Authentic — in and out of season

How one North Houston church is transforming a challenging piece of property for the entire community’s benefit

John Sherrill

In 2019, after meeting in a school for three years, Declaration Church in North Houston, Texas, set its sights on building a permanent home. For this church plant of WoodsEdge Community Church, it was a wonderful blessing — but also a potential challenge for Lead Pastor John Sherrill. 

Staying in North Houston was a priority; Sherrill chose that location years before when WoodsEdge Pastor Jeff Wells shared five different locations he’d been praying about. 

“The other four options were near neighborhoods that had been anchored there for years,” he recalls. “Here, though, everything was still very much under construction. I saw nothing but rooftops and zero steeples. My heart just beat faster realizing how many families we could reach.”

However, by the time Sherrill began to look for nearby property, the area had grown by leaps and bounds. He’d even heard that a 9-acre piece of property adjacent to the school where the church meets was asking $10 million. 

Still, Sherrill pressed on in his search for affordable acreage. Each time he called to inquire about a property, he was turned away by developers and owners who didn’t want a church built there. 

While he admits to having concerns and worries, Sherrill was ultimately undeterred. 

“As a church, [we focus on] Genesis 12, when God called Abraham,” he explains. “God said, ‘Go to the land that I will show you.’ He didn’t give the coordinates. He conveyed that, if Abraham was obedient, He would bless him.”

Hiding in plain sight

In the end, the best option was right in front of Sherrill’s eyes: an 85-acre parcel just across the freeway from the school. He spotted the new “for sale” sign one day while showing a friend the community. 

“I always say that I didn’t find the land; the land found me,” he laughs. “I called about the property, and they asked what I was trying to build. I asked, ‘Well, what could I build there?’” 

It turns out the property had been privately controlled by developers for years but never developed for housing for a few reasons. A gully down one side of the property, plus drainage and flood plain issues, posed significant challenges. Additionally, the property held a three-acre drill site. 

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Even so, about half the acreage was developable for Declaration Church’s use — more than enough land to work with.

Better yet, the property owner actually liked the fact that a church would be built on the site. Though Declaration Church came in with the lowest bid, it was chosen for its beneficial impact on the community.

“There was no way you could deny what God was doing at that point,” Sherrill says. 

Patience is a virtue

Given the challenging (but ideally situated) acreage, this wouldn’t be a straightforward new-build project. Declaration Church closed on the property in December 2019 and has been working on developing the land since. 

As a first step, the church enlisted the help of Stephen McDonald, president of ECC Consulting, to do a feasibility study. McDonald also found out who owned the drill site and got it moved to the back of the property from where it was previously: in the middle of where the church wanted to do development.

To create the master plan and map out Phase 1 of the building, McDonald brought three architecture firms to the table for the church to interview. Although Sherrill and his team had begun working with an out-of-state firm, they ultimately chose to move forward with one of the three new options: Houston-based Studio RED. 

“When we really started looking at the brass tacks of execution, it just made sense,” Sherrill explains. “The scope of the project, the size of the land, the utility needs that would come into play for our long-term vision — we knew we needed some local expertise for all that.” 

Moreover, Sherrill says Studio RED’s experience designing theatres, auditoriums and performance spaces was pivotal, as engaging worship and audiovisual excellence are priorities for the new facility.

Not just nuts-and-bolts — a shared vision

While Studio RED’s technical aptitudes were compelling, so were the firm’s and the church’s shared focus on creating faith + community partnerships. To this end, Declaration Church has reserved 10 acres of developable land either for sale to another developer, or as a build-to-suit partnership with the church. 

“Both concepts have the potential to supplement capital campaign funds needed for the initial purchase of the land and for the church’s Phase 1 building,” explains Studio RED Partner Micah Simecek, AIA, MBA, CCS. “The latter scenario is a unique opportunity that the church is considering in order to share the burden of development with another partner and, hopefully, to create an ‘incubator’ for other like-minded businesses which can help support a missions-based retail opportunity.” 

This might mean restaurants and fair-trade shopping, afterschool tutoring, licensed Christian counseling, Mother’s Day Out services, after-school care, a preschool, a preparatory school and more. Retailers might offer specialty products that support foreign missions or employ a workforce of people needing a second chance. The possibilities are vast.

“We’ve also got vision for a college one day, or we’ll partner with schools,” Sherrill adds. “And right now, we’re talking with a seminary about establishing its first physical campus on our property.”

To help evaluate the prospects, McDonald and Studio RED are currently working on potential covenants the church can use. Further, McDonald is encouraging the establishment of a property owners association to prevent land  sold to a third-party from being redeveloped into a bar or nightclub, for instance. 

For his part, Sherrill anticipates the end approach will be a little of both: selling the land and building-to-suit.

“We’ll probably allocate X amount of the land for commercial use that will tie in nicely to what the whole development will look like through Studio RED, but then also allocate a piece to some joint ventures that will be more of a destination opportunity for people in our area,” he says. “This will also enable us to partner with them to provide some long-term ROI to help fund ministry and continue to build people in the Kingdom the way we’re called to do.”

It all requires a foundation

With an eye toward maximizing all the land, everything comes back to infrastructure.

The church’s feasibility study determined that the previous property owner had no plans to put in water lines, a sewer, and so on. The cost for the church to do so — ensuring all developable land is ready when the time come  — would be about $1.4 million. Though a significant investment, this would ultimately mean the difference between selling the land at $2 per square foot versus $13, $15 or $18. 

While laying this foundation might take as much as 48 months, Sherrill says he’s comfortable with the timeline. 

“If we don’t plan for this today, we won’t be prepared to execute when the day comes,” he says. “To hyper-focus on our 28,000-square-foot Phase 1 parcel would be bad stewardship. It might feel good to save money now, but it would cost us so much more in the long run, and that would inhibit us from doing Kingdom work.”

This commitment to stewardship extends to the previously-thought-unusable “back 50” part of the acreage that has remained untouched for as long as anyone can remember. Here, too, an opportunity exists to pursue the faith + community partnership dynamic by preserving the area and providing community amenities on it. 

“We don’t want to just clear-cut trees; we want to be very strategic and not to disturb what we don’t have to,” Sherrill says. 

On this land, he envisions sports fields, parks, ponds and playgrounds for the area’s families.

“At any point, from any of any of the surrounding neighborhoods, you could pop onto our property,” Sherrill points out. “I believe we could put as many fields as possible out there — grass, turf, lit, not lit, whatever — and there would be people there every day.” 

Studio RED’s Simecek agrees: “Providing such amenities is a way for the church to offer those resources to the community to attract them to the property and potentially bring them into their doors.”  

A long-term perspective

Whether or not they attend services on Sunday, Sherrill says he hopes this focus on loving the community will inspire families to think about the church first in moments of crisis or of need. 

“We are a church, unapologetically, and we want to be a church,” he clarifies. “But we also want to earn the respect of being authentic in and out of season. Instead of saying, ‘Hey, we want you to come to our church,’ we want to convey, ‘We’re coming to you by providing all these things which we hope will be of value to your family.’”

It’s a big vision. As with any big vision, achieving it will require the right partnerships. In this sense, Declaration Church is in good hands.

“What [architects Trung Doan and Simecek] brought to the table ensured that Studio RED would be the right partner to execute the vision in its entirety, instead of just a piece that might get us down the road,” Sherrill says. “We wanted to value-engineer from the get-go to so that we’ve already planned for it when we get to Phases 3 and 4 five or 10 years down the road. 

“That might sound simple,” he adds, “but given the scope of our project, I can guarantee it will take surgical skill.”

— Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh


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