Every growing church finds itself in need of new projects to expand its space, improve its technology, or facilitate community outreach. From larger churches to the smallest, church project management is a vital part of being effective in your mission to be “the Light of the World.”
According to this Axios article, spending on church projects, specifically in the construction industry, is at an all-time low. That article also notes that some of the decline is due to church closings and the availability of those buildings on the market. Still, an old building will almost certainly need renovation and updating.
I’m Lexie Schmidt, and I have worked in a church of thousands and a church of dozens and plenty of churches in between. Let my experience help guide you through the essentials of church project management.
Here’s what I’ll cover:
- What Is Church Project Management?
- The Church Project Management Process
- The Importance and Benefits Of Project Management For Churches
- Tips & Best Practices For Church Project Management
- Church Project Management Software
What Is Church Project Management?
Church project management is defined as the steps a church takes to complete a task that is focused on self-improvement. Think of church projects as infrastructure upgrades. They add more seats, install new screens or lights, upgrade computers or applications, or anything else that makes it easier to preach, worship, and reach as many people as possible.
The most difficult and intensive projects for a church involve construction, whether in a new building or renovating existing buildings, so this guide will focus more on construction projects. In the digital age, however, projects such as building your website, creating a live-streaming platform, or implementing church management software are just as important, if not more so. Determining which type of project is best falls on your project manager.
A church project manager is frequently one of the clergy in smaller churches, but larger churches may hire a dedicated manager. The people who work on a project may be volunteers, but many times you may need to work with contractors. Most large projects will likely be a mix of both. When the megachurch I worked at built its larger building, contractors did the heavy machinery tasks and technical work, but church staff and volunteers did a large portion of the manual labor.
Church project management rewards your church by making it easier to work and making your building more appealing to the people you are trying to reach. Many times, church projects don’t provide a direct, spiritual benefit to your people at first. Your community and members likely won’t receive the benefits until after the project has finished.
What Does a Project Manager Do In A Church?
Project managers need to be the best communicators in your church. Most communication will happen between church leaders and members who share a common vision and common goals.
However, projects can bring in contractors who do not necessarily share those ideas. Your project manager needs to be able to communicate the needs and goals of the project with people who may not even share your religious beliefs.
If you find communication failing, try the steps outlined in our church communications plan article. I recommend that article no matter what since communication is so important.
In addition, project managers should be organized, punctual, and high-energy. On longer projects, such as building a new sanctuary or remodeling the current one, enthusiasm can flag among your volunteers, so a project manager who can keep morale up is essential.
Organization, of course, is needed above all. Without organization, you will have everyone from contractors to volunteers standing around doing nothing. Organization also makes sure those contractors get paid.
A note on punctuality. In all my other articles, I have never mentioned this as a requirement for managers or leaders. Once again, contact with outside contractors causes this. Contractors get paid for their time, whether they are actively working or not.
Contractors will arrive at the beginning of their workday and start their clock. If circumstances don’t allow work to continue, they will continue billing for their time whether or not your project manager is there to fix the problem. Punctuality saves your church money.
Difference Between Church Events And Church Projects
Church projects and events are linked in many ways and have some elements of overlap, but they have distinct purposes and outcomes. In simplest terms, projects serve the church itself, while events serve the community.
As noted above, church projects primarily serve to improve the church and your ability to accomplish your church’s mission. Church events, instead, improve the community through outreach, service, and, frequently, fun. A wedding is an event that improves the lives of the families who are gathered, but it is not a project that improves the church.
Another way to think of the differences is to consider the flow of resources. Events will usually double as fundraisers as well. Vacation Bible School can charge a small fee per child which will generate some cash flow and educate your community’s children with Biblical concepts. Replacing your old pews with new theater seating will cost money and improve your sanctuary, so it is a project.
Knowing the differences between church projects and events, if you’re in the right place, keep reading! If not, you can read more about church event management here.
