How To Guides

Where Do We Start? Building or Renovating Sacred Spaces - Part 1

March 03, 2008


Group MeetingAfter much discussion, many diverse opinions, and the examination of finances, you are finally given the go ahead to begin a building project for a new worship space or a renovation project of your existing worship space. The biggest question facing most parishes, schools and hospitals is, “Where do we start?”

In times past, many churches and chapels were built by an architect conferring with the pastor. After everything was planned, the parishioners or staff were informed of the plan and given the bill. Today, there is a much more collaborative process available that gives the “owners” of the space a feeling that the space reflects them and how they express their faith-life in their worship experiences. “So,” you say, “where do we start?”

The Building Committee: Size and Make-Up

You start with a building committee that reflects the parish. Many professionals, such as architects and liturgical design consultants, have differing ideas on the size and make-up of the building committee. Let me give you my perspective.

A building committee should reflect the people who worship in the space. Besides the pastor, there needs to be someone who is in charge of the financial aspects of the project. Representatives from the parish staff, those who use the church on a regular basis such as the people involved with the RCIA, musicians, the youth, people of different ages, philosophies and theologies, the environment committee, those who have artistic gifts or who have an appreciation for the arts, and those representing the different cultures present in the parish—all of these should be represented.

Looking at this you might say that this is an unwieldy number of people. Hiring a liturgical design consultant who is comfortable working with large groups is a way to bring all these people together in a workable, cohesive committee. In a parish setting there may also be an advisory committee that meets several times and serves as a sounding board for the building committee on the plans that develop. The advisory committee is comprised of a larger representation of the parish community.

Small Group MeetingThere are advantages to having a small building committee. One advantage is that since it is small you often can reach decisions faster and the process moves along more quickly. The disadvantage, and it is a big one in my opinion, is that you lessen the breath of ideas generated by people who all have a stake in the outcome. If your project is a hospital chapel or school chapel, a large committee is not necessary. In those cases, it seems all the more necessary to have a liturgical consultant on the project to coordinate the committee whose members might not be familiar with the liturgical needs.

What are the requirements and qualities that you look for in potential members of the building committee? First of all, there needs to be a willingness to work/function as a team. People can have lots of wonderful ideas, but if they are not willing to listen to others and only want their own way, there will be problems. The desired outcome of the project is the fruit of people coming together and something greater than themselves being born.

Committee members need to look beyond their own preferences and look at what’s good for the parish. This is not a place for lobbying for one’s own personal preferences, but rather the opportunity to see the parish as a whole. To do this, people must be willing to experience worship at Masses they may not usually attend. They need to reach out to the community and talk to them about the project and listen with openness to others’ perspective.

Committee members must be willing to be committed to the project. Committee membership requires an investment of a lot of time and energy. If members attend meetings only once in a while, they lose the continuity and members are forced to revisit decisions previously made.

Committee membership is a learning experience. Members need to have a basis out of which to make informed decisions. They need to be willing to be educated not only in the building process but most importantly in their faith and how it is expressed in the liturgy that will be celebrated in the worship space.

The building committee makes decisions by consensus, not voting. This process takes time, but in the end there are no winners and losers. The result is that the plan is backed by all. It might not be their first choice, but in the interest of the parish the decisions are made.

There are many challenges that face building committees. In regard to membership, one of the challenges is how to have the youth represented or their voice heard. Many times young people cannot make the time commitment, so the committee has to find ways to hear what they have to say. They are, after all, the ones who will inherit the worship space. Another challenge may be to reach and involve the many different cultures in the community. Sometimes representation on the committee is not a possibility, so the committee has to find ways to reach out to these groups so their voices are heard and the worship space reflects the whole community, not just part of it.

Finally, the architect and liturgical design consultant are part of the team building or renovating the space. Each offers an expertise to the committee that typically most parishioners lack. In Part II we will discuss the next step which is the education/formation of the Building Committee. This will shed further light on the first steps of the process and give some insight on why parishes would hire a liturgical design consultant.

Marilyn A. Morgan, RSM is a Liturgical Design Consultant who lives in San Francisco, California, U.S.A.


Where Do We Start?  Building and Renovating Sacred Spaces (Part II)

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