simply thinking through colors, textures and accents can make a space meaningfully more desirable without adding much cost. After all, what is the point of having a lot of square footage if no one wants to be in it?

Capital Reserves Mean Good Stewardship and Credible Leadership

The lack of a “rainy day fund” is a pitfall for many churches. When you agree to a building you also commit to maintaining it. Sometimes churches only look at the initial cost to build and forget the cost to maintain. It’s wise to look at your total building and equipment costs over the next 30 years, and then divide that amount by 30. That is how much should be set aside each year in a capital reserve fund. This way there will be money when the roof needs to be redone or a HVAC system needs replacement. This demonstrates to the congregation that you are good stewards of their money and of the church building. It also prevents a crisis (and a credibility-zapping “emergency ask”) when a major part of the building fails.

Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

We have all been incredibly blessed with land and buildings to use for ministry. It’s important to remember that these are simply tools for advancing God’s Kingdom. A building campaign should not take the place of spiritual leadership. Existing buildings should not get in the way of relationships. Buildings are not the church, people are. We are most successful when we see buildings for what they are … tools, not idols. With the proper perspective and management they are tools that can serve the Kingdom for centuries to come.