Disciples Church Extension Fund

What next?

I’m sure those words have been uttered in the halls of every church building in use at one time or another. It seems that for every project we take off the ‘workday’ list, we add two more.

As our worship facilities get older, our project lists get longer and, it seems, our group of willing ‘workday’ volunteers gets smaller. What can we do to get ahead of all this? We could tear down our existing structure every 50 years and build a new one. Honestly, though, you’d begin having maintenance issues as soon as you’re handed the door keys. Plus, now you have major debt.

The real answer is that we need to stop being reactive and learn to be proactive. We need to look at our buildings from the depths of their bowels, complete with scary boiler, to the top of their bell towers or steeples. Let’s look at them thoroughly and make a list of everything that needs to be done. This is actually called a building evaluation. The facility and its equipment are assessed for deficiencies and expected service life, and for how well they are meeting the needs of today’s ministry.

I have been doing church building evaluations professionally for roughly six years. To be honest, though, I’ve been preparing to do them since the age of 10 or 11, almost 50 years. I learned early on that I loved buildings. I love looking at their exteriors and interiors. I have to admit that, even as a child, I noticed things that were left unattended and that people didn’t always appreciate me pointing those out. This happens in churches I visit, as well. People get so used to walking into or through an area that they don’t even notice that there may be problems. Hence, Disciple Church Extension Fund’s Building Evaluation service. Because of the expertise of the team of professionals we use to deliver the service, it has been very successful in helping to connect congregations with their facilities.

Recently, I was asked, “What are the five most common things you see when doing an evaluation that a congregation should look for?” WOW, what a great question! My answer follows:

1. Signage!

SIGNAGE!! I can’t repeat that enough. I think that in the six-plus years I have been with Disciples Church Extension Fund (DCEF), I have been to only one church where signage has been spot on. The good use of signage does not start at the church door; it begins at the road. When you drive past your church, at the posted speed limit, what do you see? Do you see signage that identifies what the building is? Does the building look as though there is activity going on inside? From the street, does your signage tell people where they can park? Is there signage identifying where each door leads? Directions to handicap access? Once inside, there should be signage that directs people to these four points, at a minimum: A. Church office, B. Restrooms, C. Nursery, D. Sanctuary.

2. Outdated restroom facilities

In church after church, I find restrooms that haven’t been updated since the 60’s or 70’s, often much longer than that. The longtime congregational member may not even notice, but the first-time visitor definitely will. Not only does it reflect badly on the church, but it is also a maintenance nightmare. The Building Team has to try to find parts to keep the old fixtures functional while, in most cases, they are inefficient water hogs resulting in higher utility costs.

3. Outdated lighting fixtures

This is one of those things that is easily overlooked but paying attention to it is a great way to make your facility more energy-efficient. As you walk through your building, look at your fixtures. Are they incandescent, fluorescent, halogen or sodium? Identify what you have and find out what types of lighting can replace your existing fixtures for greater energy savings. Most churches have individuals who can replace bulbs or fixtures so project expense can be kept low. High bay lighting in family life centers or gymnasiums can be changed out with high reflective LED fixtures that require fewer fixtures and use a fraction of the energy. As a ‘numbers nerd,’ I used to love the series ‘Mythbusters.’ I remember one show where they wanted to find out how long a person would need to be out of a room for it to be more energy-efficient to turn off the lights than to leave them on. This had been an ongoing issue between me and my kids, so I was very interested. Thanks to Mythbusters, I finally had proof to back up what I’d been saying for so long. If you walk out of a room for more than 23 seconds, you should shut off the light. I love it when I’m right!!

4. Overgrown trees and shrubs

Many years ago, they started out as small, attractive landscape features. But now, after who knows how many growing seasons, they form a jungle that obscures your building. This creates security problems and invites vermin and pests. Replace those old shrubs with new, healthy plantings. Trees are another issue, though. Like the shrubs, they started out small but may have grown to the point that you can no longer see your building from the road. If you can’t see your building for the trees, it’s time to trim a few up or take a few down.

5. No building maintenance schedule

This is a huge, but common, oversight. Your church’s building maintenance schedule should include information on each piece of major facility equipment, including air conditioner compressors, furnaces, boilers, air handlers and water heaters. Each item should have a number painted on it that can be easily seen by the maintenance team and noted on your maintenance schedule. In addition to major equipment information, your building maintenance schedule should address your roofing, parking lot, elevators, fire sprinklers, emergency lighting, etc. A good schedule specifies when equipment was installed, who installed it, who manufactured it, and what the industry standard is for useful life. Having a good idea of how long a piece of equipment lasts will greatly inform your budgeting efforts. If you know, for example, that your roof has a 25-year life expectancy, and that you are now in year 20, it’s clear that you should start setting aside replacement funds. In other words, be proactive rather than reactive.

For a printable handout of these suggestions, click here.

There are so many other things I see while doing building evaluations, both good and bad, that I could fill a book. However, if your Building Team were to walk through your facility while focusing on the previous five common problems and their solutions, you’d be well on your way to uttering ‘what next?!’ a lot less often.

Jim Michel brings nearly 40 years of experience in civil engineering and land surveying, plus proficiency in facilities and construction management, to his position as Building and Capital Services Advisor. He oversees DCEF’s architectural consultants. Jim also serves as DCEF’s Building Disaster Response Coordinator. Having helped his home congregation in Joplin, Mo., rebuild after an EF-5 tornado struck in 2011, he understands intimately how vulnerable congregations are after a disaster. Jim lives in North Liberty, Iowa, with his wife, Rev. Jill Cameron Michel, and their sons Cameron and Teegan.

For 137 years, DCEF has offered mission-driven building and capital planning services to congregations and organizations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Together with our investors and partners, we are Disciples helping Disciples.


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