Building Dedications Give a Sense of Accomplishment, Closure

By Donald E. Skinner

After many years of making do with rented space or with buildings that were too small or unsuitable in other ways, your congregation has finally built or bought the building of its dreams. Or close enough. At this point everyone is worn out from years of raising money, remodeling, and satisfying all the governmental regulations so you can actually occupy the building.

But there’s one more thing you need to do before you’re done: hold a dedication ceremony.

A dedication ceremony provides a finish line for the congregation to cross, a time to say “well done” and “we’re done.” And it’s an opportunity to acknowledge all the hard work and to visualize how the new facility will be used to fulfill the congregation’s mission.

The Boise, Idaho, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship held a dedication in 1998 after it bought land and built a new church home. Fifteen years later the ceremony still resonates, said the Rev. Elizabeth Greene. “We were really proud of what we had done. We were starting a new phase of our life, and we needed this ceremony. We chose a fabulous preacher who really got what we were about. The whole service took us deeper and lifted us up and helped us understand what we were doing in the world. It reinforced that we’re a place to nurture souls, raise up children, and help heal the world by being open to everyone.”

The UU Church of Davis, Calif., recently dedicated a new social hall, kitchen, and other facilities. Events included a Saturday afternoon worship service followed by a reception in the new space. One of the most meaningful parts of the service, said the Rev. Beth Banks, was when the architect, who had gone back into the congregation’s history, read aloud the original dreams of the founders. In addition, the lead contractor spoke about how many jobs the project had created in the midst of the economic slump. “It was good for us to hear that we made a difference in the community with our project,” said Banks.

There was a bit of frivolity too. Someone wrote a humorous ode to the construction supervisor. The members of the Building Task Force “hung up” their yellow hard hats as part of the service, signaling an end to the hard work.

“The dedication gave us closure,” Banks said. “It let us recognize people who worked on it, including those behind the scenes. And it gave us a sense of joy and community and empowerment. We could say ‘We did this.’”

She added that the congregation had little celebration events throughout the construction period to mark the various phases of work. “You can’t celebrate successes too much. The more we celebrated the more successful we became.” The congregation also put together a box of mementos and tucked them into the attic. The box is to be opened in ten years.

Part of the challenge of organizing a dedication ceremony is that it comes at a time when people have just done a huge amount of work on the building itself. One minister said he had difficulty getting his congregation in the mood to hold a dedication event following extensive remodeling of its building. “Our building project had taken years to complete, and people were just relieved it was done. They were not very interested in having a big party, including spending money on one.”

He said the congregation did have a dedication though. “It wasn’t big and festive and joyful, but we did it and I’m glad we did. It was the right thing to do, and it felt different being in the building afterward. It marked a finish line for us and that was important.”

He said if he had it to do over he would have waited a few months when energy levels might have been higher and he would have worked to recruit new leaders to organize it. “Part of the problem was that the same people who worked so hard on the building were also the ones we called on to organize the dedication events. We should have found others to do that.”

Former Unitarian Universalist Association President the Rev. John Buehrens has participated in more than one hundred building dedication services. In an InterConnections article in 2000 he shared what he’d learned about these ceremonies.

The most common flaw that he observes? "Too much self-congratulation, not enough spirituality and reflection on what the building is for."

He recommends holding a dinner the night before to properly thank people for their roles in the process. That leaves the service itself for spirituality and reflection.

Buehrens also thinks that 75 minutes should be the maximum time for a dedication service. He says he once participated in a service that began at 10:30 a.m. “It was 12:15 p.m. before we arrived at sermon time. I was tempted to stand up and say, ‘Let’s eat!’” he said. “But then I decided that some spiritual food was needed, so I canned the sermon I had written and told a powerful story that seemed relevant—in ten minutes.”

He added, “Think of the first half of the service as the time of remembrance and gratitude. The second half, including the sermon and the spoken act of dedication, should serve as reminders of the mission and vision of Unitarian Universalism.”
Many different elements can be incorporated into a dedication weekend––or a dedication week. They can include:

  • A slideshow of the building project, including some congregational history for perspective. A show can also be set up to run continuously during a dinner or open house.
  • A trip to the archives. Finding the original written aspirations of the founders, and including them in a dedication ceremony, can be powerful. Having a founder speak of those original desires is equally meaningful.
  • Inviting representatives of nearby UU congregations, as well as district representatives
  • Recognizing past presidents and founding members
  • Dedicating a plaque or piece of artwork
  • Extending an invitation to local civic and religious leaders and leaders of community partners
  • Taking up a special collection to benefit a community cause or to help another UU congregation with a building project
  • Including a role for children and youth
  • Doing a walking dedication that includes every room in the building
  • Burying a time capsule
  • Creating a cake in the shape of the building
  • Creating a special keepsake
  • Commissioning a special piece of music or a drama, or, with other congregations, creating a combined choir
  • Including a day of service––identifying and working on projects in the community in honor of the new building and this new phase in the congregation’s life

Reserve money for a dedication from the beginning. Even if food is donated, a dedication can easily cost $500. If you're paying for travel and a speaker’s honorarium plus food, music, printing, and floral arrangements, plan on $2,000 to $5,000. Cath Bleyer, chair of the Building Task Force at Davis said that congregation’s dedication cost around $1,500, including food and drink catering and chair and table rental. With 300 in attendance that came to $5 per person.

When the UU Church at Columbia, Mo., had a dedication a number of years ago the service included a symbolic handing over of keys to the building—starting with the building contractor who passed them to the architect who gave them to the chair of the building expansion committee who presented them to the president of the board. Each spoke a few words.

Sue Polgar, at Mt. Diablo UU Church in Walnut Creek, Calif., recommends that congregations have both a private and a public dedication. When Mt. Diablo dedicated its sanctuary, the private portions of the ceremony occurred over several days and included an all-church dinner and presentation of an original musical play. The public dedication took place a few weeks later when the congregation held its first regular service in its new sanctuary. "Gone was the sense of self-congratulation," says Polgar. "Present was the sense of the sacred."

A few years later Mt. Diablo dedicated a new fellowship hall. “We had balloons and games and we surrounded the building with dream clouds on stakes,” said Polgar. “Each had a phrase noting an activity that would take place in the building: fellowship dinners, caring for the homeless, coffee house concerts, conferences. The spirit of that dedication was different than the one for the sanctuary. It was appropriate to the use of the building.”

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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