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7 Causes of Building Project Burnout (and How to Avoid Them)

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Building programs can be brutal on the church staff and their families. In epic numbers, pastors are christening their new buildings with letters of resignation. Frazzled from the project, some even trade the pulpit for a moment of unguarded weakness and leave a trail of broken relationships in their wake. They are spent, burned out, done.

With all the emotional shrapnel that can erupt from a big build, it’s a miracle that churches ever get built at all.

Ironically, one of the most challenging tasks a pastor will be asked to administrate is missing from Bible college or seminary training. No one teaches a course on how to run a building or capital campaign, let alone survive the process.

But after years of working with pastors, I’ve discovered that there are seven deadly mistakes that church leaders make to fuel the burnout rate during a building program. Let’s take a look.

1. Overfilling the Paper Plate

Granny never bought those cheap, thin paper plates with the wavy edges for a Thanksgiving meal. Honestly, those plates are only good for preschool craft projects or Christmas tree ornaments that you want to throw away but can’t. Here’s what I know about cheap paper plates and food: Thin paper plates can only bear so much before they crumble.

Most leaders are responsibility gluttons, and they have a tendency to overfill their paper plate.

Don’t.

It would be a huge mistake to underestimate the daily emotional weight of leading a church during a building program. Make sure that you delegate well and practice a weekly Sabbath to maintain your spiritual and emotional health throughout the project.

2. Failing to Celebrate

I know that this might sound like something you would hear preached during graduation to a room full of wide-eyed seniors ready to take on the world, but this is an exciting time. If you don’t earmark moments along the way to celebrate your building project, the journey may be a complete blur by the time you cut the ribbon. It’s not every day that you get to build.

I hate to get all theological on you, but God is a God of celebration. In fact, he mandated it to his people and scheduled it on the calendar. And though celebrating may not be your sweet spot, your church will appreciate the times of celebration that allowed their whole family, even the kids, to participate in what God is doing. Those kids will grow up to be young adults who remember a time their parents and church were called to sacrifice for the expansion of the body of Christ. And you will be a part of instilling generosity and growth into the DNA of a whole new generation of Christian leaders.

So, work hard to be fully present and to celebrate each milestone with your team. You won’t want to forget what it felt like to see the framed building erected for the first time on a raw piece of land or the smell of a freshly printed set of blueprints unrolled on a plastic folding table.

Maybe it’s time to crank up some Kool & the Gang and celebrate good times.

3. Having a Baby to Save the Marriage

I’m sure you know the couple. They could grace the cover of Dysfunctional Marriage Magazine. The relationship is a complete train wreck, yet they decide to have a baby to save the marriage and unwittingly supersize their problem.

Let me just state the obvious: A new building will not fix an unhealthy church. In fact, the added weight of the project will often expose every crack in the foundation and amplify problems that have been lingering just below the surface.

If you sense that your church may be unhealthy, first clarify your vision and strengthen your strategy before considering a big build. In fact, we recommend that every church leadership engage in vision clarity and strategy development during a building program. The opening of a new facility is likely to increase your attendance, so it’s critical to test your infrastructure to see if you can handle the bump.

4. Forgetting About the Battle

One of my favorite sections in the book of Nehemiah is when half the men stood ready to fight while the other half built the wall with a weapon in one hand and building materials in the other. Though they were working, they were also prepared for war.

Always remember that you’re not just constructing a building—you’re marching closer to the bloody front lines of a spiritual battle. So, expect a spiritual attack.

I work with a company that invests a lot of our resources into expanding the kingdom by building and designing inspired environments to help reach the lost. Over the years I’ve noticed that the church projects are different than retail projects because of the added component of spiritual warfare. And our team knows that we will undergo spiritual attack the moment we step foot on a church property. That’s why we ask the church leaders to pray for us.

So, don’t forget that battle takes place on your knees, not in the planning the project, walking the job site or pouring over a set of blueprints. Make sure that you follow Nehemiah’s example and have a massive crew of people prayed-up and standing ready for the spiritual battle that will take place as you build.

5. Ignoring Mission Drift

Leading a building project can be like playing a game of Whack-A-Mole for 18 months straight. If you’re not careful, the massive number of decisions to be made and opinions to managed can bury you alive.

The building will scream for your attention, and you will feel the urgency. But often what is urgent isn’t always ultimately most important. It’s subtle, but if you are not careful, your thoughts and conversations about the building may silently evict the mission as your main priority. Mission drift is a real challenge for leaders walking through a building program. Make sure that you work hard to delegate well and keep the main thing the main thing.

It’s easy to forget that the building isn’t the mission.

6. Flinching for Fire Drills

Do you remember elementary school fire drills? At the sound of the mid-afternoon siren, every 7-year-old schoolboy would overdose on adrenalin; their hearts raced and pupils dilated as their tiny survival instincts kicked in.

Every construction project has a billion fire drills, and every fire drill has the same emotional and physical effect on the leader as it did when they were 7-years-old. It’s almost as if nothing has changed. Minor stuff tends to feel major, and the survival instinct can quickly kick in.

Unless you’re trying to burn out the pastor, it’s not healthy for the head honcho to suit up every time an alarm is sounded. Make sure that someone on the team is on call at all times and empowered to help make decisions. And no, it can’t always be the lead guy.

7. Choosing Perfection Over Excellence

Card-carrying perfectionists hate hearing the phrase “good enough.” For a perfectionist, that phrase is the dreadful sound of laziness and a sign that someone has entirely given up.

But the truth is, in any building program there is a place called “good enough,” because “perfect” is often very, very expensive.

Leaders who don’t know “good enough” face the danger of “scope creep.” Choosing the midlevel carpet instead of the plush Cadillac of carpets somehow feels like settling. So, unless your design and construction teams are willing to throttle you back, you may find yourself chasing perfect and completely blowing the budget.

So, work hard to achieve excellence and leave perfect to God.

Also from Visioneering Studios:
7 Questions to Ask Before Hiring an Architect
7 Steps to Improve Your Wayfinding
7 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a General Contractor
10 Design Secrets to Creating a Killer Lobby
9 Signs That It’s Time to Hire an Interior Designer

Dave Milam is vice president of strategic design at Visioneering Studios.

Visioneering Studios is a nationally licensed real estate, architecture and construction company with multidisciplinary offices throughout the U.S. Visioneering has partnered with many of the fastest-growing ministries in the world. VisioneeringStudios.com.

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