Church building programs can be either a wonderful time of building unity or a time of planting an environment rich with conflict and division.
Question: I am an elder in my church. How can I respond to the growing division among leaders and members over the progress (I should say lack of progress) related to our building program? We didn’t break ground until we had 50% of pledges in the bank in order to get favorable loan terms. We have experienced increasing cost projections and actual progress has been slower than everyone expected. This has discouraged giving and also resulted in late pledge offerings. Some people have even decided not to fulfill their pledges because they are so discouraged. The elders and pastors are divided over the issues. What should I do?
Answer: Many older Christians who have been a part of church construction or remodeling projects know first-hand that such an undertaking by any group of people, even Christians, can be either the catalyst for destructive conflict or constructive spiritual growth. Those who have experienced the latter (growth in personal spiritual maturity), I believe, would offer you this advice: As a church leader don’t ask “what should I do,” but ask rather, “who should I be?”
Let me look at that refocused question from the perspective of the two potential environments that church building programs usually seem to generate: destructive conflict or constructive spiritual growth.
In my experience, those churches that develop an environment of conflict over building programs have leaders that:
- Fail to recognize that building programs mean change. Simply changing the pattern of how people move around a new or remodeled building and use different spaces impacts contact with friends and can undermine relationships.
- Fail to seriously listen to the input of every member and simply dictate what the final product will be. People expected to make financial sacrifice for brick and mortar above their usual tithes and offerings rightly expect their ideas to be respected.
- Fail to teach their people how the building program relates directly to their mission as a church beyond mere increased numerical capacity. Building programs should be sensitive to questions such as: “Will this change to our church’s facility create a warm and welcoming environment where people will choose to be?” As my pastor has pointed out (yes, my church is in a building program), “There is a reason people like to spend time at Starbucks and it doesn’t have to do with the taste of the coffee or the over-priced biscotti!” Wise leaders ask “How will our investment in brick and mortar translate into an investment in the relationships and lives of those who come to our church to worship the Lord of creation?”
- Fail to embrace a building program as a ministry aimed at the hearts and souls of people rather than just a task of constructing floors, roofs, and walls. Leaders have to be involved in the project on many different levels but primarily as people of character remembering that the real goal of a building program isn’t getting walls up but bringing relational walls down.
Constructive Spiritual Growth
Conversely, those churches that experience growth, not only in the size of their facilities’ structures, but their unity through maturity in Christ have leaders that:
- Prioritize an understanding of why and how changing buildings affects the way people will interact. Such leaders will always be asking: “Will this change bring people together in more meaningful ways so they can build meaningful relationships?”
- Recognize they will be stretched to the limits spiritually as they help individuals and special interest groups reign in their mere “desires” (James 4:1-3) and narrow “self-interests” (Phil. 2:1-4), and that such ministry is the real work of the program. That is why the question of “what should I do” should really be “who should I be?” Leaders are to consistently model the character of Christ and protect his interest in his people even in the heat of a building project.
- Willingly sacrifice their own pet ideas for the project in order to build unity. “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Wise leaders make that extraordinary effort by not using their position or loud voice to advocate for what they want. They remember that what they want is what the Lord wants and that has little to do with brick and mortar.
- Teach people well in advance of ground-breaking and throughout the project that a building program will create conflict… and unmet expectations… and disappointment… and hurt even between friends… and costs not anticipated… and… (the list goes on and on). Such teaching will emphasize that the inevitability of conflict means we all must be ready to respond in a manner worthy of Christ. Leaders will teach and practice biblical peacemaking. They will ensure that all relationships, both internally and externally, will be governed by the provisions and principles captured in the Christian Conciliation Clause (from Peacemaker Ministries).
- And they will keep people together with increased opportunity for prayer because they know the real struggle is “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).
May God give you wisdom and patience as you become that person of character that reflects the very attitude of Christ (Phil. 2:5).