BETTER TOGETHER: Why working with a team yields better building project results

A major building project is something typical pastors undertake only once or twice in their careers, if ever. Many potential pitfalls loom without the right guidance, and far too many pastors are essentially “flying blind” when they start out. It can even lead them to burnout … and leaving their churches behind.

To this end, enlisting the right building team — from fundraising to the finish, and everything in between — represents the best possible stewardship. But it also takes coordination. 

In this roundtable discussion, an architect, capital campaign consultant, design-builder — and their joint client, a pastor — examine a more synergistic approach to a building project, from start to finish.

RODNEY: The idea for this roundtable came about after an initial conversation with you about bringing the ‘best players to the table to walk a church through the entire building process.’ Was this approach on your heart for a while? 

Rodney James: Yes! While serving as a pastor, I was privileged to walk through three building projects. I observed the typical approach as a pastor where I had to figure out and find the right stewardship campaign partner, architect, builder, AVL integrator, the lender, and others. It was daunting, time-consuming, and filled with uncertainties.  

So, when God called me into the ministry of serving pastors and churches across the country designing and building facilities, I asked the Lord for wisdom to serve churches — and especially pastors — in a better way. The process of becoming the coach of the team, recruiting the right players, and leading the process was the result of studying the building projects of the Bible and how God provided for each of those unique journeys.  

CHUCK: And what about you? Why did you begin to embrace this synergistic approach?

Chuck Klein: Rodney and I have been working together for many years and have seen firsthand the success of helping church leadership be proactive in their planning. 

Unfortunately, many churches will wait to call me until it’s time to start raising funds, expecting me to be a ‘rainmaker’. They don’t realize how much Rodney and I can both initially help as they plan their scope and begin budgeting for a project. 

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Churches typically run into two issues with their building projects. First, they set the bar too low and try to do a small project that fails to challenge and excite their people. It doesn’t set them up for long-term ministry. The project becomes a short-term ‘patch’. 

Or, the project gets too large and costly, and the church pulls the plug. Nothing is ever done, kicking the can down the road for a future time and killing ministry momentum. This creates a credibility problem.

That’s where Rodney and I have been able to work together to help churches reach their potential and set attainable project size and financial goals in order for leadership to become comfortable casting vision, creating excitement, challenging the church, and creating momentum.

RAVI: Same question. Why does this collaborative approach appeal to you?

Ravi Waldon: The idea of design/build has been around a long, long time; it’s not new. We’ve been doing this with [Rodney] for a number of years. 

But the idea of real partnership and real collaboration is the critical aspect of any effort regardless of the contract vehicle.  

For me, as an architect, it’s always been about  collaboration. Working closely with churches is a particularly good thing because they — more than most project types — are very price-sensitive, and the funds are all donor-based. As such, it’s an extremely good approach for all the parties involved to be working together from the very beginning. 

From a business perspective, no one benefits with a lot of going back and forth. We certainly don’t want to draw things many times over due to preventable value engineering or missteps. 

The value for the ministries is a steady forward progression by the team towards the end goal to meet the vision of the ministry by the design/build team. It’s vital that those that support the work as builder, financier, architect, or any other discipline be aligned in the mission.  

PASTOR JOHNSON: I know your church, Living Stones, took this synergistic approach. Can you tell me more about the project scope, objectives, and so on?

PASTOR RON JOHNSON: Sure. Our initial project with [this team] was a massive success, even though it happened during COVID. We gained a large foyer to really help with our traffic flow. We redid our children’s and youth areas. We did a lot of internal remodeling. 

During COVID, we opened up way earlier than most churches and just continued to minister to people. To our surprise, the church quadrupled in size, which necessitated another capital campaign immediately on the heels of our first campaign; we simply outgrew our facility again. 

So, this current project is to build a new sanctuary, as well as a new preschool wing because the children’s area has no more room to grow. We’re going to add a completely different section for everybody aged Kindergarten and under. We also have an office complex planned to accommodate administrative space, because we’re literally scattered across our facility right now.

“We’re moving fast and building fast and doing it in a way that’s very efficient. People get excited about each week’s progress. They want to be part of a church that’s full of life and vision and is going somewhere. That’s what we’ve experienced now, twice in a row. When you have a few victories under your belt, it gives you supernatural faith for whatever God asks you to do next.”

