The Post-Construction Blues

by Dan Hotchkiss

Few projects excite and galvanize a congregation more than a new building or a major renovation. People complain about construction delays, capital campaigns, and the general din and dust, but their blood pumps, their wallets loosen, and their enthusiasm rises. Lyle Schaller went so far as to generalize that congregations that build capital are happier than those that spend it. Most congregations in the midst of a construction project illustrate his point: as they convert their members’ cash into real estate, their spirits rise, peaking at the dedication service.

But what happens then? Usually there is a period of euphoria. Occasionally a congregation goes on from strength to strength without a pause. More often, though, there is a letdown, a period of slump—in finances, in program, in morale: the Post-Construction Blues. This happens for several reasons:

Increased operating costs. From the moment of groundbreaking, the congregation needs to begin payments on any bank loans. Denominational loans may come with a moratorium period, but usually not for long. New buildings mean new costs for heating, cooling, and cleaning. And so on and on. Those who voted against building now have cause to say “I told you so.”

Loss of a major point of focus. People love a project. A building project, even an annoying one, focuses decision-making. Money flows to it; lay leadership and staff time go to it; ministries and programs move aside or even stop cold to make way for the jackhammers and cranes. Then, suddenly, the noisy building site becomes a seriously quiet building. Opportunities abound; without a plan, the congregation may be paralyzed. The people ask, “What now?”

Shift of emphasis from money and building to ministry and program. This one goes without explaining, except to point out that a congregation that has focused on a building program for the last few years is apt to have a governing board full of people who like fund-raising, financial planning, and construction. What the hour demands, though, is ministry and programs to fill up the new space with people. Board members who try to stay focused on finances and construction may be frustrated and angry. Worse, they may prevent a necessary shift to new priorities or create conflict when “those new people” want to do new things.

A change of clergy leadership. There is no law requiring pastors and rabbis to move after a building project, but many do. Nor is it necessary for congregations to tread water during a transition between clergy, but many do. At a time when the congregation needs not less but more work, money, and enthusiasm from its members, a pastoral transition can stall a congregation’s movement into its next cycle of growth.

What can be done to avoid the post-construction syndrome or to mitigate its consequences?

First of all, if you are planning a building campaign, choose the timing wisely. Maximize the use of your current facility before building—have two or three worship services, each with high attendance, active children’s ministry, and participatory music program. Congregations frequently emphasize the sanctuary in Phase One of a staged building plan. But sanctuary space costs much more per square foot than classrooms and offices, so small congregations often build too small. Lack of seating space, program space, parking, and staff offices limit growth, and Phase Two never happens or is long delayed.

The reverse sequence—building a modest sanctuary plus ample space for small group programs and staff offices—usually makes more sense. With multiple worship services, space for program and, last but by no means least, a manageable debt load, the congregation can more easily grow to the point of building a truly adequate sanctuary.

A new cadre of leaders

Another kind of pre-planning that can head off the Post-Construction Blues anticipates the need for a new cadre of leaders for the post-construction period. Leadership planning begins with a frank conversation between top lay leaders and the senior clergy about whether there will be a clergy change after the project is complete. Some clergy do their best work helping congregations build, and find the program-building aftermath less interesting. A few can manage both. In either case, it is best for clergy to stay at least two or three years after the job is finished—enough time to stabilize the operating budget and move through some of the emotional let-down of the post-construction time. A little foresight can prevent the clergy from leaving unhappily, a needless victim of the congregation’s post-construction blues.

An open conversation about the fact that different leaders offer different gifts empowers the congregation to select one mix of leaders to build the building and another to build the program afterward. The latter group might even meet during construction (when activities will be hampered) as a sort of “shadow government” to plan how ministry and program will ramp up quickly once the new space. As with clergy, frank conversation ahead of time can keep the leadership transition, once it occurs, upbeat and intentional instead of angry and demoralizing.

When this happens, lay leaders have a responsibility to keep the program and the congregation on a growth curve. Some growth may be necessary to “catch up” to the debt-payment obligations. More importantly, the congregation owes it to the donors to fulfill the dream for which the project was begun in the first place. Again, the best cure lies in the early planning stages. With a deliberate strategic plan in place for increased ministry and program, the congregation is less vulnerable to loss of momentum should its clergy leader move on after the building program.

The dedication of a new or renovated or expanded building ranks among the most memorable high points of a congregation’s life. Like most moments of glory, the high is often followed by a let-down, by the Post-Construction Blues. We can anticipate it, plan around it, or pretend it isn’t there, but in the end we have to sing each other through it, knowing that our best defense is no defense. Like the man said, “The best cure for the blues … is the blues.”

This article was originally published in the Clergy Journal.

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