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To Build or Not to Build; Alternatives to an Edifice

Sometimes a new building is just what a congregation needs. Sometimes, if you build it, people will come and fill it. There is nothing worse than having to turn away people because you don't have room for them.

And sometimes there are alternatives to a new building. Before you embark on an exhaustive fundraising and construction effort, make sure you really need it.

"Exploring ways to minimize structural needs can be a way of practicing stewardship of financial resources," says Wayne Clark, the Unitarian Universalist Association's director of congregational fundraising services. "We are practicing good stewardship when we worship in a space that balances the mission and the available financial resources."

Start by analyzing existing facilities, Clark says. Choose a task force of five to seven people to help determine the best space alternatives, whether using the current facilities to better advantage, doing a relatively small renovation project, a significant building addition, or relocating to a new spiritual home. Ask them to include information about the need to address any deferred maintenance projects.

The Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship at Appleton, WI, is one of the fastest-growing Unitarian Universalist congregations, going from around one hundred members in 1990 to more than 450 today. Understandably, it has faced times when it had to stretch its available building space. In 1998 it built a building that included a fellowship hall, offices, kitchen, and classrooms.

The fellowship hall was quickly full on Sunday mornings. Fox Valley already had a second Sunday morning service and a second children's religious education hour, and so it added a third service, this one on Saturday, and a third religious education hour.

Fox Valley is working on plans for a 500-seat sanctuary and an additional program wing. The anticipated move-in date is January 2009. But until then space will be tight. "We're having to be creative about office space too," says Rev. Roger Bertschausen. "Several people are sharing offices, and a secretary has been moved into a photocopy room. It's not ideal, but it's what we have to do."

Back in the fellowship hall, a way was found to rearrange the chairs, boosting the number from 150 to 200, and that helped significantly. "It amazed me," says Bertschausen. "The new arrangement fit the room better, and no one would guess we have fifty more chairs."

In addition to stretching the available space, the third Saturday service has turned into a bonus in other ways, says Bertschausen. "The Saturday alternative has turned into very good family time, and we have a large religious education enrollment then."

Clark adds that it can take courage to ask questions that might lead to better use of space rather than fulfill the dream of "building a sparkling addition or a new facility. If the congregation has its heart set on a major building project, it is hard to hear that there may already be enough space and that the problem is just the use of the space."

Alternatives to a major building project can be:

  • Multiple worship services.
  • Move groups to appropriate-sized rooms or divide large groups into smaller ones.
  • Rearrange or remove furniture.
  • Build a storage facility to free up existing space.
  • Use off-campus space for meetings.
  • Provide a "park and ride" center with shuttle vans.

The book, When Not to Build: An Architect's Unconventional Wisdom for the Growing Church, by Ray Bowman and Eddy Hall (Baker Books, 2005), offers, with a Christian perspective, ideas on how to make current structures more user-friendly and includes a quiz about the motivation to build.

Adds Clark, "Church facilities are only tools to help fulfill the congregational mission. Spending less on facilities means there is more to spend on programs and ministries."

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.

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

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