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Church Design Principles For Master Planning

Jan 22, 2008
If you pick up a Bible, you don't have to look any further than Genesis 6:14-22 to learn about Gods approach to Master Planning. It was only through God's tremendous vision and skillful planning that Noah was able to successfully complete the task of building an Ark large enough to save mankind. While this was certainly a God sized task, the principles are the same today. Through Noah, the Lord was able to assess the problem, take stock of materials on hand, and carefully put together a blue print for the construction of a three story boat, capable of housing all of the species of the world.

Many churches today find themselves faced with exactly the same types of challenges in planning for the growth of their congregations. While the pressures may be the same, over crowding of facilities, new ministry opportunities, and or the need for a fresher look, the challenges can be quite different as we untangle the maze of legal restrictions, internal differences, code impacts, and of course, let's not forget financial challenges.

So let's take a look at the four elements of a developing a long-term church master plan.

I. Prayer

When preparing to enter into a building program, always start with prayer. Jesus told us, "I am the vine and you are the branches, and you can do nothing unless you abided in me." When assembling the project's committee structure, appoint a Prayer Committee to encourage each other, the staff and the congregation to bathe the project in prayer from start to finish, and continue to lift each other in prayer as He unfolds the vision for your church before your very eyes. Make sure you are well grafted in the vine!

II. Clear Sense of Purpose

Before you embark upon building on existing property, moving to a different location, or even renovating an existing space, it is important to assess carefully the church as it stands. These key questions need to be asked:

* What is the core purpose of our church?
* What specific ministries tie directly into our core purpose?
* Which ministries are growing the fastest?
* What is the major reason that we feel a need to expand?
* Are there other alternatives available?
* What are our immediate needs?
* How will they impact our long term needs?

A clear understanding by church leadership as to the future direction of the church, and the support behind the long-range vision becomes critical in master planning. If you change your direction every couple of years, you may find yourself wasting millions of dollars on a facility that becomes more of an albatross or hindrance to your ministry than an architectural beauty.

III Facilities Evaluation

One of the first steps in any facilities master plan is to survey what already exists. Because churches typically expand their facilities over a period of several years and sometimes decades, it is important to take stock of several areas that can impact your future decisions.

* Environmental Impact- Several facilities built in the 50's, 60's and 70's were designed with asbestos and unsafe materials throughout the buildings. It is important to know if you have environmental hazards that can adversely impact your overall project budget, or if it makes sense to start a demolition or renovation project. A more recent issue that has cropped up over the past few years is the handling of mold growth in buildings, as well as land issues like spotted owls, gopher turtles, or even ancient burial grounds.

* Code Impact - Over the last few decades the building codes have changed dramatically with their new calculations of structural loads, uplift requirements, glass impact resistance, American Disabilities Act, electrical requirements, life safety requirements and even the number of restrooms available to the members. Without proper assessment, the simple tearing down of one wall could require you to go back through the entire facility and bring them up to code, which could cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so.

* Parking Impact- One of the most restrictive elements on church facilities today is the number of required parking spaces to meet the overall codes of the local governing authority. While many local authorities have a 2-3 people per every car requirement, in actuality many churches are experiencing a 1.5-2 people per car requirement, which can cause overcrowding and traffic problems for both ingress and egress issues.

* Zoning Impact- Due to the tightening up of zoning allowances in municipalities all over the country, you can no longer assume that your new property will be approved for zoning. Churches are not wanted in residential zones because they generate too much traffic. They're not wanted in commercial zones because they don't generate taxes. And they are not wanted in industrial areas because of the potential hazards to the health and safety of people. In other circumstances if your expansion exceeds 30% of the overall square footage of you existing buildings you may be required to have your entire property go through new zoning procedures all over again.

* Water Retention and Drainage- In many states the issue of storm water, waste water, and how you place your standing water, have become a great concern for many municipalities. In many places several years ago you could pretty much do what you wanted to with storm water, and not really worry about how much run off impacted your neighbor. However, today our municipalities are taking this very seriously, and are requiring very detailed civil engineering drawings to determine the impact of drainage, sewage, utility hook ups, and environmental issues that could adversely effect the immediate area.