The Church Project Management Process
The process of church project management might feel daunting at first, but this section will break it down into simple steps that any church project manager can use to find success. Remember that there is no amount of note-taking that can be considered excessive. In my personal experience, a three-ring binder and a hole punch are a project manager’s best friends for implementing the project.
Step 1: Starting The Project
Every church project starts at the top. Depending on your type of church, your church board, your lead pastor, or your bishop will decide which of the church’s needs are most important and will be filled next. They will determine the budget, the time frame, and the scope of the project before any work begins.
The church project manager will then take those instructions and initiatives and develop a plan for how to accomplish the project within the constraints provided by their church leadership team. Determining where costs can be trimmed through the use of volunteers, through previous relationships with contractors, or through business owners in the church needs to happen in this phase. Finding out that a church member owns a demolition company does not help after the walls are already coming down.
Finally, the project manager should submit their completed plan back to the church leadership for final approval before taking any action. Most churches have limited resources and cannot afford mistakes that cost tens of thousands of dollars. That number might seem large, but building expenses are always higher than you think. An ounce of caution in the planning phase can save thousands in the execution of the plan.
Step 2: Finalizing The Budget
After the plan secures approval from the leadership, the project manager needs to finalize the budget through negotiating contracts, recruiting volunteers, and sourcing materials. Once every part of the plan has been covered, the project manager should bring the finalized budget to the church leaders for approval.
When setting the budget, especially with building projects, the church might need to take out a loan to cover some shortfalls. Most churches do this, and the Treasurer will be able to secure a loan if the church has a good credit score. Yes, your church, as a nonprofit corporation, has its own credit score and the ability to take out loans in its own name. Your church’s income will determine the size of the loans you can take, just like anyone else. The megachurch where I worked typically took out loans of $5,000,000 at a time, but the smaller churches would normally max out around $100,000 or so per loan.
Expert tip: The final note on budgeting is that you will overrun your budget. Problems come up, things break, and unforeseen issues slow things down. For that reason, allocate at least 20% above what you think you need just to start. I have never seen a project come in less than that. The largest overrun I have seen was nearly double the budget. Be smart, and have a contingency plan for those issues. The worst that can happen is that you have extra money at the end if everything goes smoothly.
Step 3: Working The Project
Before your project can begin actual work, your local government inspectors will probably want to visit the worksite and approve the changes to your building and grounds before giving a construction permit. This step cannot be skipped, otherwise, major fines and possible lawsuits will eat your entire budget and leave nothing for what you need to get done.
When your permits are granted, be sure to display them according to the instructions either found on the permits themselves or given separately by the inspectors. As the project goes on, inspectors will show up, often unannounced, to inspect your team’s work and ensure that everything is being built to code.
Building codes change over time, so inspections during remodeling frequently find safety issues that must be dealt with before construction can continue. This is normally the largest source of budget overruns in older buildings.
Expert tip: For new construction, be sure your contractors have fully up-to-date licenses and training. The most common overruns in new construction are redoing work from contractors who have not learned the new building codes. You may also find a contractor is cutting corners with materials or techniques. Be sure that your contracts include the ability to fire them for negligent behavior revealed by private or government building inspectors.
Volunteers will usually not have formal training in construction. For the same reasons as above, they should be supervised by someone who does have that training, although most inspectable work, by law, can only be done by licensed and bonded contractors. This work includes electrical, plumbing, fabrication, erection of structural elements, and so on. Generally, if a job can be performed by a union member, it must be.
Anytime a worksite has dangerous equipment or heavy machinery, the site should be considered closed unless a person goes through a check-in process and wears proper protective gear. Most contractors take care of this on their own. Your church will be responsible for the safety of your volunteers.
A comprehensive project planning phase shines here. A church project manager who accounts for as many details as possible propels the project forward even in the face of the inevitable setbacks.
Step 4: Closing The Project
Each project will have set goals according to the plan that the manager set in Step 1. As the project nears fulfilling those goals, the project manager is responsible for ensuring the work was completed correctly and, if so, paying the contractors and thanking the volunteers. Each step within the plan should be completed before victory is declared.
