Rise like a phoenix

[left to right] Churches by Daniels Founder & CEO Charlie Daniels and wife, Sally, with Cassie and Justin Driver

After a devastating fire, a brand-new pastor embarks on a challenging rebuild project — and gets much more than he hoped for

By RaeAnn Slaybaugh

Growing up in a pastor’s home with sound biblical teaching, Justin Driver says he always felt God had a calling on his life. Though he admits most of his teenage years were spent “running from that calling,” he began his ministry career in 2007 as a student pastor. 

There, he met his wife, Cassie, and they married in 2010. Together, they served as student pastors in North Alabama until 2017, when Driver felt a new calling: to be a lead pastor.

By that spring, he was making his way to an interview with Forward Church in Irvington, Ala. While driving, he got a call from the interim pastor, who casually informed him the main church building was … on fire.

“Cassie and I pulled in to the parsonage of the church campus, where the interview had be relocated, expecting for the fire to be very small and under control,” Driver recalls. “Little did we know what we’d find — black smoke and flames pouring from the building, multiple fire departments, and a handful of news crews. It was unlike anything we’d ever seen.”

The building was a total loss, with the fire destroying the main worship center, nursery, offices, and an upstairs youth space. 

On the bright side, Driver’s interview was anything but a disaster! A week later, he got word that he was the new pastor — but he’d have his hands full from the get-go. 

His first order of administrative business: build a new church.

Hit the ground sprinting …

Though major building projects are challenging under normal circumstances, rebuilding after a disaster — while trying to maintain “business as usual” — is even tougher. Undeterred, Driver’s commitment to leading the church through its loss actually began even before getting an offer; the day after his interview, he and Cassie traveled back to the church from their hotel to help a few congregants set up a temporary worship space in the gym area of the life center building.  

When Driver began as pastor in May 2017, his first few months were spent preaching in his space. The gym that hadn’t been updated since the early 1990s. Worshippers sat on folding metal chairs, and the sound system was a borrowed setup from a local worship group. 

“I’ll never forget [it],” he recalls. “It was tough because every Sunday our people had to walk by a burnt building to enter the temporary worship space we were in.”

Though less than ideal, Driver now says he appreciates that space a lot because it enabled worship to go on and lives to be changed, uninterrupted. In fact, as the church nears completion on its new building, they still meet there, and quite a few updates have been made. 

Onward and upward!

In approaching the rebuild project, Driver drew upon his limited experience assisting in other construction projects as a student pastor. Now, as lead pastor, he’d be spearheading this one. 

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He began by determining the budget, prioritizing which areas to rebuild, and assembling a building team. Another crucial step, he knew, would be to find the right building partner. 

As the church began to vet its options, Driver says Broken Arrow, Okla.-based Churches by Daniels stood out for its design-build focus. “We needed this, since I, nor anyone else at our church, had much knowledge in construction projects.” 

Additionally, the firm came highly recommended by other pastors who not only used them for one project but reenlisted them for phases 2, 3 and beyond.  

Perhaps most important, Driver says his project — though modest — felt like a priority for the Churches by Daniels team. “When I connected with them, I felt as though this wasn’t just their job; it’s their ministry,” he shares. “I never felt as though our project wasn’t just as important as a megachurch’s, even though we’re a smaller congregation with a small budget.”

Speaking of budget, funding proved to be a unique challenge. 

Forward Church fell about $800,000 short of its capital campaign goal for the project. When that happened, Driver decided to pursue grant funding, though he’d never done so in a pastoral capacity.

Nevertheless, in 2019, Forward Church embarked on two rounds of applications. The first consisted of submitting building plans, budget and a questionnaire about the church and why it was building. The second round — extended to only 30 churches nationwide — required much more detailed and demanding documentation: years of church financial records, an organizational budget, a post-construction finance plan, a church campus site map, bylaws, and more. 

Given COVID’s financial impact on churches, the grant funding was more in-demand than ever. Even so, he church’s hard work paid off last April when Driver got confirmation that Forward Church had been selected for funding — in the middle of the pandemic.

As the grant pursuit took more than a year, Driver says he especially appreciates Churches by Daniels’ partnership and patience along the way. Accordingly, they phased the project in a way that let the church determine what phases to commit to, initially, depending on the outcome of the grant.

“Lines of communication were constantly open with for us to reach them for any information we needed for the grant application phases,” Driver recalls. “More importantly, their team rallied around us in prayer for the best possible outcome for our church.”

Even more than they prayed for

The grant funds covered the cost of the sanctuary space in the new, 13,500-square-foot building. This is, of course, a key component of Phase 1. Combined with capital campaign funds, this first phase — slated for completion next month — also includes a commons area, two nurseries, and offices. “These spaces were priority, as they were most of what was lost in the fire,” Driver says.  

Forward Church was also able to commit to Phase 2a, an office wing, which Driver anticipates would have taken several more years to build without the grant funding.  

Moreover, with comparatively little debt, the church will be able to comfortably launch into Phase 2b while simultaneously remodeling and updating the existing building. 

Importantly, this latter phase includes reimagined kids’ and students’ spaces. The life center building (where the church is still worshipping, pending completion of its new sanctuary) previously housed these spaces. However, the church plans to build a new multipurpose indoor playground / commons area for kids, as well as perform a major remodel in the life center building that includes a new student ministry space and a gym space for the community.

On the same page 

To do all this on budget is, of course, the desired outcome for any church — but that’s the exception, not the rule. To this end, at Forward Church, budget adherence is actually something Driver largely credits to the Churches by Daniels team.

“I’ve had the ‘price-per-square-foot’ discussion with so many other pastors, only to find out what that price didn’t include with their projects and how many times they had to go back to the bank to borrow more money,” he explains. “I didn’t want to find our church in that predicament.”

Heeding his concerns, the Churches by Daniels team first made sure everything needed for the building to be functional was included in the budget. They then focused heavily on planning, spending two years in this phase for a project which has taken less than half that time to complete. Much of this planning centered on ensuring space for growth — identifying what will be needed as opposed to what’s currently needed. “That made it far less likely we’d need to make additions or changes to the plan deeper into the project,” Driver points out. 

Additionally, the team’s diligence regarding subcontractors and project personnel helped maintain the budget. A thorough bid process required a minimum of three bids from every subcontractor, determining a maximum price guarantee before Forward Church even broke ground on its project.

Finally, as the project progressed, the team of project managers and supervisors held contractors to a certain standard of quality of work for the price promised. “This, in and of itself, has been key to us staying on budget,” Driver says. “Churches by Daniels has been a huge asset in this respect.”  

A brand-new beginning

When Forward Church opens the doors of its new facility in just a few weeks, members and staff will celebrate the beautiful culmination of a uniquely challenging journey. In the end, they get a better building than they imagined possible, plus a lot to look forward to in future phases. 

Driver, in particular, will know just how much it took to get from devastation to elation: the willingness to recalibrate, stay flexible and be bold — and the building partner’s commitment to do the same. 


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