By Thomas B. Iwanowski and Heath Winborn
(Written from the perspective of the pastor, this article represents the combined insights of the pastor and the parish’s Director of Operations.)
A pastor faces many challenges in his ministry, more than most people realize. A pastor must set aside time for personal prayer and for spiritual and intellectual growth. He must prepare homilies for Sunday Mass, daily Mass, weddings, baptisms, funerals, and special occasions. He must preach with conviction and enthusiasm to assemblies of varied ages and education. He must prayerfully celebrate Mass and other liturgical services.
A pastor must encourage his people to grow in their relationship with God and in their understanding of their Catholic Faith. He must provide programs of religious education and faith development for children and adults. He must prepare people for the reception of the sacraments.
A pastor must assemble a staff and collaborate with them for the good of the parish. He must manage the employees of the parish. He must be a leader and at the same time a listener. He must remind his people they are part of the universal Church. He must represent the parish to the wider community.
A pastor must embody the forgiveness and compassion of Jesus Christ. He must be sensitive to the needs of the sick and the hurting. He must be available to his people in good times and in bad.
A pastor must motivate his parishioners to support the parish. He must deal with parish debt and unanticipated expenses. He must solicit the support of his people for diocesan and national collections. He must see to the proper care and maintenance of the parish properties. A pastor must raise funds for capital improvements.
A pastor must do all these things and more. And if the parish has a school, the list of challenges confronting the pastor is even more daunting.
But of all the things he must do, I believe the thing that most drains a pastor’s strength, energy, and resources is dealing with BOB. As the title of this article states, BOB IS THE PROBLEM. BOB is the Burden Of Buildings. Someone might say that money worries are an even bigger problem, yet most often those money problems are caused by building problems.
During my fourteen years as pastor of Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish in Jersey City, N.J., I was confronted with the challenge of dealing with the parish’s five buildings (a church, a rectory, an elementary school building, an early childhood center, and a former convent now rented as a residence for a local Jesuit Community).
These buildings had not been properly maintained in the past and had seen little or no preventative maintenance. To add to the challenge, four of the parish’s five buildings are part of an historic district in Jersey City and so are subject to special regulations concerning exterior repairs and renovations.
During my years as pastor, the burden of caring for those buildings presented a tremendous challenge. It was a challenge that my seminary training and previous assignments had done little to prepare me to meet. I was a priest. I was not a general contractor, civil engineer, electrician, plumber, roofer or building inspector, though during my assignment I gained more than a passing knowledge of all those professions. I often remarked that it seemed that my vocation was caring for buildings and my avocation was caring for the spiritual needs of my people.
During my years in the parish,
The list above is not exhaustive, but it certainly illustrates that BOB (Burden of Buildings) was the problem at the parish! I am certain that many pastors have confronted similar challenges in dealing with their parish buildings, some even greater. But my purpose in writing this article is not just to highlight the problems that pastors face in dealing with their parish buildings, but to offer some possible ways to lighten that burden.
The first way to lighten that burden is not to carry it alone. We need to seek help and advice in caring for our parish buildings. When I became pastor, I established a Buildings & Grounds Committee composed of 10 members of the parish who worked in areas related to construction, repair and maintenance. Among its members, the committee had two general contractors, two civil engineers, an architect, a woodcrafter and a security expert.
When I registered people as parish members, I inquired what type of work they did. I filed this information. When an opening arose on the Buildings & Grounds Committee, I consulted this file for a suitable replacement. I then personally invited that person to come and see if the Buildings & Grounds Committee might be the place where that individual might offer his or her talent for the sake of the parish.
I made certain that each meeting had an agenda, a definite purpose, and opportunities for those present to use their skills and expertise. Talented people will not come to meetings to only listen to reports and muse about the future. They will come if they believe they are making a contribution, their talents are needed and appreciated, and their time is respected. During the meetings, members discussed possible solutions to problems, visited the buildings to see conditions for themselves, reviewed proposals and contracts from vendors and, at times, met with vendors to pose questions and clarify concerns.
The committee’s input concerning vendors, their bids and proposals was most helpful. It saved the parish tens of thousands of dollars and kept me from making poor decisions. In my years as a priest, I have found that vendors fall into two categories. The first group strives to give the parish the best work at the most reasonable price. The second group does just the opposite. That group believes that the Church is flush with money and that pastors are too gullible and ill informed to know when the parish is being offered a poor deal.
In addition to seeking the advice of the parish’s Buildings & Grounds Committee, I also worked closely with our Archdiocesan Office of Property Management Administration. Many pastors avoid dealing with such diocesan offices. They view those working in them as the “enemy.” I found that establishing an open and honest relationship with diocesan agencies was very beneficial. They became an additional source of wisdom and advice, particularly in evaluating vendors, bids, contracts and finished work.
I also established a cordial relationship with the insurance adjustor. Rather than viewing him as an adversary, I viewed him as a person trying to do his job. I was honest and open regarding our insurance claims. I believe that earned me his respect and also a greater willingness on his part to consider the parish’s position.
