By Rez Gopez-Sindac
When Dr. Robert Jeffress became the senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas in Dallas, TX, one of the things he set out to do was reinvent the 145-year-old downtown church.
First Baptist had amassed a hodgepodge of buildings that didn’t fit with one another, or with the aggressive revitalization of downtown Dallas. Jeffress says he knew immediately what needed to be done: Rebuild the church architecturally, as well as spiritually.
So, in November 2009 — in the midst of the country’s worst economic recession since the Great Depression — Jeffress announced a grand vision for what would become the largest church building program in modern history: a $130-million new campus in the heart of Dallas. The new 500,000-square-foot facility opened its doors to the public last Easter Sunday.
Jeffress is quick to admit that the mammoth undertaking wouldn’t have been possible without the “supernatural working of God.” Still, he says he can’t emphasize enough the importance of planning and leadership in the success of any building project.
In an interview with Church Executive, Jeffress shares some of the lessons he learned leading a church makeover.
Just do it. When people asked Jeffress if he prayed about whether or not to reconstruct the campus, his answer was a resounding “No.” Jeffress says he looked at the Old Testament book of Nehemiah and found that Nehemiah never prayed to God about whether or not he ought to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls of the city.
Jeffress reminds church leaders that there are some things they don’t need to pray about because God already put those things in their hearts to do. “What you need to pray for,” he says, “is that you do it in God’s way and on God’s timing.”
Be fully involved in fundraising. Jeffress maintains that only God can stir the hearts of people to give, but that as a leader he needed to be totally dedicated to the task of asking people to give. Jeffress says one of the things he realized early on was that if he was to successfully raise $130 million, he must give 100 percent of himself to the fundraising aspect of the building project. And that’s what he did. Jeffress gave one year of his time to raising funds — no book writing, no outside speaking engagements. The only other thing he did was preach at his church.
Secure the investment of those who can give the most. As soon as the church committee approved the possibility of building a new campus, Jeffress picked 100 church members who he felt had the ability to give the largest amount of money and personally met with each one of them. In total, those 100 people made a commitment to give $65 million — one-half of the cost of the project.
Jeffress then made an announcement to the congregation: “I said, ‘Here’s what we propose to do; here’s what it’s going to look like — and, by the way, half the money has already been raised.’” People were ecstatic, he says, and voted unanimously to proceed in a public fundraising campaign.
Help your people visualize the project. Jeffress cites the example of the 12 Israelite leaders who were sent out by Moses to explore the Promised Land and came back with a visual picture: a cluster of grapes so large that it had to be put on a pole and took two men to carry.
In the case of First Baptist Dallas, Jeffress says the church used social media, technology and the “printed page” to give the people a picture of what the future could look like. “We spent a significant amount of money creating an animation [film],” he says. “I would also say not to spare any expense in the production of printed materials — make them full-color, on beautiful paper. Don’t use flimsy paper for commitment cards. People aren’t going to make a million-dollar commitment on a flimsy piece of paper. I really think attention to details like that help make for a successful project.”
Lead through the pulpit. “Use your preaching to carry the church to where you believe God wants it to go,” advises Jeffress, adding that it’s a principle he learned from Willow Creek Community Church pastor Bill Hybels. “There are a lot of pastors — and I used to be one of them — who believed they should never use the pulpit to try to get the church to do something; they ought to do that outside of their sermon,” explains Jeffress. But, Jeffress says he learned that if a leader’s vision is God-honoring and is in keeping with God’s will, he or she should use the Scripture to communicate to the people where and how God is leading the church to go.
Don’t underestimate the financially challenged. Knowing that many people at his church were struggling financially, Jeffress says he softened his appeal by excusing those who did not have jobs from giving to the building project. “I tried to show sensitivity,” he reasons. But, he says, a couple approached him — the husband had been out of work for a year — and said, “Pastor, don’t rob us of the joy of being able to participate in this undertaking.” The couple handed Jeffress a check for $5,000 — the last money they had in the bank.
“God has since blessed the husband with a wonderful job,” says Jeffress. “But I learned that, as pastors, we’re to put the challenge out there and let God speak to the hearts of those who need to give.”
Operate in your area of strength. Leading the team for the building project of First Baptist Church was executive pastor Walter A. Guillaume, Jr., who worked alongside a 12-member committee and a full-time construction supervisor. “They spared me from so many details,” says Jeffress, who admits he doesn’t know a thing about construction, electrical outlets and building materials. “One thing I learned during this project — and I learned it from talking to other pastors — was that the pastor needs to concentrate on doing what he and only he can do, and let the committee build the building,” says Jeffress. He says what God has called and gifted him to do is to encourage the people to give and provide the overall vision for what the project ought to look like and its role in fulfilling the vision of the church.
You have to spend money to make money. When Jeffress came to First Baptist Dallas as senior pastor, the church was already $15.5 million in debt from a previous project. Imagine the shock of the deacons when, one evening, Jeffress told them they needed to borrow $5 million to get the architectural plans drawn up and to do all that was needed to be done to raise the funds. Some people left the church because of it, recalls Jeffress; but the deacons, by and large, stood by him. “It cost us $5 million to raise $130 million,” he says.
Six weeks is all you need. It takes a lot of time to sow the seeds, but, according to Jeffress, the actual campaign shouldn’t last more than six weeks. Otherwise, the people at large will grow weary of it, he says.
Don’t build any more than what people are willing to give. Jeffress says one thing that gave the members of First Baptist Dallas the confidence to give was the leadership’s commitment: “We’re only going to spend what you commit.” In other words, if the project was going to cost $130 million, and the church only raised $115 million, it wasn’t going to borrow the other $15 million. “It made people give generously — and, of course, it’s going to keep us out of debt,” says Jeffress.
Bathe everything in prayer. “We had in our church 300 men, called the Pastor’s Prayer Partners, who regularly prayed throughout this project that God would guide us and bless our efforts,” says Jeffress.
Cast the vision beyond the project’s completion. Jeffress believes the new campus is not an end unto itself, but simply a tool to use in ministering to the city of Dallas even more effectively. “This is a new beginning for us — to reach more diverse groups of people,” says Jeffress.
First Baptist is also getting ready to enter into mainland China with its broadcast, with the potential of reaching 1 billion people. “We always have a new goal — but, hopefully, no new buildings for a while,” Jeffress concludes.