By RaeAnn Slaybaugh
In 2001, Word of Life Church faced two major setbacks: the senior pastor passed away, and the building project — underway at the time — came back from bid 200 percent over budget.
But, 10 years later, the church completed an $11.2-million building project, including a 900-seat sanctuary, offices, adult education areas, café, and state-of-the-art facility for infants, children and youth.
Last year, the church’s leaders put the finishing touches on the second phase of its expansion, an $18.2-million project that included a new 2,000-seat sanctuary and vastly expanded café, along with offices, back stage areas, and creative space.
It all started with a late pastor’s vision and culminated with his son’s exceptional ability to not only carry on that legacy, but also draw upon his and others’ unique gifts to create his own story.
Joel Sims’ path to the pastorship at Word of Life Church in Flowood, Mississippi, was an incredibly swift one after his father, Senior Pastor Ronnie Sims, passed away in 2001. Joel was just 17.
At the time, a $10-million building project was in the works. Plans had been drawn up and the property purchased. Land was cleared, a parking lot in place, and a foundation laid.
But when the plans were put out to bid, they exceeded the church’s intended budget by more than 200 percent.
“The cheapest [bid] we got back was $22 million,” Joel recalled.
Not only that, but those plans cost $750,000 to commission in the first place.
Naturally, a then-19-year-old Joel spent the first several years shoring up the foundation when he assumed church leadership in 2003.
In 2011, when the church was blessed with enough growth to revisit its building plans, one of Joel’s first steps was to attend a class on ensuring a successful church building. The presenter was Charlie Daniels, owner and president of Oklahoma-based Churches by Daniels.
Based on the church’s prior setback, the approach Charlie offered appealed to Joel: hiring a contractor before hiring an architect. This way, as Charlie pointed out, the architect designs what the pastor can afford, not just what he wants.
It also meant that Charlie and his team would choose the subcontractors.
“Obviously, we had people who would love to do the A/C work, or to lay the tile floors, or to pour the concrete. And as a pastor, it’s so tempting to let them,” Joel explained. “But we were able to tell our people, ‘Submit through the same process as any other sub would, and our contractors will be the ones to choose.’”
Additionally, as the son of a pastor, Charlie had built many buildings with his own father.
“So, I think he has a natural pastor’s heart; it’s not just work for him,” Joel explained. “I understood that although I was building a church, I needed a builder, but I also needed a pastor — someone to ease my own mind about the things I don’t understand.”
One of those things was the financial planning for a major project. To this end, Joel gave Charlie and his team complete liberty to examine the church’s finances and tell them exactly what they could build, based on the church’s responses to questions like, “When would you like to be debt-free?”
“That helped us position ourselves financially, in terms of ‘Here’s what building you need to build’ and ‘Here’s the size and scope you don’t want to go beyond,’” Joel said.
It also helped the church — again, with Charlie’s help — find the right financing, at the right rates.
So, for a lot of very good reasons, he was Joel’s first phone call from day one.
“Having [that expertise on hand] helped me feel like I didn’t have to become a fundraiser during this project,” Joel said. “I didn’t have to become a contractor. I didn’t have to become a project manager. I was able to just be a pastor, and to continue doing what I’d always done, with Charlie rounding out those edges.”
From change comes growth
Word of Life Church completed the first phase in spring 2011 at a cost of $11.2 million.
Just five years later, the church began the second phase, again with Joel and Charlie at the helm. As before, family-friendly design was at the forefront — keeping with the church mission statement: “a family church with a world vision.”
At $18.2 million, the price tag was significantly larger than the first phase. Importantly, the 900-seat worship space — which was being replaced by a 2,000-seat sanctuary — would be divided and transformed into a combined children’s church / preschool ministry space.
Design-wise, of course, Charlie’s familiarity with the project was pivotal.
“You wouldn’t be able to tell where the old stopped and the new began,” Joel explained.
Even so, Joel and his team were confident and calm, because they were relying on a known, proven quantity.
“When phase one was done on time and under budget, it gave us that much more confidence,” Joel said. “We knew [Charlie] would let the builder be the builder, the architect be the architect, the engineer be the engineer, and the pastor be the pastor.”
“I refuse to think that just because I operate in a church, I know how to build one. I don’t; I need people who do. And I need to know that they’ll do it with integrity and with my best interests at heart.” — Joel Sims
Meanwhile, the new facility was designed to be unique, comfortable and deliver optimum viewing. Every seat would face the stage, and there would be enough space between the rows so that no one would need to stand up to let anyone out. Moreover, even the smallest seat in the sanctuary would be three inches wider.
Just as important, the new sanctuary would let the church reduce worship services from five to three.
“That would let us have a little bit more length to our services, and have time to convey the information that can build our values over into our church members,” Joel explained.
Happily, one aspect of phase two that didn’t expand was the pressure on church leadership.
“With phase one, we designed what we absolutely had to have,” he recalled. “With phase two, we took our time and made sure we got a lot of the things we wanted and desired, with Charlie and his team making all that economically affordable. We focused on things we felt would complement and build out our approach.”
Come rain or shine
The only real complication during the second phase, it seems, came in the form of excessive rain.
In Mississippi, 2018 was the second wettest year on record with a total of nearly 63 inches of rain. Summer 2017 was the fourth wettest, with a total of 22.4 inches. There were times during the project when a 56,000-square-foot pond had to be dewatered and de-mucked prior to continuing with fill and compaction.
Consequently, rain became the single most limiting factor in the Churches by Daniels team’s ability to complete exterior site work. For the first six months of the project, as many as six people would pump water and remove muck from excavations every day.
Joel recalled being “blown away” by the amount of rain, but he credits Charlie and his team with assigning project managers that were able to keep everything under control.
“They really owned the job and did phenomenal work, not only in giving us peace, but also in pushing the subcontractors to get work done when it was dry, and to prioritize our work,” he said.
Completed in fall 2018, phase two facilities are now finished and helping Joel and his team deliver better, even more family-focused ministry.
“Honestly, it was so much easier, even, than phase one,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine a building project — especially of that scale — being so pleasant.”
Part of the formula, of course, was the ability to apply the lessons learned in the first phase to phase two.
For instance, storage was more of a priority the second time around, as was the connective power of a great café.
“We definitely learned that,” Joel said. “The small café we built at that time had so much life in it. We knew it was something we needed to expand, enlarge, and make available as a communal, family-friendly space in phase two.”
Positioned front-and-center on the church campus, the new café seats 175 people and features impressive indoor and outdoor space, including fire pits.
“We really wanted the church to be a third place, outside of work and home, where our people can find Christian community,” he said. “A place where their kids can play with other kids who share their values, their principles.”
QUICK FACTS ABOUT WORD OF LIFE CHURCH
Year Established: 1980
Location of main campus: Flowood, Mississippi
Number of locations: 1
Number of staff (full- and part-time): 34 / 12
Combined weekly attendance: 4,000
A father’s legacy, continued
Today, what started as Ronnie Sims’ $10-million building project has culminated in a nearly $30-million, family-friendly church campus. According to plan, Word of Life Church is even on track to be debt-free in as little as three years.
It’s no small feat for any church, let alone one which has navigated such a personal tragedy, along with significant building setbacks. Joel said he gets emotional about that fact at least once a week, when he pulls up to the campus.
“I’ve been pastor for 16 years, and we didn’t get here overnight. But we took the vision that God gave my father, and we’ve completed it. It’s just wild to think about that,” he said. “I know he’d be overjoyed — not only at seeing his son lead the church, but to see the ministry continue on after his passing. And to be stronger than ever before, I think, is something that would bless him tremendously.”