How To Guides

Things to Remember When Building or Renovating Your Church

March 07, 2007

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Sacred Heart CathedralThere are at least two parallel tracks in any given church building or renovation project. One is the process that involves the congregation at large. The other is the architectural process. A thorough approach will include both.

There are different reasons for involving the congregation throughout the project. 1) It honors the baptismal dignity of the members. 2) It fosters a spirit of collegiality. 3) It provides opportunities to discern specific needs and expectations. 4) It provides time to review the stories and dreams of the congregation. 5) It can stimulate transformation within the community.

Although the process will differ from parish to parish, here are some things to be considered in the early phases of your project.

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy AngelsRationale for the project – The reason for any project is based on the mission of the Church. In order to serve people the Church establishes a presence in the community and develops programs to serve that community. Identify and confirm your unique mission in light of the overall pastoral plan for the (arch)diocese, before spending money on your property.

Early fiscal support for the project – Long before spending money on creating plans it is important to “test the waters.” Find out if there is community wide interest in the project and whether people will support it financially. A fundraising company can conduct this feasibility study for you.

Committee organization – Select people who will provide the best advice without a conflict of interest and with a concern for the common good. The committee does not design the church. It provides data to the professionals and reviews the plans prepared in response to that data. A small core committee works better with the design team than a large one. Other parishioners can serve on sub-committees, which are represented by chairpersons on the core committee.

Cathedral of St. John the EvangelistMaking decisions – After a period of prayer and discernment on any issue working for mitigated consensus is better than taking a vote. You will reach a conclusion when everyone on the committee agrees to live with what appears to be the emerging consensus. Wisdom tells us it is not a good idea to involve the whole congregation in making decisions about the details of the project.

Community catechesis and input – The project can be an opportunity for experiencing a transformation in the community. As the place of worship is being formed the parish can be re-formed. A period of catechesis can help parishioners arrive at a new understanding of many issues and establish a common ground regarding the scope of the project. Parishioner participation and input is essential throughout the project.

Scope of work – Before selecting professionals to work with you it is useful to prepare a scope of work. After heeding the input from the congregation the core committee prepares this document to spell out what you hope to accomplish in the project. It may also indicate how much you expect to accomplish and how much money you expect to spend.

Kateri TekakwithaDesign professionals – There are many professionals who are capable of designing worship environments. Finding the right ones to work with you will be rewarding. In addition to the architect there will be a need for liturgical, lighting and acoustical consultants. You may also require advice on deciding which major instrument is best for you. The need for various other professionals will depend on the scope of your project.

Artists and artisans – It makes good sense to find the best artists and artisans early in the project. In this way they can participate in conversations with other  professionals about the design of the settings for the art and ritual furnishings in the worship environment. Do not overlook the media arts.

Architectural program – This program is a written document prepared by the design team in cooperation with your core committee. It will identify your spatial requirements in terms of square feet and early cost estimates. This is a good time to imagine all the possibilities. The results of your fundraising campaign will prompt a review of this program later on.

Feasibility study and master plan – The design team will respond to the program and prepares different options for you to consider each with different cost estimates and timetables. After a series of review sessions, your preferred option is the one that will become the foundation for your master plan.

Corpus Christi Church in ToledoSchematic phase – The schematic drawings will develop the selected preferred option and provide a better sense of the cost of the project. As drawings become more detailed in the later stages of the process, more accurate cost estimates will be prepared. For now, this phase will give you a pretty good idea of what you are going to do and, basically, how much it will cost.

Fundraising campaign – Most often the actual fund raising campaign begins with the presentation of the schematic drawings and cost estimates to the parish. The campaign may take place over a few months. At the conclusion of the campaign you will have a better idea of what you can afford to do. It could be that you will have to modify the first phase of your master plan.

The rest of the building or renovating process includes the design development phase, project delivery options, construction document preparation and bidding, ritual preparations, ministry training and post-dedication care. These topics will be treated at another time. In the meantime these “things to remember” will give you a good start.

Throughout the process do not forget to read the biblical foundations for your work. They will provide prayerful moments to sustain the community on its journey.

Rev. Richard S. Vosko, PhD, Hon. AIA, has worked throughout the U.S. and Canada as a designer and consultant for worship environments since 1970.  He is the author of God's House Is Our House: Re-imagining the Environment for Worship (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2006) and Designing Worship Spaces: The Mystery of a Common Vision (Meeting House Essay #8) (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1996).


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