In my tenth year as pastor, I spoke to the parish staff about the possibility of hiring a full-time associate to assist me in my pastoral responsibilities. The staff responded that I did not need someone to assist me in my pastoral and spiritual duties. I needed someone to help me deal with buildings, vendors, administration and maintenance — things that were taking up well over half of my time. I needed someone to help deal with BOB! If such a person could be found, I could handle the pastoral duties that, after all, were my primary responsibilities as a priest.
The staff was right! I then went from seeking a pastoral associate to seeking a person to deal with matters associated with our buildings. This process led to placing ads in the diocesan and local papers, and eventually led to a posting on Craigslist. It was that Web listing that was most useful. We found a person with the skills we were seeking and he found a job that utilized his construction and engineering skills and also provided him with something he was seeking. He wanted a job where he felt he could do some good, where he could make a difference. Working for a parish answered that need.
Originally, this new employee was given the title of Executive Assistant but at his request we soon changed the title to Director of Operations. We discovered that vendors and contractors wanted to deal with someone who had authority. The term Executive Assistant did not convey that authority. The term Director of Operations, common in business, conveyed that this person was the one who made things happen, supervised operations and made decisions.
When he started at the parish, I allotted considerable time to working with our new Director of Operations. I taught him about the parish, introduced him to key people, acquainted him with parish and diocesan procedures, shared my successes and did my best to establish open and honest communication. In other words, I made an investment in this new employee and this new position.
As time continued I gave him more responsibilities, more authority and more decision-making power. When people came to me with issues dealing with maintenance, repairs, vendors, etc., I sent them to the Director of Operations. I established the fact that the Director of Operations was the person to see. It took some time for people to appreciate the role and authority of the Director of Operations, but as they did it benefited them by giving them someone who was available and knowledgeable, and it certainly benefited me. It enabled me to give more time and energy to my primary responsibilities.
I should mention that the Director of Operations was considered a key member of the senior staff. He attended all staff meetings and was acquainted with every aspect of parish life. He was also a member of the Finance Council, frequently attended meetings of the Pastoral Council and periodically reported to the parish concerning major projects. He was also on call 24/7 to deal with building issues.
As a skilled and valued professional, our Director of Operations requested and received a salary fairly in line with private industry. This was a stretch for our parish budget. However, as our accountant told me, “Father, if the Director of Operations does all he should, he will more than earn his salary in savings to the parish.” I found that to be true. Vendors and contractors provide a better service at a better price when they know that someone is inspecting their work, is involved with them on a daily basis, knows what they are speaking about and has skills related to their fields. This also held true for the parish’s maintenance and custodial staff, which I placed under the Director of Operations.
In addition, the Director of Operations also earned his salary in other ways. He found better ways of doing things. He streamlined operations. He upgraded equipment. He made sure preventative maintenance was not neglected. He researched what other non-profits were doing. He networked with others in his field. He proactively planned for the future.
I came to realize that the salary the parish was paying the Director of Operations was also an investment in my physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. What better thing could a parish do for its spiritual leader than to employ someone to deal with the most pressing problem a pastor confronts outside of his spiritual duties? The salary being paid the Director of Operations was not just for his sake but for mine as well.
Another possible way to lighten the burden that pastors face in caring for their buildings is to change the way parishes are viewed. Presently, at least in my diocese, each parish operates as a separate corporation. When a parish building has a roof problem, or the heating or air conditioning system in the church needs to be replaced, or the electrical system in the school needs to be upgraded, those problems fall to the pastor. He may be assisted, as I mentioned above, by a Buildings & Grounds Committee, a Director of Operations and others. But ultimately the problem is his. The pastor has to make the final decision as to the extent of the work to be done, who should be contracted to do that work, and how the expense incurred will be met.
However, suppose when faced with a building problem, the pastor could simply contact the diocese and a competent, honest, certified contractor with stellar references would appear on the scene. The bill for the work would still be the responsibility of the pastor and the parish, but at least the pastor would know that the required, proper work was being done in the best way possible at the best price possible.
This could happen if a diocese began to consider all its buildings together. The diocese could then seek out a team of contractors to deal with major repairs, renovations and upgrades required by those buildings.
For example, suppose a diocese was composed of 100 parishes. Assuming each parish had a minimum of three buildings — church, rectory, parish center — that would mean the diocese had 300 buildings. An appropriate diocesan agency staffed with people skilled and knowledgeable in building construction and maintenance, would then seek out firms to handle all repairs, upgrades and renovations associated with those buildings.
There would be an officially approved diocesan roofing company, electrical contractor, heating and air conditioning company, etc. These firms would have a tremendous incentive to do a superior job since they would be dealing with an organization, not with two or three buildings, as would be the case with an individual parish, but one with 300 buildings.
If the approved roofing company, for example, did a poor job at any time, it would risk losing future work. If they did an excellent job, they would be guaranteed future work by a diocese with hundreds of buildings. Furthermore, such firms would know they would be answerable not to pastors who come and go, but to a diocesan agency with whom they would have an ongoing relationship.
