How a 96-year-old church made a tough call in the “bottom of the ninth” of their $15-million building project — and emerged beautifully
By RaeAnn Slaybaugh
Fourteen years ago, Lead Pastor Shane Warren arrived at The Assembly, a 96-year-old church in West Monroe, La. Like many long-established congregations, the church was facing a season of turmoil.
However, he also knew the church had immense potential.
Now, after facing many pastors’ worst nightmare — essentially ‘starting over’ on a $15-million building project — the result is even better than they dreamed.
For several years prior to joining The Assembly in 2004 as lead pastor, Shane Warren gained nationwide recognition as a church planter and restorer, teaching other pastors how to revitalize and resurrect their congregations. So, when The Assembly reached out, Warren naturally agreed to visit the church and “feel it out.”
Soon after, he and his wife left a once-ailing church in Tennessee — where they’d been “used mightily” and thought they’d spend the rest of their lives — to lead the revitalization of The Assembly.
“We both felt like God was telling us to sell everything we had and start all over again,” Warren recalls.
Time to right the ship
Ask Warren about his biggest concern when revitalizing The Assembly, and he’ll tell you it came down to one word: unity. “I felt then — and still feel — that’s what has made our church a significant force in our city and state,” he says. “Our unity is the reason people come to us; it’s the reason we’re considered one of the fastest-growing churches in the southeast United States.” Amazingly, the church has grown to 3,000+ in weekly attendance in a community of 30,000 residents.
With all this growth came a need for more space, in the form of a $15-million building project. For a pastor who’d never overseen a project larger than $3 million, that was intimidating.
But, one challenged loomed even larger: gaining congregational buy-in to sell the nearly-100-year-old church and relocate to another part of town.
“In most cases, that’s instant pastoral death,” Warren says. “I knew the natural tendency would be that people would want to stay in the old. I wondered, How am I going to move them into the new aspect of the vision God is calling us to?”
At that point, communicating the vision — and keeping it in front of the people — became a top priority. For three years before the church broke ground, Warren spent time communicating the vision to his staff and board members. Then, he began meeting in homes and in small groups.
“Before we ever made a move on this project, I met with influencers and people in my church — many of whom, I knew, had given their blood, sweat and tears to build a 96-year-old facility in one location,” he says. “That was an incredible heritage. So, it was important that everybody be on the same page.”
In fact, Warren says he overcommunicated in every department, in every area of the church.
“My heart was that nobody would be left on the other side of the proverbial ‘river,’” he recalls. “For me, the mandate from God was to convince everybody that just because we were leaving a 96-year-old facility in one location, we weren’t leaving our heritage.”
At the same time, the community of West Monroe faced devastating storms and flooding. In 2016, a tornado caused millions of dollars in damage to two 600-foot towers at a television station the church owned. A recently purchased, 55,000-square-foot facility housing the church’s school, preschool and bible college — which recently underwent a $1-million renovation — was flooded with 4 feet of water, sustaining millions of dollars in damage.
All this was happening, of course, as Warren and his team were trying to get buy-in for the $15-million building project.
God had me here for this moment, for this organization. As uncomfortable as it was, something would come out of this process that would be better.”
Amazingly, without any outside help, the church raised $4 million in cash. This, in a community where the average household income is $35,000. (“And we didn’t have one single large donor,” Warren points out.)
More importantly, the unity of the church weathered the elements: in the end, the congregation unanimously voted to relocate.
“It was a slow progression. It was hard, it was grueling. But, it was worth it,” Warren recalls. “It’s one of my greatest successes as a pastor.”
All according to plan … so far
The Assembly bought 23 acres in the middle of town — land that sells for almost $1 million per acre — for $1 million. “A local businessman had a heart to help us, and God opened that door,” Warren recalls.
The damaged church facilities (the TV station towers and educational space) were being repaired. An architect was engaged to design the new facility.
With all this positive momentum, and with funding in order to start the massive project, Warren and the church felt confident.
