01 June 2010

Money Pit or Ministry Center?

When most people who serve professionally in the church (pastors, deacons & deaconesses, diaconal ministers, associates in ministry, etc) envision their careers, do they imagine being required to rebuild something like the sanctuary to my right? I doubt it. Of course, accidents happen, tornadoes and hurricanes and floods strike, and some of us get thrust into building programs we can't avoid because we can't walk away when disaster strikes. That kind of work is honorable and worthy of praise - but it's not what I'm talking about here.

Our campus ministry center is big, old, and in need of a lot of work. A whole lotta work. Like, a crap-ton of work. A good chunk of work got done under my predecessor, and what was done got done well. But that was just the necessary stuff, things to keep the building for falling in on itself. There's a lot to do - and I'm wondering: why, exactly, do we have to do it?

Our Synod Assembly was recently held at Lutheran Church of Hope, one of the largest churches in the ELCA. The place feels like an airport or a new middle school, complete with cafeteria space, a gymnasium, a coffee shop and two worship spaces that hold lots and lots and lots and lots of people. It's an incredible facility, well-built, well-managed, and obviously well-loved, given the number of people that worship there on any given weekend. Even though it's not really the place I'd call home spiritually, I'm glad they're there, and I think the ministry they do is, in many ways, very well done and an important witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. Now, I'm sure they've got lots of qualified people on their staff to handle maintenance there, to make sure stuff gets done the way it needs to get done, but as the pastor in a church with three paid staff, and me being the only one above 20 hours a week, I looked around that church in Des Moines and thought, "Man, I'm glad I'm not in charge here!"

When I first thought about ministry, buildings were the furthest thing from my mind. Bible study? Yeah. Preaching? Of course. Reading and thinking and teaching about God? Absolutely. Caring for the sick and building trusting relationships with the people I serve? No question. But caring for a building? Not even on my radar. Talk about ignorant.

There will be a lot of us in my position in the next 20-40 years: ministry leaders in places where the buildings are far larger than required for the worshiping community and in far more disrepair than is healthy. No, ministry is not all about the building, but we need to be asking ourselves some tough questions in the future:
  • "Can we take care of this building, or are there others who could use it more effectively?"
  • "Why do we pay so much for a building that is only properly used once a week?"
  • "Do we make our building available for public, non-church events, or do we abdicate our building in favor of a more flexible, less labor-intensive way of gathering as a community?"
I'm not planning on going anywhere just yet, but the thought of being the pastor of a church with no facility to manage has some attraction to me. A coffee-shop office and worship in some public space once a week might be the way some of us will have to go - and it might even be more faithful to do so. Not everyone needs a place like Lutheran Church of Hope. Some do, and the "established" church building, with sanctuaries and Sunday School rooms and the like will probably never go away completely. But I think a lot of us are going to need to be creative about our facilities and our communities in the coming years, so that we don't make the mistake of chaining ourselves to money pits we can't manage properly. Every church, from Joel Osteen's big digs in San Antonio to the tiny little church I attended during seminary, is a ministry center - here's hoping we all find ourselves centered where we can actually do ministry.

Grace & peace,


  1. I've long dreamt of leading a similar church: no building save for maybe some rented office space, Bible study in coffeeshops/pubs, worship in a high school auditorium or movie theater. Not having to deal with building upkeep would eliminate a huge burden for many/all faith communities.

  2. It is so much more difficult than you think. In fact, I hear a tad of romanticization in both the post and subsequent comment. Take from someone in a strip mall right now.

  3. I don't know about CP, but for me it's not so much romanticism as it is wondering if there's a different way to be faithful. I'd guess both Jeff and I know we'd be trading one set of problems for another - the question is, can God meet a need in that way?