How To Guides

An Opportunity to Build Up the Body of Christ: Part 1 - Considerations for Building Committees

May 27, 2008


This is Part 1 of a 3-part article.  Read Part 2 and Part 3.

Parishioners discussingWhen the building committee of a Catholic parish sets out to build or renovate sacred space, they face a daunting task. At the same time, however, they face what can be a once in a lifetime opportunity to provide a potentially life changing experience for parishioners. Certainly, in terms of time, attention, and money, there is no greater undertaking in the life of a parish. The worship space that is built or renovated will form and shape the assembly and their life of prayer for many years to come. The building process includes prayer, history, tradition, liturgy, community, stewardship, teamwork and humility. It is a spiritual journey with the Holy Spirit to create sacred space in concert with THE Creator. Marking the places where we encounter the Divine is a deeply rooted human tradition.

Building and renovating sacred space is very expensive. A new church in particular usually involves large volume space, long span structural systems, high walls, custom openings, decorative elements, and complicated systems. The importance of honest, enduring materials, and the demand for appropriate lighting, special furnishings, and sacred art all add to the high cost. A church building project by its very nature is almost completely custom and out of the ordinary for most general contractors. This only adds more expense. The corollary to the high cost of construction is that mistakes can be very costly and hard to undo.

Major building projects are usually only possible with the generous support of the parishioners. Ownership, understanding, and trust lead to the necessary support. If the results of the fund raising effort are to be optimized, then the entire process should be designed to develop this ownership, understanding, and trust. Anything that stands in the way will be counterproductive. Because it is natural for obstacles to arise during any long-term project, it is only more important that the planned process be carefully considered and implemented by the committee with the help of the liturgical design consultant, architect, and other members of the professional support team.

The entire process of preparing for the capital campaign must be coordinated and lead to a crescendo at the public kick-off of the campaign. The movement from programming to design to fund raising should be seamless. Each step needs to support the next, and the project will only be realized if there is a realistic financial plan and successful capital campaign and realistic financial plan.

Everyone must be pulling in the same direction. There are many important players in the church building or renovation process: the bishop, the diocesan building and liturgical commissions, the pastor, the parish staff, the parishioners, the building committee, the parish pastoral and finance councils, the liturgical design consultant, the architect, the general contractor, artists and crafters, the acoustician, the professional fund raising consultant. Each makes a significant contribution to the success of the project. The expertise and needs of each must be considered in planning and implementing the building process. Strong leadership by the committee is critical.

Beginning with the pastor, and including the committee, the liturgical design consultant, the architect, other design consultants and finally the professional fund raising consultant - everyone must be on board with the plan and the schedule so there are no diversions or missteps, especially in the eyes of the parishioners. If everyone but the pastor is on-board with enthusiastic support for the process, the project will be a frustrating uphill battle that will fall short of expectations. If everyone but the fund-raising consultant is on-board with the vision of how the whole process fits together, the parishioners will experience the campaign as disjointed and confusing. This is most especially important when the time frame for the project is tight.

The typical fall or spring window for a capital campaign is usually a fixed component of the schedule. If the kick-off of the campaign is just months away, a delay of even a few weeks can create a significant obstacle to successful results. If a serious delay is encountered, the campaign can be moved to the following season if necessary. However, this should be avoided because it can undermine the efforts to build ownership, trust, and support.

A major building or renovation project is a marvelous, and for many, a once in a lifetime opportunity for adult faith formation, community building, and transformation. Many people are hungry for information and answers to their questions about faith and life in the church. Many are hungry for an experience of community and fellowship with others of faith. Certainly, the Lord is always calling each of us to grow and learn and live our Catholic Christian life more deeply. Because of the focus brought by the building project, parishioners are often very willing and interested in learning about the liturgy, history, tradition, and guidance of the Church. Through this process, already existing relationships can be strengthened and new relationships can be formed.

Every building committee must make informed decisions to avoid serious and costly mistakes. Shortsighted, emotional, personal agenda, personal opinion, or fear based decision making will limit the potential of the building, and squander hard to come by funds. If a new worship space or major renovation is to fully support the celebration of the liturgy of the Church, and to move the community forward in their experience of the liturgy, then the decisions must not be limited by past experiences or fears of a few people. The committee can benefit greatly by being surrounded by an informed, affirming, and supportive group of dedicated parishioners. The committee can also benefit from an open and trusting relationship with the liturgical design consultant and architect.

The Roman Catholic Church has handed down guidelines, regulations, and experience related to building sacred space. The Church also gives us the liturgy and the sacraments in all their power to transform when celebrated well, with style and grace, and with the rich use of our primary symbols. The building must support this liturgy. The sacred liturgy of the Church is a given, and it is the responsibility of those making building decisions not to limit the celebration of the liturgy or its full power to transform lives.

Ken Griesemer is a liturgical design consultant based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S.A.  He has been working as a liturgical architect and design consultant across the United States since 1985.  His experience includes many projects of various scope in over 45 Catholic dioceses.

Photos by Ken Griesemer


A Pilgrimage of Faith: The Building Process and the Liturgical Design Consultant (Case Study: St. Clare of Assisi, O'Fallon, Illinois; Part 1 and Part 2)

An Opportunity to Build Up the Body of Christ - Part Two: The Liturgical Design Consultant's Role in Assisting Building Committees

An Opportunity to Build Up the Body of Christ - Part Three: The Liturgical Design Consultant's Role in Assisting Building Committees - continued

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