Things to Consider

Memory and Loss: A Pre-Design Lesson for a Successful Project

July 05, 2007


Chapel on a hillEvery day on the way to grade school I had to pass by the old church – my old church.  And every day there was the same sad, empty feeling.  The building seemed hollow, like a thin-shelled sugar Easter egg, the kind that has little scenes when you peer inside.  Only I knew there was nothing inside.  My parish had sold our old church to another congregation who converted it into a gym.  We had built a new church that was grander in every way.  Yet, I can still vividly recall the sad, hollow feeling I  had whenever I passed by the old red brick building that once was our church – the place where my family worshiped each Sunday, the place of many family celebrations and sacred events.

This memory comes to me whenever I begin my work with a new congregation as a liturgical design consultant.  This experience has informed my understanding in several ways.  From my academic studies I knew of the important symbolic content embedded in our places of worship.  Now I understood in a personal way the impact of the loss of that symbol, a memory I had retained for many decades.  The personal attachment each worshiper has to that place where they come to praise and worship God is profound.  Such deeply held attachments need to be acknowledged and honored if we are successfully to initiate any of the changes that occur in a church renovation or in building a new church. Changing external elements that trigger internal emotions needs to be approached very carefully.

Attending to the need of a congregation to mourn the loss of the old as they welcome and celebrate the new is for me an essential part of the process of building or renovating a place of worship.  Though it is often overlooked, a process for the congregation that considers all aspects of loss provides the foundation for a successful building project.  This process begins with listening, continues with education, and is expressed in ritual.

Listening, at its core, is a sign of paying respect.  Respectfully attending to all the losses that will occur in any church building project will be essential for ensuring the success and congregational "ownership" of the project.  People need to know they are being heard and their ideas paid attention to – even if the ideas are not used for the project.  Each parish will have its own unique listening opportunities.  Many find town hall type of formats useful. A listening room (or corner) where ideas and images can be collected is another approach.  Here, building committee members may staff  “office hours" – after Masses or during children's catechetical times.  Internet spaces are taking the place of the old Q&A box at the back of church, but both provide opportunities to hear from different age groups. Using as many of these and other ideas for gathering the collective voices of the congregation can help ease their sense of loss, reinforce their ability to be involved, and help counteract any rumor mills.  We all need to process the changes that come with building or renovating a place of worship.

Whenever you undertake a project to build or renovate a worship space, you are entering into one of the few "teachable moments" in the life of a congregation.  You can be sure that as soon as, if not before, the designs are revealed, everyone’s attention will be focused on the worship space – both the old and the proposed new space.  While vocal attention might focus on finances or much beloved objects, this is the time to ask some very basic questions:  In what ways do (or don’t) the old and/or the new spaces support the liturgy and prayer services?  How do (or don’t) they reflect the theology and spirituality of this congregation?  How is the community being formed (or limited) by the building in which they worship?  An analysis and assessment of the worship space from a liturgical and symbolic point of view is key to answering these questions.  Answering them is as important as answering questions about the number of square feet needed for particular objects or activities.  If the amount of space is accurate but the quality of the space is low, worship will be negatively affected.  An analysis and assessment of your liturgical space will point to areas where your congregation could benefit from more extended educational efforts.

Building and renovating is an opportunity for tremendous growth and renewal in any community.  Unfortunately, when our focus is solely architectural or financial, this opportunity is often overlooked, resulting in frustration and even division and anger within the congregation.  Establishing an educational process and involving the congregation prior to the design process offers great potential for renewal, not only of the physical worship space, but of the faith life of the congregation as a whole.  One obvious way to connect these two is to write a prayer for the project that is used at all services and meetings during the time of the project.  Another is to highlight rituals along the way.  Commissioning of building committee members, blessings of workers, etc. make visible to the community the spiritual guidance and direction accompanying the physical work.

Pre-design is an important part of building or renovating a place of worship.  It provides time to remember and to honor those memories in preparation for and in anticipation of something better.  It is the time to set up a framework – of listening, education, and rituals - that will carry everyone through the design and construction process for a renewal of the community's worship space and the faith that it expresses and sustains.

Carol Frenning is a liturgical design consultant in Minneapolis, MN.

Image Information:
Title: Stock't Chapel
Location: Tielt, Belgium
Photographer: Johan van Parys


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