Why your church building-use policy matters

The church building is not a monument or museum but a tool for ministry.

By Bill Wilson

I know firsthand how utterly boring and laborious creating a building-use policy can be. Every church I served entered into a major building project. The debate around building use has been a constant. It also has evolved dramatically for me.

As a low-on-the-totem-pole staff member, I remember sitting in a meeting of the property committee as it debated the use of our new facilities. I promised God that if I ever got out of that meeting, I would give myself to a lifetime of ministry in Siberia.

There was a relatively simple agenda in the room: How can we make sure that our building is only used by people like us who will take care of it? How can we make it so expensive for outsiders to use it that they stay away? Influential members and our custodians were complaining that we had too many of “them” using our facilities at our current prices.

We established a pecking order of who could use the building: members first, other churches second and outsiders a distant third. To accomplish this, we dramatically increased the fee structure. Predictably, outsiders gradually stopped asking to use our facilities.

As a pastor, I came to understand that this question of building use is at the heart of our mission as God’s people. Rather than being a nuisance and a dreaded task, it is essential to shifting our mindset from maintenance to mission.

Jerry McClung was my inspiration. Jerry was a gentle, wise and profoundly insightful layman at a church I served. He had been the church clerk for 50 consecutive years. When Jerry spoke, we all listened.

In the debate about whether to build and renovate space, the necessary question of whether we were doing this simply for ourselves intensified. Jerry, in a video that was used to raise funds for the project, looked into the camera and said: “This building is not a monument to a crucified Christ, but is an instrument to be used by the people who have been led to him.”

That spirit began to permeate the congregation -- instrument, not monument. Eventually, we had that quote framed and put on the wall so that we would always remember that our facilities were tools and instruments for ministry, not a monument, memorial or museum.

As we debated our building-use policy, we deliberately made it economical and attractive for outsiders to use our space. We had the finest multipurpose facility in the city, and found ourselves hosting school events, social events, civic clubs, government functions, family functions and a host of other groups. Many people came onto our campus and found a warm welcome. More than a few eventually found their way into our fellowship.

True, we had to add custodial staff and we constantly debated the flood of “outsiders” on our property. Emotions ran high when conflicts emerged, but we remained true to our mission and vision of being radically hospitable to our community.

Gradually, I learned that policy which supports vision is very different from the reverse.

Three more examples of how this seemingly inconsequential debate actually matters a great deal:

Leith Anderson described how his megachurch in Minneapolis approached the use of their large campus. Reaching the unreached was their highest priority. When it came to their building-use policy, they decided to align it with their congregational vision. The result was a pecking order that reflected that vision. Specifically, outside church groups were not allowed to use the property, congregational members had limited privileges, and non-church groups and entities were given complete and minimally expensive access to the property.

Anderson then told us that the Minnesota Vikings football team’s headquarters were near their property, and used Wooddale’s facilities for all their team meetings. Not coincidentally, a dozen players and their families had become active in the church.

Second, the leadership of a congregation in the heart of a large Southern city realized that the area around them was gradually being redeveloped into high-end condominiums and apartments. Young adults were flooding the formerly desolated downtown. The church had a very restrictive wedding policy that essentially barred non-members from using it. Realizing the opportunity, after intense and heated debate, they restructured that policy to make it possible for young adults to have a place for their weddings. The resulting flood of interest provided a unique opportunity to minister to and with those couples.

Finally, a church had a preschool deliberately structured to attract only high-income families. Surrounded by an ocean of need, when they added onto their space, they rewrote their policy to make it accessible and affordable to those who most needed it. Gradually, their exclusive school grew to become a tool to impact their community.

Your building-use policy says something important about you. Make sure it communicates the spirit of a crucified Christ, and not that of a self-absorbed congregation.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.