7 Fundamental Considerations in Finding a New Place to Worship
FOR GOD HAS BEEN WITH US, THE CHURCH IS GROWING, OUR SPACE IS NOW INADEQUATE; WHAT DO WE DO?
By Richard C. Baker, Member, Mauck & Baker, LLC
Picking up for my last article in this series on The ABC’s of Starting a Church, God has prospered the planting of your church and now you are growing. Perhaps your church has been renting space for Sunday worship with set up and break down, or meeting in another church’s facility when they are not there. Young families are coming and the activities of the church have outgrown the one or two day a week space. Or maybe you've found that the current facility you own is simply inadequate for the needs of your growing church.
If the leadership has determined that finding a new place for the people to call their own is important and doable, it's time to start searching. A good place to start is by forming a building committee with instructions to go out and survey the land. What are some of the things that the Committee and the leadership should be considering? What “giants” might you be facing?
For many churches, the first giant in the land is location. There’s more to it than, "if you build it they will come." Rather, to quote my partner John Mauck: "if you want to catch fish, fish where the fish are." What is the mission that God is calling your church to? Who are the people that God is calling the church to minister to? Also, will the location be convenient for the core congregation already established? Is the building in an area that will allow for visitors? How far will members have to travel? Is there easy access by car? If the location is in an urban area, is there public transportation? Of course, convenience is not the only criteria, but it is still important. And then there is cost which will vary depending on the property values in the area chosen, the size and condition of the building, and the renovations necessary.
Once you have identified a general area that you believe God is calling you to, there are the peculiarities of the specific address. In looking for a suitable property there are many questions to ask? Probably the first is: what can the church afford? Not only in the purchase of the land, but in the renovation necessary to bring it to the place that it is useful to the church. This is a very foundational question and the leadership will be key in laying out the vision and then carrying it through. Humility and discernment are crucial. Over the years I have seen a number of churches split or decline after promised visions of grandeur where not fulfilled and the people lost confidence in their leadership’s ability to hear God. And one piece of crucial advice when casting the vision: be very careful what is broadcast on the internet or over social media. As the Scriptures teach: what you say in secret will be shouted from the housetops. Not only will your members hold leadership accountable for the vision cast, but, as discussed below, objectors will too. Experience has taught me that “taking the land” often comes with opposition and the leadership and the congregation must be prepared for it. How many years did it take to rebuild the temple when the Jews returned from Babylon?
III. GROWTH- IMAGING THE FUTURE
From there, the next question may be: what is the size of the congregation? How much growth are you planning for before the building becomes obsolete for your purposes? Does it have enough space for the other ministries of the church such as fellowship, meetings, education and ministry? Are you looking for an existing church ‘as is’ or with renovation? Or, are you considering another type of building to be repurposed with considerable renovation or new construction? The type of building and its condition will have a profound impact on the negotiations and ultimate settling in of the congregation. I have seen car dealerships, funeral homes, Bucky Beaver Home Centers, banquet halls, storefronts, factories, residential homes, and warehouses all repurposed for use of a church. Remember, bigger is not always better.
IV. PARKING, YES REALLY, PARKING
One consideration that many churches do not initially consider, but is absolutely critical is parking. Parking is particularly hard to come by in urban areas and is an issue in almost every transaction I have been involved in where the church is relocating in a city.
From a planning point of view, if parking is not adequate, it will likely limit the growth of the church. For instance, it is said that once a church has reached 80% of its capacity, it begins to feel crowded and people are hesitant to come. So the number of seats in the church is crucial to its ability to grow. However, the seating capacity of a sanctuary is directly correlated to the amount of parking spaces that the property can supply. (Note, parking spaces on the street are not generally included in the municipality’s calculation.) For example, Chicago requires 1 parking space for every 8 seats in the sanctuary; DuPage County requires 1 space for every 4 seats and Wheaton, 1 space for every 2 seats. Thus, parking is a crucial factor central to the planning for the church. Since parking is almost always an issue in urban areas, there are creative ways within the zoning code to get around the parking restrictions, but that is another topic beyond the scope of this article.
Another major consideration in conjunction with parking is the zoning district that the property is located in. All properties are situated within specific zoning districts. Over the last 25 years, municipalities have begun to highly regulate which uses may locate in specific zones. A church is generally categorized as a “religious assembly.” Thus, when the church has identified a specific property, it must check the zoning to be sure it can locate there. In this regard, purchasing an existing church, if it has met the zoning requirements for the zoning district it is in, can eliminate one of the “giants” that others may face. However, even in buying an existing church, it should never be assumed that the zoning is in order. The zoning will need to be verified by your attorney during the due diligence process before the property is purchased and as mentioned above, parking will be a major issue.
Since zoning is so fundamental, a primer on zoning for religious uses may be helpful. Each municipality has a zoning code which breaks down the area within its jurisdiction into districts. Uses allowed in each district are listed generally under two categories, “permitted” and “special use.” All other uses are not allowed. A church is generally classified as a “religious assembly” use. If assembly uses are “permitted” then the church will be generally be allowed to use the property for its church purposes without having to obtain special permission from the municipality.
However, if religious assemblies are listed as a “conditional” or a “special” use, then the church, as the buyer, will have to appear before the municipality’s zoning authorities and petition for a special use permit. This can add considerable expense and time to the process of buying the property and it should be noted that there is no guarantee of approval. Even if the zoning department of the municipality is in favor, the neighbors will be given notice and a chance to object. Given fear of noise, traffic, congestion, changing of the neighborhood or loss of real estate tax revenue or property values, neighbors often mount a spirited campaign to block the zoning approval. As a rule, when I represent a client buying a property to use as a church, I insist on a contingency in the contract to purchase that if the buyer is unable to secure the proper zoning, then it may declare the contract void and the earnest money returned. And generally, the process can take anywhere from 90 to 120 days to complete.
While there are a number of other important considerations, timing is also crucial. The church may be in competition with other buyers for the property. To put on contingencies such as the 90-120 day zoning contingency mentioned above may lessen the competitiveness of the church’s bid. Moreover, issues of renovation may require work to be done before the congregation can move into the new facility. Thus, timing may be a problem for the congregation currently renting as well as the congregation that currently has a church and is selling it as part of its move. Each situation is different, but insuring that the congregation always has a place to meet during the transition is essential to keep the confidence and unity of the church.
VII. CONCLUSION: BUYING A CHURCH IS A "TEAM SPORT"
While there are many more considerations that the Committee and leadership will face in buying a church, these six are foundational. But there is one more consideration that is crucial. By way of hard earned advice, it should be noted that the pastor should not be burdened with the title: ‘jack of all trades.’ Generally, the pastor is not skilled as an architect, attorney, contractor, and financier. Just as Moses was counseled by his father in law to delegate, so too the leadership should delegate to persons competent in each field required to make the move. Moreover, the budget should reflect the costs for the professionals that will be needed. As Proverbs teach us: The cord of two or three strands is not easily broken. So too, in the multiplicity of counselors, plans will be established.
This article is for general purposes only and not as legal advice. A tailored review and analysis by an attorney is strongly recommended for any business or organization. It is advisable that an organization consult an attorney if they are unsure about anything relating to their tax exempt status. You can contact a Mauck & Baker attorney at (312) 726-1243.