Many churches are dealing with aging buildings and a declining attendance/membership. When this happens, they find themselves in a situation with more building than they need.
This issue is generally caused by a couple of factors:
1. The church has declined in attendance and facility use, and as such, the previous facilities are too large for the remaining membership and programming.
2. The church is built too big to start with, mainly because of:
- Miscalculation of projected growth
- Improper planning
- A “build it and they will come” mindset.
Regardless of the cause, the effect is serious business. In light of that, I want to address the 5 consequences for “too much building” and provide some possible considerations:
#1 The Money Pit
1. Higher Utility Costs – An often-overlooked consequence of too much building is the cost of utilities to heat, cool and light a facility that is larger than needed. Many churches just keep paying the bills…because…well…”we have always done it that way”. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you don’t need all of the space, then shut some of it down and stop paying for unneeded utilities. Other options may include:
- Selling the facility and obtaining a “right sized” facility
- Leasing, renting or sharing a portion of the facility, even it only covers the cost of utilities, maintenance and repairs
- Merging your congregation with another. This trend has saved many congregations and provided facilities for others that may have only been renting (for more information read Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work by Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird).
2. Deferred Maintenance – This is very sad to me, but due to poor planning for the inevitable costs of natural physical deterioration (1-4% annually of the current replacement value), many congregations with aging facilities (more than 25 years old) find themselves in a precarious situation. Many, if not most of the churches we serve that are 25 years or older have millions and millions of dollars of deferred maintenance with no capital reserve fund or a plan as to how it can/must be addressed. In many instances this causes a catch 22…you have deferred maintenance…but the congregation is shrinking…so the income is depleted…now what? Steps that are needed here include:
- Understanding the situation – meaning you need a Facility Assessment to understand your deferred maintenance and capital reserve needs
- Implement a proactive plan to address the above
3. Deferred Maintenance SQUARED– The above issue of deferred maintenance is compounded when adequate attention is not given, thus more than doubling the impact of the natural rate of physical deterioration. This situation will force many, if not most, churches to face other considerations such as whether to close the doors altogether or just continue to let the congregation (and the deteriorating facility) die a slow death. I have worked with one church recently that was spending 70% of their operating budget to pay for the operations, maintenance and repairs of their 80+ year old building. In my opinion, they are no longer a ministry/church but rather a group of people donating to a property management organization. Sad!
#2 The Debt Trap
This is the consequence that burdens churches when they build too big, usually maxing out their borrowing capacity (which generally is not prudent). In these cases, the church is then strapped with mortgage payments that can strangle the funds needed for ministry and/or it can elongate the debt term, as a church may opt for a 20-30 year amortization in an attempt to reduce the monthly payment. While I must admit that I have encouraged churches to do this, it has only been when a church is in a significant upward swing related to attendance AND giving. Otherwise, this is a slippery slope.
#3 Guest Perception
Have you ever gone to a function, event, or public place expecting to see lots of people only to be under-whelmed by the lack of attendance? This is not just true in a church that is too big for the attendance, but any public setting. I remember going to a Charlotte Hornets game when the team was doing poorly (it was the only time I could afford tickets). The arena had no energy and it felt like I was at a funeral wake instead of a vibrant event. Guests are going to judge a portion of their experience by how the worship space “feels” to them. Does it feel crowded or empty? If empty, will they wonder if the church is dying? These perceptions will play a significant role in their decision to attend again.
#4 “Wrong Sizing”
In keeping with the above, not only are guest perceptions affected, but the overall feel of the room can have an emotional and functional impact on even your regular attenders experience. Have you ever been to a church service that was sparsely attended and people are spread out all over the room – one over here…2 over there…a couple more in the back right corner? Then comes the time for offering; the ushers have to go down half this row to get to the first person sitting in the 7th seat who, in turn, has to stand up and walk the plate to the next person 5 seats away. If your pastor is one that says, “Tell your neighbor XXX“, but you have no neighbor; in fact, no one has a neighbor…that is awkward.
#5 Worship Impact
Worship is a personal act but when in a worship “service” it’s intended to be a group activity. However, when you have too much building in your worship space, congregational worship suffers. If you can’t hear those singing around you, you’re less likely to sing out. If there is no energy in the room, you will be less likely to express yourself.
For #2 above…be smart…don’t over extend…have a plan to pay off debt sooner than later. I know, it sounds simple. But too many churches fail to get this right.
As for the other 3 items, there are several things that could be done:
- “Right size” the room – this could be done with permanent walls or partitions or pipe and drape. Getting the room to feel full will add to the guest and member experience and it will add energy. If you do it with fixed walls, you might actually save money in utility costs.
- Shrink Seating – If you are not inclined to “right size” the room, then consider shrinking the seating. This can be done by increasing the size of the platform as well as removing seats from the space.
- Rope it off – If neither of the above are acceptable solutions, then consider at least “roping-off” the back rows and closing off the balcony. This is a hint to strongly encourage people to move closer.
- Use another room – If your attendance has reached a point that none of the above would help, then consider moving your service to another part of your facility. Do you have a space that is large enough to house the current attendance that you could occupy? Again, this not only makes the space and services feel better, it can save on utilities and other operational expenses.
None of these consequences are pleasant to deal with, but deal with them you must. Don’t stick your head in the sand and pretend these issues do not exist. Facing reality is the first step to developing a solution and moving forward.
Tim Cool is the founder of Smart Church Solutions.