O'Fallon, Illinois

Collaboration: The Key to a Successful Building Project - Part 1

February 19, 2009

View the Image Slideshow for Collaboration: The Key to a Successful Building Project - Part 1 (Opens a new window).


In high school I only dreamed of being an architect. In college my interest turned to a degree in Business and Marketing. But my vocational discernment led me to the priesthood, during which after becoming pastor at age 31, I quickly had to learn how to bring those three passions and talents into a building project of the new church.

St. Clare of Assissi stained-glass window.

After forming a lay ecclesial staff at St. Francis of Assisi Parish (O’Fallon, Illinois) and discovering the benefits of true collaboration in parish ministry, I realized that any successful building project would also need healthy collaborative efforts. Collaboration on this project began on the level between our staff, the parish pastoral council, the feasibility committee, and the parishioners. As always, it was crucial to communicate well what was happening at the committee level with all the parishioners. This was done through weekly bulletin articles, direct mailings, and town hall style input sessions. The feasibility study group did their homework on statistics of future growth in our area and educated the people on the need to look beyond our immediate needs for bathrooms and a meeting hall and realize that we were being called to evangelize the larger community. We had to look forward in order to be a place of welcome for the predicted 10,000 households that would be added to the surrounding area in the next 20 years. Our small neo-gothic church that was built for 350 people was not meeting our needs for the liturgical rites or for the number of new parishioners.

The pastoral council continued to work on the spiritual dimension of the parish, making clear that we remain focused on the mission of the Gospel. We set up a formal building committee once a generous farmer donated 20 acres of land on the outskirts of town just one mile from the old church. It was critical for the building committee to keep a collaborative relationship with the staff and pastoral council, while including all the parishioners in important decisions of planning and church design.

Outside view of church.The first person I knew we needed to add to our team was a liturgical design consultant. I had gone to two Form/Reform conferences and learned of the importance of a liturgical design consultant in educating the parishioners and helping form the community in a deep appreciation of the Church’s liturgical documents and rich architectural-liturgical history. Very quickly I realized the invaluable asset a liturgical consultant is for both the parish and the pastor. A liturgical consultant can both challenge the community to expand their thinking about church space and at times, “take the heat” when a parishioner wants to build his/her “own” church around a personal theology and ecclesiology.

Another critical role of the liturgical design consultant is the formational work with the building committee itself. Our consultant, Ken Griesemer, did an outstanding job of leading us through retreat days, during which we learned of our various talents and passions. This, in turn, enabled us to assume the needed roles to make us a collaborative team. The building committee itself was challenged to model collaboration for the parishioners in the way we worked together, including appreciating our different perspectives, from the artists in the group to the engineers, to those designated for the prayer for View from baptismal font toward altar.each meeting, and so on. At first, I was not sure why the committee needed to spend this time building community among ourselves. However, later in the process, when very difficult decisions needed to be made, working as a unit was critical to achieving consensus. Over the multi-year process, not once were the members of the building committee at odds with one another or the parish staff. Also beneficial was having two pastoral staff members as part of the building committee itself.

Shortly after our consultant began our team building process, he emphasized the importance of getting an architect “on board” early in the conversations. There was immense value in having a consultant who is humble enough to work as a peer and colleague with the architects. One of the attributes our newly formed committee most looked for in the architect was a similar appreciation for collaboration and team effort.

While we did a national search for an architectural firm to meet our needs, it did not take long to find Beringer Ciaccio Dennell Mabrey (BCDM) of Omaha, Nebraska. Again, by having a liturgical consultant who worked on a national level, we had the advantage of seeing examples of quality work in places we might have never known. Our search was quickly focused by our committee and consultant’s unanimous agreement to hire someone whose work had a quality and beauty rightly befitting worship of God. We were not building a school, a meeting hall, or a multi-purpose room. We wanted a firm who shared an interest and love of the Church’s liturgy and Christian stewardship and who could express these in a beautiful place for worship.

We narrowed the interviews to three firms. The choice of BCDM was pretty close to confirmation at their first presentation when they came with memorized quotes from Built of Loving Stones and a well-researched history of St. Clare, our parish patroness. From the beginning, they demonstrated that they were interested in being a part of something holy and bigger than themselves—Praise God for such dedicated people!

Baptismal font.Since we also liked the work and passion of another firm, the committee made a decision to visit examples of both architects. Spending the money for the trip (the two were within justifiable traveling distance) was invaluable for such an important decision. Seeing the architectural firms’ work and visiting with their staffs helped ‘seal the deal’ that BCDM would be the one to join our growing team.

We knew we made a good decision when we witnessed BCDM’s work at our first town hall meeting between the parishioners and the architects. In the previous town hall meeting, Ken Griesemer led educational sessions, allowing the parishioners to give input on their ideas for such things as the baptismal font, devotional shrines, seating arrangement, etc. The architects were open and excited to use the parishioners’ ideas in putting together their initial designs.

Prodded once again by our liturgical design consultant, Ken Griesemer, we were challenged to do a simultaneous search for a general contractor, who would also get on board early in the conversations, allowing them to understand the desires for our new church.

Before this point in the process, I had been warned that it would be very difficult to get an architect and liturgical consultant to work well together. And even if they did, to find a contractor/construction firm willing to work collaboratively with the two of them would be an even greater challenge. Well, I learned more every day that if the project is placed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and we made sure of that from day one, “All things are possible.”

We were so blessed to have a local general contractor that was known for its quality work and collaborative spirit. While the company representatives impressed the committee in their interview with a verbal enthusiasm for working with an outside architect and liturgical design consultant, they demonstrated their commitment to collaboration by participating in open dialogue sessions with the full team on a regular basis. By now we had formed a “team” of five constituencies: Building Committee (represented parishioners and parish council), Staff, Liturgical Design Consultant, Architect, and General Contractor…but there were more to come.

Continue to Part 2 of this 2-part article.

Photo credit:  John Harter

Rev. James Deiters is pastor of St. Clare of Assisi Parish, O'Fallon, Illinois, USA.


A New Church for St. Clare of Assisi Parish: A Pastor's Perspective
Collaboration: The Key to a Successful Building Project (Part 2)

[Return to top]