More Parish Renovation Considerations

by Michael Raia

Ever sit in a church or parish hall and daydream about renovations? I sure do. But I've chatted with a lot of pastors, parish business administrators, and committee chairs who simply don't know where to start. Many times an obvious and substantial facilities need is daunting, and can pose a challenge to making progress. While often there is reason to postpone any changes until they can be coordinated and integrated into a comprehensive plan, there are also situations when it might be prudent to consider taking incremental steps towards a larger goal, or even to split a project into phases. Here are some considerations for evaluating the circumstances in your parish.

Conceptual proposal for a church renovation in west Texas. Mural courtesy of  New Jerusalem Studios .

Conceptual proposal for a church renovation in west Texas. Mural courtesy of New Jerusalem Studios.

Project Scope: Size and Content 

Are the facilities needing something that is just one or two big items such as flooring or lighting, either within one building, or spread out across multiple buildings? If all in one building, this project may benefit from a comprehensive plan to incorporate all needs. If it's work to take place across multiple buildings, it may make sense to either complete one trade at a time, such as flooring. There may be reason, however, to complete all projects in one building at a time before moving to another building. Key considerations in discerning the best approach include cost and scheduling. Technology is also a big consideration; it may be beneficial to install WiFi, audio-visual systems, building access control and security across multiple buildings in that executing this work in stages can sometimes be costly. 

"If there are emotional challenges to overcome in creating buy-in for the parish it may be wise to take the low-hanging fruit first, then build trust and increase giving before proceeding."

If the project is much larger and complex in nature, such as the need to substantially update and beautify the interior of a church or chapel, a comprehensive plan is likely a better route to take whether the project is executed all at once or in phases. For instance, there might be a need to redesign the sanctuary within a church, commission new sacred furnishings and sacred art, or install new pews, flooring, and lighting. It's certainly possible that there is enough momentum and funding behind the project to plan to complete it in one phase. But if there are emotional challenges to overcome in creating buy-in for the parish it may be wise to take the low-hanging fruit first, then build trust and increase giving before proceeding. Many times it is also realistic that items such as stained glass or statues can be planned from the start, but may require additional sponsorship outside of a capital campaign to fully fund.

Preparing for a Larger Project

So what if a parish badly needs functional or aesthetic upgrades, but can't afford any expensive changes yet, or it's just not good timing? For a church or chapel in need of changes, what can be done to beautify the liturgy and encourage a more robust devotional life in the faithful? Some options might include: 

- Spend the time and money on good technology. There might be an acoustical problem or sound transmission problem. There are many ways to address this with materials, and with the sound reinforcement systems themselves. In other rooms, even great acoustics will not help a terrible sound system very much. Meeting rooms and parish halls, especially when used for overflow liturgies, may see great use come of installed projectors and screens for presentations. This increases the quality of the regular ministry content, but also saves the staff and volunteers a lot of work.

- Assess affordable upgrades: flooring, lighting, ceiling tiles, painted walls, and seating may be simple ways to improve the aesthetics and usability of facilities and build momentum and trust for a larger project. 

- Commission a study and revamp of liturgical ministries. The training and reverence of servers, readers, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion all have an impact on the aesthetics of worship and affect how Mass-goers experience worship. This does not need to require any funding. 

- Review the sacred music program and study the documents and teachings to better form those in the music ministries. Is it simply status quo or based on personal stylists preferences, or is the sacred music truly fulfilling its duty in the liturgy? This could also be something that does not cost anything. However, it could also be a worthy investment to purchase new sacred music books, pew missals, or hymnals for the pews that offer richer content and provide an opportunity for greater liturgical renewal according to the requirements of the liturgical documents than many of the popular resources currently offer.   

- Purchase new sacred vessels, new vestments and altar linens, and other sacramentals such as candlesticks, processional crucifix, book of Gospels cover, and so on. When these are beautiful, they uplift the liturgy. When they are actually coordinated and aesthetically complementary, they demonstrate a care for the liturgy and its constituent elements that is immediately evident to all present. As a Church we required to foster a deeper eucharistic devotion. Our teachings are clear on the sacred dignity of the altar and other sacramental elements in the church, as well as the church building itself. We know the importance of the role of the priest in persona Christi capitis, leading the mystical Body of Christ in worship. This is justification enough to do away with vessels that do little to reinforce the true presence of Christ in the eucharist and vestments that do not anticipate and sacramentalize the radiance of heaven present in the liturgy.

- Commission new or renovate existing principle sacred furnishings. There is certainly a sliding scale of cost here, depending on size, material, complexity, and quantity: altar, ambo, font, chair, or all of the above? If there is one furnishing that has never matched the rest – ie presidential chair or font, it may be possible to commission something that coordinates and thereby elevates the dignity of its function. In two previous interior church renovations I've completed, the ambo needed some help to appear more on par with the other principle furnishings. 

- Commission good sacred art that elevates the liturgy. We must keep in mind the difference in the roles that liturgical and devotional art play. A church or chapel might have a large blank wall or canopy that provides a great opportunity for a liturgical mural. Imagery can include the Trinity, the heavenly Jerusalem, and other scriptural images for Christ such as the lamb, the vine and branches, the good shepherd, and the great high priest. A great many churches are lacking in this capacity, yet it is a very high priority. Additional devotional elements might include statues of saints with small votive areas for prayer and veneration.

"If there is a disconnect between the liturgical facilities and those used to catechize and evangelize, you can be sure that the pain from this disconnect will also be evident when expecting the Gospel to be taken off-campus."

Mystagogical Component

Every improvement is an opportunity for communication. On the one hand, it's simply a wise habit for any pastor to share his desires with those under his care. On the other, it's something the Church demands in terms of mystagogy – to explaining the meaning of the signs and symbols, how they relate to the rites, and how they impact our daily lives. Every project takes a great deal of planning – time, effort, and resources that otherwise could be dedicated to other areas of ministry. Yet these improvements should always be viewed as something that actually aid in ministry, both directly and indirectly. Indirectly in the sense that a beautiful church more clearly engages people for worship, but directly in the sense that a pastor who explains how and why the beautiful church was designed to do this.

This is not something that cannot extend to meeting rooms and social facilities as well. Our parishes are communities that extend the sacramental life into the home, the workplace, and society. We are salt and light, leaven for the world. We are to incorporate the Gospel into every aspect of our lives, and that starts with every part of the parish. If there is a disconnect between the liturgical facilities and those used to catechize and evangelize, you can be sure that the pain from this disconnect will also be evident when expecting the Gospel to be taken off-campus. The parish must provide a visible and logical roadmap for the integration of Christian living that can be modeled elsewhere. 

Taking Next Steps 

Of course all of these items can be included into one large project, but for many parishes that simply isn't an option. Taking smaller steps to make progress can help establish teamwork between a pastor and a planning / design committee, as well as gain trust from the parish at large, which is especially important for situations where the parishioners are directly funding a project via a capital campaign. Even if projects are completed with operations funds, parishioners will often benefit a great deal from knowing their collections contributions are being treated with care. A plan for physical improvements and careful explanations are a must, along with clear communication about what changes are being made and why. Every parish campus requires stewardship of the resources it offers, and every parish's leadership has a responsibility to their parish for this care. With thoughtful planning, even the most difficult circumstances can be accommodated in producing satisfying and inspiring changes to the physical campus.   

If you have questions about the content of this post or would like to discuss considerations for your own parish, please contact us.