— Pastor Ron Johnson, Jr.

PASTOR JOHNSON: How did this synergistic project approach — of enlisting the architectural partner, capital campaign consultant and design-builder all at once — emerge as an option?

JOHNSON: It’s all rooted in relationship, which I think is so important. 

When I first met Rodney, he introduced our church to several different stewardship campaign consultants. We’d never done a campaign before, and I wasn’t looking for the high-gloss, high-pressure approach. I wanted somebody who understood who we were and how we operated and fit our church culture. 

He directed me to several different options, and that’s how I met Chuck Klein. 

He also introduced us to some bankers who are believers and who specialize in helping churches grow.

What I say is, we had the Dream Team from our first go-round. We had the banking piece lined up; we had the capital campaign piece lined up; we had an incredible design-build partner lined up. It was just wonderful. 


PASTOR JOHNSON: What were the results of the first capital campaign? How is the second campaign coming along?

JOHNSON: For our first campaign, we met with Chuck Klein, who walked us through the process and assured us that, first of all, it was worth the investment rather than trying to do it ourselves. He was right; we exceeded all expectations with the first project.

The second project is totally crazy. We were expecting to raise about $3.5 million in pledges on the high end, but we’ve already raised $6.6 million. Now we’re going into the final year of our three-year campaign at about the 49-percent-to-goal mark. We’ve got some catching up to do in terms of staying on track, but we’re not that far off, especially in a challenging economy.

This is a huge deal because if a pastor tries to launch a capital campaign and ends up falling flat on their face, it creates a ‘momentum vacuum.’ It sucks all the air out of the room and takes away from their leadership credibility, which sets the whole church back. 

RODNEY, CHUCK AND RAVI: A synergistic approach like this no doubt frees up the pastor to focus on spiritual leadership throughout the project. Can you tell me more about that, plus the other primary benefits for a church leader? 

Chuck: A pastor’s biggest fear with building and expansion is almost always how to ask people for money. We have to help them flip the script and realize that what they’re actually afraid of is ‘fundraising’ in the worldly sense. That’s not what we’re doing.  

Rather, it’s about getting people excited about the long-term vision for the church and partnering in ministry to spread the Gospel. If your people are excited, they’ll want to have a tangible part of this, and God has shown that He will use His people when their hearts are open to His will.

This approach lets the pastor focus on the big picture and get comfortable with the vision and how we can effectively roll out this project out to the church so that it’s not about money. You can raise a lot of money but not do it in the healthiest way for a church.  

Rodney: With the right partner or ‘coach’, the pastor or executive pastor is freed from the process of finding all the different consultants, contractors and designers. 

They also don’t become the middleman in communications between all the different parties during the process. This is so valuable for the staff throughout the entire journey.

Ravi: Agreeing with Rodney’s comment, as well as Chuck’s. A good facility team will keep focused on the vision the ministry has laid forth. The building solution is an extension of the vision and with that in front of the team, there can be a free flow of ideas that capture the leadership’s goals.  

The design/build team always has to be asking the question: What’s the vision of the church ministry? How can we help to achieve it? 

The other aspect of the question about synergy beyond the common team vision is that of efficiency and harmony of process. There’s a number of different construction contract approaches, but many are built around an adversarial relationship between the builder and the design team. If we don’t draw it, then they don’t have it; then we’ve got an argument about change orders. If we’re all taking a collaborative approach from the beginning, it stops the finger-pointing and relieves the pastor from having to stand in the middle of that dynamic. It also is more efficient inasmuch as it curtails the back-and-forth of missing the target program or budget because both are kept in the forefront at all times.

PASTOR JOHNSON: Did this coordinated approach actually help you maintain your own focus on spiritual leadership?

JOHNSON: Oh, hugely. Pastors of growing churches already have plenty to keep them busy, so the building process can really burn them out. But actually, I was so energized and so excited and so fired up because of, again, the relational connection. 

When I work with [Rodney, Chuck and Ravi], I know two things. First, that they’re good at what they do. Second, that they love the Lord, they love the Church, and they want us to win. I never once felt like this wasn’t absolutely a win-win situation. In fact, sometimes I’d even ask them, “If you were me, what would you do?” That’s not something you ask if you’re unsure they’ll give you an honest answer. 