Furthermore, being the recognized and approved service provider for the diocese would give a company positive recognition in the community, enhance its reputation, and expand its customer base. Such things would give that company an even further incentive to perform well. It would not wish to risk losing its diocesan designation.
In addition, the diocese would be able to secure more competitive bids from its approved vendors than would an individual parish. Companies would know that they were providing bids to an organization that could offer them a tremendous amount of future work. There would be an economy of scale that would work in favor of the diocese and benefit its parishes.
In my meetings with the Director of Operations, he and I discussed not only what was taking place in the parish, but also issues related to the Church in general. In the course of our conversations we began to ask a basic question: “Why does the Catholic Church need buildings in the first place?”
Obviously the Catholic Church needs places where the faith community can gather for Mass, especially on Sundays. The Church needs places where Catholics can be instructed in their faith and grow in their understanding and appreciation of God’s Word. The Church needs places where Catholics can gather for events that strengthen and reinforce their sense of community, their sense of being the Body of Christ. The Church needs places where adults and children can prepare for the sacraments. The Church needs places that by their very existence proclaim the presence of a Catholic community in a particular place. The Church is not a virtual community; it needs buildings where people can come together for a variety of important purposes.
Yes, the Church needs buildings. But does the Church need to own all its buildings? All too often it seems that the buildings we own, own us. They demand our financial resources, our time and our attention. They generate worries and concerns. They are more and more costly to maintain each year. Men called to preach the word, to celebrate the sacraments, to share the Gospel with those who have not heard it, and to make present the mercy, compassion and love of God, often find themselves ministering more to brick and mortar than to flesh and blood.
Furthermore as Catholic populations shift, dwindling in one area and growing in another, the Church is often left with buildings that are in the wrong place. Beautiful, cathedral-like church buildings stand as reminders of a Catholic population that no longer lives in the neighborhood. School buildings, convents and rectories stand empty, barely used or rented for other purposes. Yet the expenses associated with owning and maintaining those buildings do not go away with the Catholic population.
On the other hand, areas that are witnessing a growth in their Catholic population lack the buildings they need. It would be wonderful if the Church could pick up and move its buildings like chess pieces, but that is not possible. Churches, rectories, schools, parish centers and convents need to be built and that takes money, planning, energy, resources and time. It also takes pastors who have the energy and desire to raise millions of dollars in capital campaigns, deal with contractors, subcontractors, and bureaucracies both civil and ecclesiastical, and confront all the unexpected challenges that come with any construction project. Ask a pastor who has built a church or other major building if he would like to do it a second time, and most will give you an emphatic NO!
Here’s a possible solution to the problem I have just described. Instead of constructing new buildings to serve of the needs of the Church, consider leasing space. While that is not what we usually do — build — leasing does have certain advantages that we may not fully appreciate. Let us consider what those advantages might be.
1. Leasing space means that space can become available for parish use in a matter of months, rather than a year or two, as would be the case with new construction.
2. Leasing takes a far smaller initial outlay of funds.
3. Leasing does not burden a parish with a large debt or the need for a major capital campaign.
4. Leasing allows a parish the flexibility of increasing or decreasing space as needs change. If more space is needed, a larger facility can be leased and vice versa.
5. Leasing allows a parish the ability to “move its building.” Space can be leased where it is needed. The parish is not left with the burden of caring for a building that it owns but doesn’t use.
6. Leasing eliminates the cost of major repairs. If the heating or air conditioning system fails or the roof leaks, that is the landlord’s responsibility.
7. Depending on how the lease agreement is structured, certain custodial or maintenance tasks such as snow removal can also be the responsibility of the landlord.
8. If the space being leased is damaged or destroyed by fire, flood, etc., another facility can be leased to provide space for the parish. If a building owned by the parish is damaged or destroyed it can take months or even more than a year before the space becomes useable once more.
Of course leasing does have negative aspects. It does not allow a parish to build up equity. It does not guarantee a parish a permanent location in a neighborhood. It subjects a parish to periodic negotiations with the landlord and increases in rent. But even taking those negatives into account, it may be worthwhile for a parish community to consider leasing rather than building and owning. After all, Jesus himself was born in a stable “leased” for that purpose, and during his ministry He did not own a building. As He said “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Lk 9:58).
But whether we own or lease, we need to make sure that our buildings are not controlling us and keeping us from our primary ministry as pastors. We need to make sure that BOB is not the problem! TP
FATHER IWANOWSKI, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, is associate director of Parish Life in the Office of Divine Worship. He is also a former pastor of Our Lady of Czestochowa parish in Jersey City, N.J.HEATH WINBORN is Director of Operations at OLC. In 2002, Heath had a residency at the Arcosanti Project in Arizona, which strives to incorporate architecture and ecology. There he worked in the planning/construction department where he expanded his architectural and building skills. He joined the staff of OLC in June of 2006.
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