Facilities & Ministry Question #3 - Has ministry taken a back seat to maintaining our facilities?

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 We have been thinking about the relationship between ministry and facility by reflecting on a series of six questions.  We move on to question #3, “Has ministry taken a back seat to maintaining our facilities?  As I’ve visited congregations and talked with leaders, there are three scenarios where the emphasis on building-care seems to eclipse their focus on ministry.  

When a new facility or addition has been built, everyone is so proud of how nice and new it looks that they may almost be afraid to have anyone use it.  The kids and youth aren’t allowed in certain rooms.  There are signs posted disallowing skateboards and bicycles.  No food or drink is permitted in certain areas.  Community groups are not welcomed to use the facilities (without significant rental fees to offset any possibility that they might break or mess up something).   While none of these in and of themselves are bad, they can suggest an imbalance of concern: caring for the building becomes more important than using the building to care for people in Christ’s name.   In one sense, the concern to take care of the building people dreamed about, planned and raised money for and then built is understandable.  But the ministry reason for doing this can fade; the fact that the building is a tool for serving others in Christ’s name can be forgotten.  The building can become an idol – a cherished treasure around which the congregation orients their life together, instead of around loving God and loving others. 

Another situation that occurs rather often is where the cost of paying a monthly mortgage (and insurance and utilities and janitorial upkeep) takes up such a large percentage of the congregation’s financial resources that they are unable to hire sufficient program staff or fund needed ministries.  With the high cost of building, insuring and running facilities it is easy for congregations to find themselves in this bind.  Leaders begin to make all ministry decisions based on financial considerations.  New people are valued not because our mission calls us to reach and disciple all people, but because they might help underwrite our mortgage.  People with means are valued and treated differently than people with little or no financial means.  Sometimes leaders have made critical decisions believing, “If we build it, they will come,” only to discover that people didn’t come as expected and now the membership is strapped paying for a facility that they can hardly afford.  Financial indebtedness distorts and warps the congregation’s purpose to be a community of faith that serves others in Jesus’ name.  

The other situation that is occurring with increasing frequency around the Conference is where shrinking congregations find themselves facing escalating costs to maintain aging facilities.  Maintenance gets deferred until buildings look run down and the current cost of repairs is significantly greater than it would have been if attended to earlier.  Then a roof starts leaking or an air-conditioning unit gives up the ghost and the congregation goes into financial crisis.  The facility -- rather than enabling ministry --hobbles the congregation’s ability (or willingness) to minister authentically.  Often the facility is so beloved by long-term members as their sacred space that it is difficult for them to imagine any option other than simply doing whatever it takes to keep caring for their buildings. . . no matter what it costs their ministry in the community.

These three scenarios express themselves in such unique ways from congregation to congregation and community to community that it is ludicrous even to suggest solutions.  But one thing is certain: local leaders must look for ways somehow to tip the emphasis from building maintenance to carrying out faithful and fruitful ministry.  Congregations exist not to care for, pay for or maintain buildings, but to fulfill the ministries to which Christ calls us.   What would it take to put the people Christ calls your congregation to serve ahead of your congregation’s facility?  Is there an out-of-the-box, creative way of dealing with your facility needs that restores authentic Christian witness to your ministry?   If you absolutely refuse for your facilities to hobble your ministry, what must you then do?  These are not comfortable questions and they do not have easy answers.  But these are the questions congregational leaders must grapple with if their ministry is to be authentic and effective. 

Our next question in the series on “ministry and facilities” is #4: Do our facilities still fit the ministry to which God calls us today?

Dr. Jeff Stiggins
Office of Congregational Transformation

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