Daniel Hilty says that any large-scale facility renovation requires a congregation to tolerate a tremendous amount of change and disruption. It’s critical to share information, listen to concerns, and acknowledge grief and loss. But perhaps the most important task is reminding the congregation of the “why” behind all of the changes.
Any church that has ever considered a building renovation must eventually wrestle with questions like these: What is God calling us to preserve? What is God calling us to make new? In what ways do we hold continuity with the past, and in what ways do we embrace change? And how do we find order and grace in the midst of all this messiness?
Probably the most important task was reminding the congregation of the “why” behind all of the changes. We all needed to be reminded from time to time that the changes were not for us; they were for people not yet present.
Our church’s struggle with these questions began in earnest in the fall of 2012 when we committed to a significant renovation of our facilities that would dramatically alter the sanctuary, lobby, children’s area, offices, and exterior main entrance. What followed the church-wide votes approving the project was a period of great transformation in a very short period of time.
Many congregation members gave tremendous amounts of their time, energy, and money to make the renovations happen. At the same time, there was a smaller portion of the membership that felt deeply upset and left behind by the changes our church was experiencing. Some dear sisters and brothers in the faith felt betrayed, and they still hurt today.
Large scale facility renovation asks the congregation to tolerate a tremendous amount of change. Giving people the opportunity to talk about the changes, and to know that their voices are an important part of the process, can help everyone in the congregation grieve their losses, normalize the changes, and express their hopes and dreams.
The more those in leadership communicate the changes, their rationale, and their progress, the more the larger congregation will feel involved in the process and less threatened by the perception of a “top down” authority making all the decisions. Our board held over a dozen open meetings designed to solicit feedback. In time, the questions that arose out of these meetings were collected — along with responses provided by the governing board — and published in a “Frequently Asked Questions” document that was widely circulated around the church.
One of the most important functions of our congregation-wide meetings was simply to listen to the questions, concerns, and dreams of the congregation. Pointing out how the plan had changed in response to these periods of listening went a long way in helping the congregation feel a sense of ownership and participation in the outcome. At times, listening also meant hearing expressions of the very deep hurt that some people felt as they realized that this building they love was never going to be the same again.
If there is one dimension of our communication I especially wish we had done better, it is information we shared about programming changes. Letting people know as early as possible how and why the renovations would change worship, Sunday school, etc., may have prevented some feelings of betrayal later in the process.
The amount of change people experience during renovation is very significant. The building is changing, the routines are changing, and the patterns of interaction are changing. Suddenly the one thing that seems never to change — the church — has changed greatly. There were times following the completion of the renovation that I felt overwhelmed with this grief and hurt that I had a role in creating for some dear saints of our church. A few people who were very important to our congregation, and to me personally, now suddenly thought of me as “the bad guy.”
To help maintain perspective, our leadership team had to be reminded on several occasions that 80 percent of the congregation voted in favor of the changes — not once, but twice — even if that kind of support was not immediately apparent in the emails and phone calls many of us received in the weeks immediately after renovation. Such voices numbered only about three persons for every 100 in average attendance at worship. That’s not to say that those three are unimportant. (“The Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in the flock to go after the one missing sheep,” Jesus says.) But it is also inaccurate to believe that the feelings of the three are a reflection of the other 97.
The Importance of Why
Probably the most important task was reminding the congregation of the “why” behind all of the changes. We all needed to be reminded from time to time that the changes were not for us; they were for people not yet present. They were for neighbors who are hungry for God today, and for children and grandchildren who are still to come. Once or twice during the renovation process we looked at old photographs of the generations who sacrificed and worked hard so that the church could be here for us today, and we imagined ourselves in the same role: as those that future generations are counting on to sacrifice and work hard so that there will be a church for them.
After the renovation is “done,” it is only natural to rejoice, but the danger of spending too much time in such activities is that they can cause the church to become very inwardly-focused. If the renovations cause the church to turn in on itself, then all the work was done in vain. Focusing on a missional need outside the church can go a very long way toward maintaining a healthy perspective within the congregation, helping us all remember that our personal feelings about the changes are a secondary concern, because the changes were not for us.