IV Identify Specific Needs


Early stages of a religious facility master plan may also include the gathering and analysis of comprehensive data. Information such as demographics and psychographics, where you begin to understand the racial mix of your demographic area, age mix, social economic status, area growth rates, worship preferences, and program preferences of the areas in which your church serves.

Because of the dramatic growth of both churches and the areas that they serve it is important to attempt to forecast the growth of your church based upon historical growth within age populations, along with future growth of the area. In many areas it becomes a mirror of the area that you serve. So if your area has seen explosive growth, and you have been keeping up with that growth in your church, it is reasonable to believe that your church may continue to grow at the same pace in the future. You may also want to consider a mapping service that will actually take your church membership and map where they live in relation to your current facility or the area that you are contemplating expanding to, thus, giving you a better feel of where your congregation is coming from.

Space Utilization

Your church may be one of the fortunate churches that are able to provide worship seating, education facilities, and even banquet space for all of the members of your church. However it is becoming more and more important due to pure economics, for churches to expand to two and three services during the weekend and maybe one on Friday night. For other ministries they are having to rethink their Sunday School Space, as it becomes too costly for the church to keep up with their Sunday School population. While there are certainly numerous churches that are busting at the seams, and couldn't put another body in the building with a shoe horn, others are too eager to spend millions of dollars to provide expansion space that they really don't need. A simple rearranging of service times, building schedules, and knocking out of a couple of walls, could make all the difference in the world, without the added expense to the church.

Space Proximity

You arrive on Sunday morning with your three year old and your seven year old to a brand new church only to find that you have to park 300 yards away from your toddlers class, walk another 50 yards around the building through the rain to drop off your 7 year old. Once that is done you then have to cross the property through the mud in your brand new shoes to enter into the Sanctuary, as you finally make it to your choir seat, catch your breath, and try to to sing "Amazing Grace" on key. How you position your buildings, ministries, parking, entrance ways, walkways, indoor space, outdoor space, and future senior living facility, can have a gigantic impact on the function of your overall master-plan. This is why it is important to carefully think out how you will use each building and how you can make it easier on the people attending your church, as well as, the financial implications of those decisions.

Aesthetic and Architectural Beauty

Have you ever tried to put together a 1000 piece puzzle without ever knowing what the finished puzzle should look like? This is what a lot of unplanned church campuses look like, a series of unrelated building add on's that were thrown together at different times, by different people, with different architectural themes, only to get to a point that all of the pieces of the puzzle put together, are not very pleasing to the congregation. Maybe you should have a block stucco theme with South Florida Colors, in Miami, but it would look pretty silly next to a 150 year old cathedral in Boston, with an all custom made stained glass replica of the Last Supper ordaining the entire front of the cathedral. Master Planning takes into consideration the aesthetic, cosmetic, functionality, and cost factors of a building plan, and balances them on paper, before you commit to embarrassing yourself, and your community with an ugly building.

Phasing and Implementation

There are very few churches in America that wouldn't love to be able to complete all of God's vision and the next five phases of their building program all at once. However, due to economic factors most ministries must balance their God given vision, with their God given provision. Even Moses didn't realize that he was embarking upon a 40 year mission, when Yahweh gave Moses the vision of taking the promise land.

Likewise, God gives different visions to ministries throughout the world, what He doesn't always give is the necessary timing and financial understanding to complete the vision in our own human strength. We must be patient, we must plan, we must trust the Lord and His perfect timing. By planning to phase the first phase of your project within the financial limitations that you have been given, you are then in a position build all of the phases at once if the Lord indeed blesses your ministry by opening the gates of heaven blessing you with all of the money necessary to complete them all.
About the Author
Bruce Anderson is a nationally recognized church design and construction consultant and President of Build-Masters Group LLC, www.build-masters.com. Mr. Anderson also publishes of "Straight Talk" About Church Design,Building & Construction at www.brucecanderson.com. Email: bca@brucecanderson.com
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