The project, if it involves construction, cannot be completed until the final inspection. Be sure that your contractors and volunteers are still available until that inspection is complete.
The project manager should write a final report on the project detailing the highs and lows of the process. This report tells future managers or refreshes the current manager’s memory, of who worked well in which areas and who should be avoided in the future. Detailed notes of what went wrong in the inspections allow the leadership in older buildings to know what to look out for in future projects.
Step 5: Maintenance
Many projects will require some amount of maintenance. An expansion to your sanctuary means more cleaning and more seating. An upgrade to your sound system means more technical expertise is needed in each service. Upgrading your computers or adding a church network can mean creating an IT department.
These continuing costs should be considered before starting a project. New things are only better if you can pay for them. Some projects, though, pay for themselves through saving on electricity or heating.
For instance, new, high-efficiency windows in your church can save hundreds of dollars in utility payments every year. For this reason, a project that reduces continuing costs should be done before a project that increases them.
The Importance and Benefits Of Project Management For Churches
Church project management is one of the most important skills you can develop to grow your church. Here are some benefits:
- Successful project managers deliver new and upgraded experiences, both for your staff and your congregation.
- Completed projects establish good relationships in your community.
- Successful projects foster deeper bonds among your members who volunteer.
Beyond the obvious benefits of a remodel, a new building, upgraded equipment, or whatever the purpose of your project is, church projects provide benefits that may not be immediately clear.
For instance, adding or expanding a kitchen for your homeless ministry will also provide a basecamp for team members to relax and eat during other events or projects. My own experience has seen many of the contractors start going to our church by seeing how we work and treat each other with love and kindness.
The possibilities of how you use the fruits of your projects are as endless as your own imagination. Therefore, the benefits are endless as well. With every project, try to think of at least three ways that you can use the upgrades. As I wrote in the budgeting step, most churches don’t have much money. Your ideas will make every penny count.
Tips & Best Practices For Church Project Management
Let me share a few of the best ways to keep your church projects organized and moving along. You will learn your own tips and tricks as you gain experience as a local church project manager, so always take notes, and never be afraid to ask the professionals questions that will help you do your job better.
- Don’t hide your plan. While not everyone needs a full copy of the entire binder, every step of construction or finishing or maintenance should have a clear view of what is expected of them for their goal to be completed. Photocopies of a few pages combined into a packet and given to the foreman of a job will usually be enough.
- Volunteers should have clear responsibilities. In every project, I usually have at least one volunteer who wants to be in charge of everything. Sometimes, I was that volunteer, which led to me joining the leadership team and filling the assistant youth pastor role. The problem is that, before I worked my way up, I was in the way by making the roles unclear. For my part, I was trying to help and doing it the wrong way. Others I’ve worked with just wanted some of the glory for themselves. Defined roles in a project prevent confusion, accidents, and mistrust.
- Always pay your contractors promptly. Sometimes, you will have a dispute with a contractor over bad work. Don’t pay them until that dispute is resolved. In all other cases, pay them by the due dates outlined in your contract. It will foster good relationships and make them more likely to work with you again in the future.
- Source your materials like a business. This is a repeat from the budget section, but it saves more money than everything else combined. Your church, as long as it is a 501c(3) corporation, is just as much of a business as the big home improvement store you currently shop at. They have suppliers, and you can too. Don’t pay the retail markup prices. Take advantage of your business status, plus the suppliers still have to honor tax-exempt cards, too.
Church Project Management Software
Volunteer management in church projects is very similar to church events. Church management software can usually double as project management tools. This software can help you monitor progress, set milestones, and aid church communications.
Church Project Management: In Conclusion
Successful church projects start with good project managers. The tips and steps within this guide will provide you with a solid base on which to build a leader into that manager. The benefits of projects are plenty, and the worst problems arise through poor planning. Plan well, build well, finish well.
If you have any questions, comments, or your own tips to share, comment below.
I’m Lexie and happy projects!
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