How To Guides

What Pastors Need to Know before Building or Renovating a Church

March 07, 2007


Candles by Paul CovinoAs a young priest one of my clearest convictions about my future ministry was that I would NEVER let myself get involved in managing any sort of construction project that would “distract” from my commitment to pastoral ministry. That firm conviction, of course, aligned with divine irony to guarantee that several major construction projects would be part of my future. During a 20-year stint as Pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington DC, I was responsible for the renovation/restoration of a 150 year old historic church, the construction of an 800-seat new church, and two additions to the parish’s complex of multi-purpose buildings.

Experience is the best teacher, to be sure, and the points I make below try to capture some of what I learned from my on-the-job training in the world of church renovation and building.

Acknowledge your limitations; claim your strengths. Unless you come to priestly ministry as a second career after years in the field of construction, approach your task with an appropriate humility about your own limitations. The oils of ordination do not confer any special wisdom regarding how to undertake projects of such complexity, and you will be well advised to admit up front your need for the expertise of others. At the same time, you bring to the table significant, essential strengths that are also required for the successful completion of the project. You know about leadership, how to build teams of volunteers and professionals, how to recognize the pastoral opportunities for spiritual formation in the many phases of a project’s life, and so forth. Do not apologize or hold back from being the leader you are, even though you will be interacting with tough professionals who know how to hold their own in the turf skirmishes that are an inevitable feature of such projects.

Trust your mother, but cut the cards. By this I mean you need to rely on the expertise of the many professionals with whom you will collaborate in everything from fund-raising to design, through construction. But you cannot afford simply to place “blind faith” in everyone and assume all will be well. Among even the most knowledgeable professionals, there is ample room for mistakes in judgment, lack of attention or motivation, corner-cutting on your project, and even an occasional “bad apple” that will try to take advantage or outright defraud. Check references, maintain a certain skepticism and reserve in evaluating key advice, and seek second opinions or review whenever you are not 100% certain you are getting the best advice or a fair deal. You are responsible for exercising good stewardship of the parish’s resources, and that requires a prudent approach when you are making decisions with significant consequences.

Build the best team possible, and collaborate with them openly throughout the process. Depending on the sort of people who make up your parish population, you may be lucky enough to get a pool of volunteers with professional expertise. But you will also need to secure the services of other professionals as part of your team. Put together the best you can from the start, because you will need to rely on them in ways you can’t imagine or foresee at the outset. You will pay dearly for any weak links on the team. Like any undertaking, trust will be the foundation for the many relationships that must come together to make the project a smooth one. See to it that you earn the trust of your team by dealing with everyone in every situation as openly and honestly as you can. If you are making back-room decisions or circumventing the agreed-up process to get your own way on things, your team will quickly lose respect and confidence in your leadership.

Don’t try to do it “on the cheap.” You--or perhaps the generations that follow you--will sorely regret it in the long run. The temptation will be enormous at some points to cut corners with inferior materials, substandard design, etc. Church buildings--and the countless generations who will use them for prayer and worship--do not deserve to carry the burden of a project that opted for inferior workmanship, poor materials or limited vision. Pay for the best talent and set standards that are reasonable, and your regrets will be considerably less.

Recognize and capitalize on the opportunities the project holds for enriching your community through spiritual growth (e.g., in stewardship), catechesis (e.g., in a renewed ecclesiology), and liturgical formation. If you approach the project merely as a burden and distraction, you will miss the incredibly rich opportunities it can afford to strengthen the faith of your community. With your pastoral leadership, you can help them to own more deeply their spiritual home and the part they play in the parish’s life of prayer and worship.

Rev. Robert D. Duggan is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington.  He is the author of:  Creating A Catechetical Plan: A How-to-Do-It Resource (Washington, DC: NCEA, 2006); Confirmation (Filled with the Holy Spirit, they proclaimed the Lord Jesus) (San Jose, CA: RCL Publications, 2006), Teaching Kids the Basics of Liturgy: Making the Rituals More Meaningful (Thomas More Press, 2000); Parish Liturgy: A Handbook for Renewal (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1996); and Conversion and the Catechumenate (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1984).

Photo by Paul Covino


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