I hardly had to think at all about the details of the project. I just celebrated the progress every day.

RODNEY, CHUCK AND RAVI: Traditionally, each of your areas of expertise is enlisted separately, at different points on the project timeline. What are the biggest potential issues with that approach?

Rodney: Traditionally, this is an accurate depiction of the process, and far too often it’s in the wrong order.  

For example, if the architect is hired first, but the church hasn’t determined its financial capacity for funding the project, the design can outpace the available funds. Then the stewardship campaign consultant is brought in with an expectation to raise more than is likely feasible. No one wins!  

When the team is assembled at the beginning of the process, however, every element is designed within a budgetary parameter that allows the project to be completed on budget.

Chuck: The design-builder is typically underway looking at initial options in the first 90 days. I can then assist the church in getting comfortable with project scope and ideal monetary size as options are assessed. Shortly thereafter, the church is ready for development of the plans, cost and approval for a capital project. All of this can come together very expeditiously. 

During this period, I can begin planning the capital campaign timeline with church so there isn’t a huge gap between the final plans and the inevitable time needed to fundraise before getting to construction.

Preparing the vision piece is also critical, here. Getting the pastor comfortable with the project, beginning preparations for visioning, and timing all play an important role in a church’s readiness when it’s time to move forward. 

When churches call me after the fact, it slows down the process and can kill momentum. Proactive planning on the front end with the design/builder and architect can create a seamless transition.

Ravi: When I think about this question, I think about sitting down with a pastor, even in an interview setting, and Rodney putting on his ‘shepherding hat’ as an ex-pastor. He’s lived through it. 

For me, as an architect, I feel that the team should always focus on the project in a way that allows the pastoral team to just be shepherds — that’s why they’re hiring us: to be the experts. This way, when disagreements arise over mundane details (the color of the carpet, for instance), we can shield the pastor from being in the ‘line of fire.’ And that keeps the ministry team free to be ministering — to keep the main thing, the main thing.

PASTOR JOHNSON: Would your church have considered enlisting all three entities (architect, capital stewardship firm, and design-builder) separately if you hadn’t been offered this synergistic approach instead?

JOHNSON: That’s a great question. Like most pastors, this was my first rodeo; we’d never done anything like this. So, yes, I might otherwise have thought: Hey, we need an architect, and then, Oh, we need a builder, and then, Oh, we need to raise funds. 

The problem is — as many other pastors I’ve run into have shared — sometimes your architect drafts the Taj Mahal, and everybody gets excited. Then, the builder comes along and tells you what it’s going to cost. What a bummer! Everybody was excited for Plan A, but they ended up with whatever the church could afford. 

So, for me, it’s brilliant to have a team that works together, with the same focus, speaking the same language. They have relationships with each other. It’s very, very strategic. 

I’m sure we would’ve gone the other route, but we probably would have paid for it.

RODNEY, CHUCK AND RAVI: To work together in this coordinated fashion requires a lot of trust in each other as professionals and friends. How is that forged?

Ravi: Well, experience together over time is a real key here, as is having the shared value of wanting to serve Christ right from the beginning. I was called to be an architect just as a pastor is called to be a pastor; this is where God has planted me in the Kingdom. 

Rodney will say the same thing about being a builder, and Chuck will express the same sentiment around getting the church organized right, financially. We can all bring our best talents to the table and use them for God’s purposes, starting from a point of trust and a desire to do something good for the ministry and for God. 

We’re still growing in our relationship, but we build a little more trust each time we work together. Frankly, you learn to trust another person even more when things go wrong than when things go right. If everyone remains committed to fixing the issue, versus finger-pointing, that’s what’s best for the ministry, and it also deepens the trust relationship. 

Rodney: No doubt, it takes trust and great communication. Getting to know the main players from each partnership well before we engage to work together is the key. It really is as much about character, personality and integrity as it is about ability. If we’re all Kingdom-minded and have a heart to serve the Church, the synergy is easy to achieve.

Chuck: So many years of successful work, both independently and together, create confidence and help reassure the church client. So many of our projects are most successful when we can come in early and — together — help church leadership prepare. 

Working together, we know our parts and how we can help the church. Ultimately, we know we’re coming from same place: we want to serve the church and put processes in place that are God-honoring. These are processes we’ve seen the Lord bless time and again.

