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Managing a Church Building Project: A Pastor's Perspective

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Michael Williams, executive pastor of The House Modesto (formerly known as Calvary Temple Worship Center) in Modesto, California, knows what it takes for vision to become reality. In 2010, under the leadership of senior pastor Glen Berteau, The House initiated plans to renovate 44,000 square feet of existing space for a new kids’ building. Three years later, the church enjoys a cutting edge, world-class children’s ministry facility and nursery addition, which have paved the way for a thriving, effective ministry. Entire families are coming to Christ!

In hopes of helping other church leaders, Pastor Williams sat down for an interview with the AGFinancial team and construction specialist Shawn Fink to share what he learned about managing a building project.

AGFS: Tell us about The House Modesto and how your renovation project began.

Williams: Several years back we had a K-12 school. Unfortunately, we had to shut down the school in 2008 because it was costing too much to run, and the economy had begun its downturn. For several years after that, we ran the children’s ministry from that empty space, but it wasn’t conducive for children. We had a vision of a new building with arcade games, a café where mom could watch the kids play, a five-story play area, and, of course, the sanctuary where we would minister. The existing infrastructure is what ended up becoming our children’s building now. Our kid’s pastor had the idea to call it Kidspace. We knew we were going to have kids dragging their moms and dads into church. It’s been amazing to hear the stories of kids we’re now ministering to.

AGFS: What did you learn about the logistics of managing a building project?

Williams: When Shawn told me how much time this would take—50% of my time—all I could do was laugh. He advised me to consider getting someone who could manage the project. I needed someone who could take the project and run with it, but I knew no one was going to do that like me because I was the one with the vision for it. Looking back, I know it was part of God’s will for me to do it, but now I would say without question that if you are in an executive role and you’re going to take on a building project, I would do whatever I could to hire someone to devote their every waking moment to the project. It is a full-time job from about a month before the project begins until a couple months after the project closes.

AGFS: How did you coordinate the players—architect, builder, lender?

Williams: We started with an architect. The challenge was that there were things he just couldn’t see, sitting in an office several states away. When you actually get into the project, the plans don’t always work. Looking back, I would have definitely started with a design-build firm rather than an architect. It would have made a lot more sense. The architect isn’t in the project every day, whereas the builder has the advantage of seeing how things need to be changed. I’d rather have the builder work with the architect and tell him, 'This is why it won’t work.' I’d want the builder running the architect, not the other way around. Later, when we added the nursery and preschool, we did it as a design-build, and it was much easier.

As far as the lender goes, you can have great relationships with local banks and we do, but when it comes to large projects, banks are leery, as you can imagine, with the downturn in the economy. So you have to convince someone who’s unconvinced. That’s why, for us, to start out with AGFinancial was just a given. You guys have always understood who we are. You get what we do.

AGFS: What would you say to churches that want to work with specialized church contracting companies only? Was that important for you?

Williams: I’d say it doesn’t even matter. To me, it’s about the vision. If you don’t have a clear, defined vision of what you want to do and you want someone else to come up with that vision, you’ll end up with someone else’s vision. You have to know, 'Why am I doing this?' That revelation is key.

AGFS: How would you suggest a church choose the right contracting company?

Williams: Check their references thoroughly and go look at the work they’ve actually done. You have to vet them, do your due diligence, and come to a sense with your board and staff that this is the right company. But even after you’ve done all that, you may have challenges.

AGFS: How did you deal with unexpected change orders and delays during construction?

Williams: Our builder stepped up to the plate when we had some difficult situations, and I appreciate that. Anybody that’s going to do something like this will have changes that occur. I thank God that Shawn advised us to set aside 10% for changes, as a contingency fund, because it’s normal for things to come up. If we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have been able to complete the project with the vision we had in mind. It would have been heartbreaking not to finish.

AGFS: Do you have any tips for handling conflicts during the construction process?

Williams: To me, the project manager’s role is key in dealing with the challenges. In our case, I was the project manager. But if you hire someone, they have to be a bulldog—able to lay down the law in no uncertain terms. They also have to be able to diffuse uncomfortable situations. After all, the ministry of reconciliation is seeing the divide and then becoming the bridge, which takes the power of the Holy Spirit. So what kind of person can deal with conflict constantly and come out ahead? They have to have wisdom and not jump into the fight. Subcontractors get upset, and challenges happen. The interpersonal challenges inside that work environment can get heated. The neat thing is that I was able to lead a lot of our subcontractors to the Lord, which was awesome. However, if I hadn’t held the line in many areas, we would have ended up with subpar work. To me, this project was like building a fine home, and they wanted to build it more like a commercial building. It was constant pushing. In the end though, they had a great respect for me and I for them. We worked through it.

AGFS: Let’s talk about life after the project. Is there anything you wish you had planned differently?

Williams: If I had known better, I would have considered the energy increase. We’ve had about a 30-40% increase in our energy consumption. Looking back, I would have considered bringing in solar energy. Around here, it’s very common. We just didn’t know. You might find five or six churches that have done something like this and ask, ‘How did your facility maintenance costs change? How did energy costs change?’ If we had been more careful, we would have literally doubled our facilities cost estimates.

AGFS: What additional advice would you give other pastors and churches facing a building project?

Williams: I imagine it’s not too unusual that someone like myself ends up managing the project. Then you have a guy like Shawn saying it’s going to take 50% of your time, and you’re saying, ‘How am I going to do this, God?’ I feel like Shawn’s relationship as a construction specialist to me was not just a good idea—it became imperative. We had a major concrete challenge where he was tremendously helpful. He really had understanding because of his experience commercially. Someone like him needs to be in the original meetings with the architect or contractor. Why? Unless you’re an experienced commercial contractor, there are things you’re not going to hear that they will hear, things you will not understand that they will understand. Those things could make the difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the end, I’m very thankful that I had a company to work with like AGFinancial. We knew what we wanted, and you guys helped us do that. You shared the vision with us. If I was going to choose a company now, looking back, there’s no one else I would have worked with. To see the kids in there now crying and weeping at the altar, giving their hearts to the Lord, to see them literally dragging their parents to church, and to see their parents getting saved and hear the testimonies from them—that’s what it’s all about.

Has your church gone through a building project? What lessons did you learn? We’d love to hear your story in the comments section below.

If you would like to speak with a construction specialist, call 888.599.6015 or email Shawn Fink at sfink@agfinancial.org.

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