About 30 years ago, lots of churches bought into the myth that building a gym was the answer to all their outreach woes. Churches thought “build it and they will come” long before Ray Kinsella made it popular in Field of Dreams. But in real life, somebody has to be there to run the place after you build it so they can come. And before they come, somebody has to program the use of the building. Getting both people and programs in place as we opened the community center has taken countless hours of my time, not to mention all the other folks involved.
Buildings are not the answer to any church’s problems, outreach or otherwise. Buildings add to the complexity of church ministry because you need people and programs to fill them. So, before you “build it” hoping “they will come” start some programs right now. When we dreamed of building a community center, we started the Boys and Girls Club program first in the space we had, with a staff of 2 people. Having that program established before we built and opened the community center guaranteed us an anchor program, complete with staff. Currently the program serves about 80 kids a day with a paid staff of 5, plus additional community center staff of 3. We also use volunteers, but we do not rely on volunteers for critical functions. Volunteers supplement on-going programs, and relieve staff to focus on essential responsibilities.
Next myth to be busted: “Don’t worry, the building will pay for itself.”
Last week The Community Center at Chatham opened to the public after three years of planning, praying, and building. Reaction to the building was amazing, and ranged from “Wow” to “Now we can have exercise classes here.” Everything about this project went extremely well, and moved quickly. But, I did learn some things in the process, and here’s what I’ve gleaned so far:
- Be prepared for criticism. When we were awarded $3-million to build the community center, I thought everyone would be thrilled. Most were, but some very vocal opponents were quick with their criticism. Be prepared for criticism when you undertake any community-wide project.
- Get all the help you can. We hired a top-notch architectural and engineering firm, a good contractor, and our board made a lot of decisions. One person could not have pulled this off, and I called on the expertise of board members, design professionals, and others every step of the way. The best money we spent was to pay the architectural firm to manage the project and review all materials the contractor used. Some suggested we manage the project ourselves, which would have saved us thousands of dollars. But, it might have cost us tens-of-thousands of dollars in bad decisions.
- Know how you will use the building before you design it. One of my favorite movie lines is from Field of Dreams when Ray Kinsella hears the voice tell him, “If you build it, they will come.” That’s a great line, but building it isn’t enough. You have to know why you’re building it. In our case we knew the Boys and Girls Club would be the anchor program, so we designed the building to be managed by two people with clear sight lines into all rooms. Form does indeed follow function.
- Develop use policies prior to opening. We’re behind on this, but we’re catching up fast. We were so focused on building the building that we lagged behind on use policies. Fortunately, we’re closed for a couple of weeks to put in the gym floor, so we’ll catch up before we re-open.
- Think about staffing and funding. We decided that we could not run the building with volunteers alone, so we hired an interim director and will add part-time staff later. But we will use lots of volunteers to round out our staffing. We’re also raising money (we raised $26,000 at our gala grand opening dinner); we believe operating expenses will run $8-10,000 per month. That’s a lot of money to raise, but we plan a combination of individual and corporate donations, grants, user fees, and rental fees. I’ll let you know how this works as we move forward.
Someone asked me several weeks ago if I would do this all over again. The answer is “Yes” because the Center has already exceeded our expectations. But, I did learn some things, and next time it will be easier. I hope.