I understand their hearts, and they understand mine, because we all want to serve the Church. We’re extensions of the same process. This helps church leaders get a fuller picture of what they’re stepping into on the front end rather than practicing damage control later.

PASTOR JOHNSON: Since you decided to take this coordinated approach, what have been the tangible bottom-line benefits?

JOHNSON: Well, for one thing, our first project came in under the project price. It’s a great thing to get up and tell your congregation, ‘Hey, we’re $300,000 under budget!’ That’s huge; I mean, it’s usually the other way around.

But when you have the architects working with the builders from the beginning, you end up designing a facility that’s doable right from the start. You might tweak it, or remove or add this or that, but you’re not going back to the drawing board over and over and over. That just saves money. 

There’s also the sense of momentum, which I’ve mentioned. We’re moving fast and building fast and doing it in a way that’s very efficient. People get excited about each week’s progress. They want to be part of a church that’s full of life and vision and is going somewhere. 

That’s what we’ve experienced now, twice in a row. When you have a few victories under your belt, it gives you supernatural faith for whatever God asks you to do next. 

RODNEY, CHUCK AND RAVI: Is Pastor Johnson’s experience pretty typical for church clients take this coordinated approach to their building projects?

Rodney: It is; the greatest benefit is relieving the pastor and staff from the need to coordinate all the different areas of responsibility. It allows them to focus on their calling, not the building.  

The second great benefit is a team working together toward the same goal. It requires fewer resources than different organizations all trying to accomplish their individual goals. This means significant cost savings for the church.

Ravi: Well, yes. Here’s why.

First, it’s going to save time because all three parties are ensuring their pieces are done correctly. That keeps things on schedule.

For another thing, we’re able to listen to what the church’s dream is but also ensure we don’t overshoot the budget and program, thereby designing an impossible building. That can only be ensured if all of us are involved from beginning to end.

It also pays to have partners who have a good sense of what things cost and how available they are, especially today. Right now, an electrical switchgear is 18 months out. If you don’t order it far enough in advance, your project is dead in the water because you can’t power it up. 

Everybody has heard stories of pastors who make it through a building project and leave their churches within a few years. Maybe those projects were so stressful that it burned them out. Our goal as a team is to help the ministry move forward in unity and help avoid that.

Chuck: Yes, and this is the goal. 

Having all of us working together as a team from the start with the same concerns, timelines and goals are such a weight off the pastor. Pastoral leadership is not shouldering this burden alone and has a team looking out for the church’s best interests. 

From my perspective, Pastor Johnson’s situation was the ideal we strive for regarding church capital programs.

Having years of experience helping churches raise funds for expansion, I prefer to come in on the front end and help the church get comfortable with the scope of project and cost. I’m able to say, ‘OK, this is what we see historically’ and show them numbers from other churches of their size. 

This way, there’s a plan in place to not only pay for the project but set reachable goals and eliminate any long-term debt. Many churches will carry debt much longer than necessary, which can affect future expansion because debt isn’t minimized or eliminated.

Having as much information up front gives them the best opportunity to set themselves up for success.

PASTOR JOHNSON: What about spiritually? Has the building process enriched your ministry in this way?

JOHNSON: Definitely. We’ve had 400 new people join the church in the last year, which is amazing. When I share what God is doing at our church, it’s never a hard sell. I say, ‘I want you to pray and ask the Lord to show you what he wants you to give.’ That’s always going to be bigger than the natural inclination because God is supernatural. We tell people, ‘Don’t rely on your own understanding of what’s practical or what you can do; let God stretch you into what you can do so He has to do it.’

I can’t tell you how much it builds people’s faith. You can preach a Bible verse about this and put it in a sermon, but it’s not experiential until you step out in faith and watch God move in your life. When people are experiencing this firsthand and have their own testimony, it’s unbelievable.

PASTOR JOHNSON: And have Rodney, Chuck and Ravi played a role in the spiritual side of your project, themselves?

JOHNSON: Yes. We talk about what’s going on. We pray together. We’re brothers in Christ. We love each other. It goes way beyond a business relationship. 

And that goes both ways, because when my ministry friends see what God has done here, they want to know how it happened. They’ll say, ‘Hey, who’s your builder?’ and ‘How did you raise that money?’ It’s just very synergistic in terms of Kingdom impact.

— Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh


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