Caring for the building

We have a beautiful church building that is 60 years old. As buildings go, that is neither young or old, but I’ve read about developers who are building substantial buildings with a design life of only 50 years.That was not the case with our church building. Each time we have an engineer or architect take a look at the building we are told that it was constructed using the best materials and techniques that were available at the time. Often when we have guests they will be surprised to learn the building’s age. “It doesn’t look that old’ is a comment that is frequently made. Another comment that we hear regularly is, which part is original and which part is added. The answer is that the entire building was constructed in 1959 according to the architect’s original plans. The footprint of the building is as shown on the original plans. And we have copies of the original blueprints to prove it.

That doesn’t mean that everything about the building is the same as it was when originally constructed. Over the past 25 years, we’ve made substantial investments to maintain our church home.

As a bit of background, I came to this congregation from serving a congregation that had experienced two fires in their church just a decade apart. The first fire was in 1942. The church was essentially destroyed. The congregation succeeded in building a new concrete block and brick structure. This was a substantial effort in the midst of a World War. Then, in 1952, a fire destroyed the roof the their new church and left substantial water damage throughout the rest of the structure. They rebuilt again and added a classroom wing and parlor in the process. This left them with a modern building to face the baby boom, but it also left them with construction and fund-raising fatigue which was still evident when we arrived in 1985. For a decade we worked at catching up with building repairs and needs caused by decades of deferred maintenance. We invested years in capital funds raising to enable the congregation to purchase additional land, develop plans and construct another addition to the building to provide a modern elevator, new bathrooms on all three levels of the building and expand the sanctuary and office spaces.

After that experience, I was delighted to tour the church building that we currently serve. It was well-maintained and didn’t show the signs of deferred maintenance that we had known. When I asked the interviewing committee about planned building projects they said that none were planned. This was very attractive to me. I thought that I would be able to invest my energy in other areas of ministry and not have to focus on the building.

Of course a well-maintained building becomes that way by constant work. So within the early years of my ministry, we engaged in a major remodel of an existing classroom to make new bathrooms that meet ADA standards and are accessible to all. Then we tackled a fire code update and installed door closers and magnetic hold open devices on doors throughout the building. We had a builder create insets in the fellowship hall so that the doors would not swing out into the hallway space. Shortly afterward we excavated next to the building and installed new drain tile and a stormwater drainage system that piped water away from the building. Three building permits in five years reminded me that no building is maintenance free.

I was reminded of that yesterday. At one point we had 15 workers in our building and six vehicles from various contractors in our parking lot. In the basement, workers were installing large chiller units into the air handlers for our two largest rooms. In the kitchen a crew was cleaning out a drain pipe, replacing a food disposer and associated plumbing. In the entryway, metal fabricators were welding in a new steel beam to provide for an elevator shaft so that a lift can be installed to enable those who use canes, walkers and wheelchairs to safely access our choir loft. A skilled carpenter was constructing ramps to provide wheelchair access up in the choir loft. Much of my day yesterday was building-focused. Decisions had to be made about carpet and paint and a half dozen other issues. What would look best in this place? Can you authorize an additional expense for this?

We have been planning for about 5 years for the current round of building improvements, which included an additional new bathroom to provide for family access and space with privacy for those who need assistance, a new fireproof roof for the building, air circulation fans, new heating controls and valves and the current projects. We have also banked the funds for replacement of our boiler when that is required. This summer we will be installing a new, larger water line into the building in preparation for the installation of fire suppression sprinklers in the building next year. The expenses of this are substantial - over twice the amount required for the building addition that was done in the last year of our previous call.

I believe that the Christian ministry, at its heart is about relationships. My job as a pastor is visiting the sick, comforting the grieving, bringing hope to those incarcerated, reaching out to serve those who have needs and providing for worship that is engaging, relevant and meaningful. I spend a large amount of my time maintaining an institution, making sure that the building is cared for, the payroll is met, the employees supervised and supported, the reports filed, communications with committees and task forces arranged and the like. I am, in a large part, the CEO of a small but very complex organization. And I go home every day with work that has been left undone because the work is expansive and the hours are too short. I didn’t set out to be an administrator of the institution, but a certain level of administration is simply required. I’m not complaining, just being realistic about what is required.

My hunch is that when I have moved on from this call and the church interviews the candidate for its next pastor the question about building will come up and the answer will be, “We have no plans for expansion or remodeling.” The new candidate will be relieved to see a building in such good shape and focus on other areas of church life. Then that person will come to understand that caring for the building is an everyday task in the church. I don’t need to warn the candidate. That person will find out what is required without my assistance.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!