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Your Building-Opportunity for Ministry and Outreach

Most religious congregations in the United States have the blessing of owning a building-and many own more than one! A congregation’s buildings are its greatest asset for worship, outreach, and other activities that form the core of its mission. Parish houses, parsonages, chapels, and other auxiliary structures, together with the principal buildings for worship, permit congregations to meet for daily or weekly services and also reach out to the community with vital ministries.

At best, religious buildings can be both inspirational and functional, focusing worshipers on higher things while also containing necessary rooms like offices, classrooms, fellowship halls, kitchens, and rest rooms. Those buildings that are not at their best may need extensive renovation, or they may need something more basic-regular maintenance.

Why Spend Time and Money on Maintenance?

Most sacred places were built to last. Indeed, many are the oldest and most beautiful structures in their neighborhoods, constructed long ago by people who used stone, brick, and massive timbers as a testimony to the permanence of their faith.

But even the most solidly built churches, synagogues, meetinghouses, and temples need regular maintenance and repair to remain physically strong. Over time, heating systems fail, roofs leak, and wiring frays. You can prepare for problems, though, by including maintenance in your congregation’s annual budget and laying aside additional money for eventual system replacement.

There are other ways to be prepared as well: Collect your repair records and interview your custodian to learn more about the history of your boiler, water heater, air conditioning, and other systems. Examine your utility records to determine whether your energy use has recently increased. You may even want to secure a building conditions survey to learn the true state of your property. This article explains what a conditions survey can do for you:

Even without a conditions survey, simply documenting your house of worship can be extremely useful for posterity, especially in the event of catastrophic fire. The maintenance supervisor should appoint a task force to document the facilities-at least in photographs, and perhaps also with measured drawings.

Once you have collected the information about your congregation, be sure to keep it organized and up to date. A filing cabinet may be all that’s necessary, or you may want to consider purchasing a Maintenance Manual from Partners for Sacred Places. The manual details seasonal maintenance projects and provides checklists for you to assess your own building’s strengths and needs. If you are not keeping repair records, now is the time to start!

Who Will Take Charge?

Clergy may feel they need to spend their time studying, teaching, and pastoring rather than caring for the building. If that’s a concern for you, appoint a staff member, council member, or other lay person to be maintenance supervisor. Although this person may also be the custodian, the duties of the maintenance supervisor are quite different. The maintenance supervisor takes responsibility for keeping records of repairs and maintenance, periodically inspecting the facility, getting bids for any work that needs to be done and overseeing the work, and communicating closely with the regular custodian. Here is a brief article about hiring maintenance personnel and supervising contractors:

At other times, the maintenance supervisor may organize members of the congregation to do some repairs themselves. Here is the story of how members of one New York congregation repaired the church steeple.

You may also want to appoint an “energy warden” to take charge of reducing your energy costs, thereby freeing up additional money for ministry. Or ask the congregation’s facilities committee to assume responsibility for all areas of building maintenance, repair, and energy use. Remember that the principal duty for such a committee will not be organizing volunteer gardeners or cleaning up the grounds, but rather safeguarding your congregation’s largest ministry asset-your building.

What About Energy and Systems?

If your congregation is like most, three observations apply to you: No. 1: You are spending more on utilities than you need to. No. 2: You are vaguely worried that one of your major systems will eventually suffer catastrophic failure or-even worse-start a fire. No. 3: Unless you’ve actually had to replace a boiler or fix something recently, you haven’t actually done anything to calm your indefinite fears.

Two things can help you rest easier. First, using the checklist, your energy warden should examine all your systems. Second, you should join the Interfaith Coalition on Energy (ICE), a non-profit organization that helps congregations to save money by saving energy. ICE offers a quarterly newsletter and other publications with extremely practical advice. You may want to receive an energy audit from one of the ICE professionals who can show you exactly what your congregation can do to lower the utility bill.

The Interfaith Coalition on Energy has examined thousands of buildings belonging to religious congregations. This publication has several parts: Part A discusses planning ahead to avoid mistakes; Part B is a narrative of several specific aspects of energy systems; Part C is a checklist; Part D is a list of questions to ask design professionalsooklet on reducing energy costs. The booklet is available here in full:

The New York Landmarks Conservancy's published a special technical journal about energy issues. You can download it here: Common Bond Green Theology, Energy Efficiency and Historic Sacred Sites

Is Your Roof in Shape?

The roof on your sacred place is your most important protection against weather and the damage it can do. Well-built roofs can last a long time-many slate roofs endure for more than a century-but all eventually need repair or replacement. You should plan ahead, laying aside money for the future, so you won’t be caught unprepared when your roof needs help

Here are several general articles on roofs:

Slate roofs have a particular beauty and last a very long time, but they have particular needs as well. Here are a few articles on slate roofs:

Further publications are available. Please email us for information.

  • Information Series No. 59: Roofing Houses of Worship

When it’s time to get bids, you may want to consider members of our Professional Alliance.

Windows and Stained Glass

Stained glass has graced houses of worship for centuries, and many congregations today are justifiably proud of their windows. Stained glass lasts forever if properly cared for, but many congregations don’t know how to preserve this precious and expensive asset. Here are a few resources to help:

For more information about the history of stained glass, visit the: Stained Glass Association of America. Several outstanding stained glass studios are members of our Professional Alliance.

How Can You Prevent Fire?

Every winter, church fires make the headlines of American newspapers. While arson remains a serious problem for sacred places, many fires in religious structures are caused by other factors. Below are a number of articles that provide important information about fire prevention:

Other Issues

As you already know, there is more to maintenance than windows and roofs. Following are more articles on various topics that your maintenance supervisor will find helpful:

Online Resources

Several organizations have other online resources for maintenance and repair. The Episcopal Diocese of New York posts a resource page with many links organized by subject matter, including accessibility, bird deterrence, energy, flooring, graffiti, graveyards, landmarking, lead hazards, routine inspections, masonry, moisture, painting, plaster, roofing, siding, stained glass, and windows. Most articles are available online to anyone.

Calvary United Methodist Church, Philadelphia, PA
The restoration of the 1924 Aeolian-Skinner organ at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Miami, FL, was an enormous undertaking – one that was funded through the efforts of Friends of Trinity Cathedral. Photo courtesy of R.A. Colby, Inc
Kathy Jordon working, The Art of Glass