How One Minister Survived a Building Program

By Ken Swatman

Just the thought of building and relocating to a new facility can strike fear into the heart of the most experienced and energetic of pastors, and it was no different for me. As the new senior pastor of a struggling 80-year-old congregation, I was faced with the challenge of relocate or perish.

Our building was too small for even our 115-member congregation. There were too many stairs, not enough bathrooms, and a bottom floor that looked more like a dungeon than a children’s ministry center. Add to that the curb appeal of a 1950s institution and you have a major barrier to any growth or change.

I knew if our congregation was going to grow and be effective in ministry we needed a new attitude, a new focus, and a new facility. We had purchased prime property in a growing subdivision of Oregon City. For 16 years the people waited, the leadership dreamed, and the influence and attendance of the church faded.

As a 31-year-old, first-time senior pastor, I was faced with the daunting task of leading the church through a major restructure and relocation. Needless to say, I felt overwhelmed and, frankly, terrified.

I had heard horror stories of building relocation programs splitting congregations, exasperating elders, and causing the most faithful pastors to leave the ministry—for good. I didn’t want to be another statistic. So I sought wisdom anywhere I could find it, mustered all of the faith in God’s calling on my ministry at OCCC, and jumped in with both feet.

It has been five years since that faithful/fateful decision. We have been in our new facility for eight months, and it is already too small for our growing congregation. By adhering to the following basic but essential principles, I survived, and can even say I valued and enjoyed the experience.

Principle One: Reaffirm your commitment to ministry and to the congregation regardless of location.

I quickly made three firm commitments:

1. I recommitted myself to God’s call on my life and ministry at OCCC. It is not my job to build a church or, for that matter, a church building. It is my job to shepherd the flock.

During the relocation process I poured myself into pastoral care, strong biblical preaching, and prayer. I quickly found that people will follow you just about anywhere if they are loved, fed, and understand and believe in where they are being led. Many hours were spent listening to, praying for, and visiting members of the congregation. Sermons focused on our need to rely solely on Jesus as our pastor, Redeemer, and Lord.

2. The vision of the church was refocused, reaffirmed, and recommunicated on a weekly basis. OCCC’s vision is simple: “Real Life, Real Faith, Real Results” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Core values of authenticity, grace, faith, trust, and acceptance were taught, practiced, and defended in every aspect of church life. This was incredibly helpful in keeping the congregation’s focus on being the body of Christ, not just building the church. Now that we are in our new facility, these values are the understood and expected norm.

3. I made the tough commitment to minister to myself and my family. To survive and thrive through the relocation process, I needed my family and they needed me.

Days off were not optional, but mandatory. Fishing trips were not cancelled. Whenever possible, meetings were scheduled at family-friendly times. I scheduled rest and restoration days for personal growth and healing. I attended school events and sporting events and dated my wife and played with my boys.

This by far was the hardest commitment to keep, but it was essential to surviving the pressures and stresses of major transition and relocation.

Principle Two: Know when to lead and when to get out of the way.

God did not call me to OCCC because of my skills as a contractor, financier, or interior designer. God called me to pastor/shepherd his flock. Too many ministers try to control too much of the building and relocation process, and it often comes back to bite them.

From the start, I tried to stay out of the building process as much as possible. I didn’t apply for permits, design the landscape, or determine what kind of roofing material would be most appropriate. We developed a design team, job boss, financial director, and contractor to oversee the project and handle the day-to-day relocation process. We even set up a team to communicate deadlines and financial needs and give progress reports to the congregation.

I wasn’t completely disconnected from the process. I gave advice and direction in my area of expertise—creating an environment that will allow us to most effectively lead people into the presence of Jesus. But my primary role in the process was to lead the congregation to a place of greater growth and faith (not control the financial process or pick the carpet color).

My advice is to find people who are capable, understand the vision of the project, and are willing to work with a team. Give those teams guidance and direction and then turn them loose. You will save your sanity, empower others to take ownership in the project, and create a team atmosphere that will carry on well beyond the relocation.

Principle Three: Trust in God’s timing.

It might sound like a cliché, but to survive the relocation/building process, you must keep your people (and yourself) focused on God’s timing. Delays, setbacks, and complications will arise. Don’t always assume these challenges are Satan attacking your project or interfering with God’s will. Sometimes delays and setbacks are God’s way of blessing, building, and leading us.

There were many times during our building project when we thought we would never move forward. Materials didn’t get delivered, contractors didn’t show up, and work came to a halt. Discouragement was rampant, and frustration levels were high. Eventually the process would begin to move forward, and we would find that God had used the delay to bless us.

During one delay, for example, asphalt prices went down, which saved us thousands of dollars. In every setback we learned to see how God was working for the good of the church and the project. We moved into our facility a year late, but right on time. I couldn’t imagine trying to open our doors even six months sooner. We just weren’t ready, and God knew it.

The senior pastor must be the voice of patience and reason. Constantly look for benchmarks to celebrate, no matter how small. Encourage your people to pray for God’s leading and timing of the project. When setbacks arise, look for what good may come from the delay and anticipate that every setback will turn into God’s blessing.

Not only did I survive the building process, I am looking forward to many great years of enjoyable ministry at OCCC. A new facility is a great tool, and building it doesn’t have to destroy you or your ministry. Stay focused on ministry, stay out of the way of those who know what they are doing, stay positive, and stay healthy. And then you just might find that the building/relocation process is rewarding and fun, and not just an exercise in survival.

Ken Swatman is senior pastor with Oregon City (Oregon) Christian Church.

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