None foresaw what happened next several months later, when the project was put out to bid and came back about $6 million over budget.
“I was devastated,” Warren recalls. “I knew I’d be dead in the water when I took those numbers to our leadership unless I had some plan to resolve it quickly.”
Immediately, and with a focus on total transparency, he went to the church board and critical influencers throughout the church. Not wanting them to ‘hear it from someone else,’ he told them all about the major struggle the church was facing.
The team circled the wagons. It was decided, and communicated to the church body, that a redrawn set of plans would be unveiled as soon as possible. After that, the building project would move forward.
Though Warren recalls it as the most difficult time of his pastoral life, he also says he awoke every morning with a sense of responsibility.
“God had me here for this moment, for this organization,” he explains. “As uncomfortable as it was, something would come out of this process that would be better.”
At the time, even he didn’t realize how right he was.
The beginning of a better way
One of the most critical components of navigating the sea change came from the church’s lender, when it suggested Warren reach out to three different church builders. The first — and last — firm he called was Broken Arrow, Okla.-based church builder Churches by Daniels.
“Most of all, I was looking for a design-build group that was reputable, that understood churches,” he recalls. “Anybody can build a church building, but not everyone understands the heart of a pastor and the vision of the church’s layout.”
Vice President Rodney James immediately traveled to West Monroe to meet with Warren and the church board. A thorough evaluation of the plans was conducted, and opportunities to save the church significant money on the project were identified.
QUICK FACTS ABOUT THE ASSEMBLY:
Year Established: 1922
Location of original campus: West Monroe, La.
Combined weekly attendance: 3,000+
2018 budget: $5 million
Part of that conversation included James asking Warren which church projects in the area he liked. It wasn’t an easy question. “There was a certain feel we were trying to accomplish; we wanted our campus to be unique,” he says. “We didn’t want a cookie cutter plan.”
When Warren cited a church project two hours away in Jackson, Miss., James revealed that his firm built it. It was a good sign.
But, Warren also needed to feel confident that James could help him navigate the difficult challenge of getting an executive board on the same page. He did.
“After that first meeting, we wrote a deposit check to get the plan started before they even left the room,” Warren says. “We just knew that it was God’s answer to our problem.”
Onward & upward
In less than 45 days, revised plans were in hand — plans that would enable the church to get back on target and ‘run the ball.’ And they weren’t just an alternative;
they were an improvement.
“When we looked at the first draft, we said, ‘Man, that’s so similar to what we wanted, but so much cleaner!’” Warren recalls.
Flow, for one, was a big concern. “Actually, when you’re trying to move thousands of people in any given service, and you have multiple services in that location, it’s everything,” Warren says.
Beyond that, the church wanted a facility that breeds community. That meant creating a flow between spaces that was beneficial for every ministry without making people feel alienated from the church family. “For example, our children’s department isn’t so separated from the worship space that people feel like their children aren’t part of the greater family,” Warren explains. “And every department in our church is like that.”
Of course, all this needed to be accomplished within budget — another major directive.
In the end, the revised plans maximized the church’s space in a way the original plans didn’t. Though more than 10,000 square feet was shaved off, every department was actually enlarged.
Within 18 months — and despite the raininest six months in Louisiana’s history — the project was finished. It came in $200,000 under budget.
“… but it came out of turmoil”
Today, the completed project at The Assembly is even better than the original plans. “It’s beyond my comprehension,” Warren says, “but it came out of turmoil.”
Not that he resents the experience — in fact, Warren says he embraces the struggle.
“Most of all, I’d tell other pastors undergoing major building projects that you’re only as good as the team that you’re surrounded by,” he advises. For his own part, he especially credits all six church board members with rising to the occasion — taking days off work, working into the wee hours of the morning, and so on.
“I’d never have made it without them, along with my staff,” he says. “There were days when I wanted to give up. There were days when they wanted to give up. But we made it, together.
“Even though I’m emotionally, physically and financially exhausted, it was so worth it to be able to walk into our building and say, ‘This is what God wanted for us.’”