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Keeping Crises at Bay During Your Renovations

When congregations set out to renovate their buildings, they're thinking primarily about the work to be done, how to pay for it, and how much better the building will be. They're generally not thinking about catastrophes that can happen while the work is taking place.

But catastrophes can, and do, happen during, and because of, work projects, and congregations need to be prepared for them. For instance, when workers were replacing the roof this spring on the historic First Unitarian Church (Second Parish) in Worcester, MA (428 members), a worker's torch apparently ignited the building, causing major damage. The same thing happened five years earlier to the First Unitarian Church in San Jose, CA (262).

Representatives of both churches have advice for other congregations considering renovations. Foremost is to make sure you and your contractor have adequate insurance. Remember that if your building is old and is severely damaged by fire or other disaster, the local governing body may make you bring it up to code as part of the repairs. That could be expensive unless you have a special "code compliance" policy, advises Rev. Lindi Ramsden at San Jose. "Bringing an old building up to code is very expensive," she notes. "Insurance won't pay for those improvements unless you have the code policy, and the city will probably require that the improvements be made."

Other considerations:

  • If possible, hire a general contractor you've used before. If there are problems, that past association will help. At Worcester the general contractor had hired the roofing company. "That turned out to be enormously helpful," says Rev. Thomas Schade, associate minister. "As soon as the fire occurred we were calling on the general to help us."
  • Use the Golden Rule with your insurance company, Schade says. "We're working very hard to make sure we don't get into an adversarial relationship with them. We're being absolutely straightforward. We're on the same side of the table."
  • Immediately after a disaster, pick a small group of knowledgeable people and authorize them to make decisions. At San Jose a committee of three or four, including the minister, an interior designer, and Alec MacLean, a safety engineer, made many of the key decisions.
  • Be aware that tools like paint-removing heat guns and soldering torches may be necessary, but can cause delayed combustion. Quiz contractors on their safety practices. At San Jose the fire began four hours after work stopped for the day; at Worcester one hour.
  • Because local governments and many businesses are reluctant to donate directly to churches, the San Jose church created a nonprofit entity, the Third Street Community Center, to receive community donations—and there were many—that could be used to rebuild. The center took over the community service projects that the church had been doing.
  • During a fire, water that's poured onto the blaze may cause more damage than the fire itself. Water can fill basements and damage records and equipment. Decide now what files and documents are vital and put them in metal cabinets or covered plastic tubs. Keep valuables off the floor.
  • Have a disaster plan. Decide in advance where the church office will relocate if your building is unusable. "Members need a place to find church leaders, get information, and volunteer to help," says MacLean. He notes that the San Jose church office moved seven times after the fire, adding, "We felt like a lost tribe."

About the Author

  • 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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