When a Sunday service starts filling up a majority of the pews, those are the words that come to mind, says the Rev. Ryan Sirmons.
“Our sanctuary was starting to get at 80-percent fill point,” says Sirmons, pastor of the United Church of Christ of Annapolis, Maryland. “Most places would say that’s when ‘It’s time.’”
The church recognized it needed more space -- and not just for worship.
“We realized that our fellowship hall was too small for most of our after Sunday coffee gatherings. We needed more youth space because our children’s ministries were growing,” he adds.
But the church sought something more meaningful than expanded square footage.
That’s where Church Building & Loan Fund stepped in, says church treasurer Jim Nowe, who accompanied Sirmons to CB&LF’s September Partners in Building event in Cleveland.
“We were probably looking at the process more in a physical way. ‘We need this amount of space, and these many classrooms, and this much more office space’ — all this sort of thing,” says Nowe, who has served as church secretary for two years. “But we weren’t really understanding what was the driver: Why do we want this?”
The event introduced Nowe, an accountant, to other like-minded churches that sought renewal through rebuilding. That synergy led to insights, he says — like the importance of answering the “why” before diving into the rebuilding process.
“The churches that were really, really successful in doing what they did had determined the ‘why’ and built toward that,” he says.
CB&LF helps churches clarify the “why” when it comes to rebuilding, Sirmons says. As a financial ministry, the Fund lends both money and a perspective guided by mission.
“One of the reasons we’ve been excited to be working with the Fund is that they truly see the church as a place of prophetic action and community-building, and not just a place of Sunday worship,” he says.
That’s a vision of the church which Sirmons sees as more important today than ever.
“I believe that our growth over the past two years has been fueled by people who realize how important is it to belong to a community — to a faith institution — that can prioritize values and organizing people in practical, moral, cultural engagement efforts,” he says. “Some people might call that social justice. I see it as taking time with the community without expecting them to join the church. To stand beside them, and with others in our community.”
As important as seizing the moment feels, Sirmons is trying to abide by a tenet preached by CB&LF and Partners in Building: input, input, input before action.
“We recognize that we have to operate within this tension: People are excited about the possibilities that a new church space could foster; people are concerned about losing the intimate feel of being a small church,” says Sirmons, who came to the church four years ago after serving as pastor at Little Baddow Chapel, an historic congregational church in Essex, England. “The culture we’ve developed in the church will help us live comfortably within that tension, and arrive at a place that will respond to both.”
The church canvassed the voices of the congregation and the wider community. An architect and program manager will review the different input and make recommendations to the size, quality and function of the spaces needed to create the sorts of ministries the church is called to, he says.
Sirmons adds that the Partners in Building event, which drew around 100 attendees from congregations nationwide, helped confirm his belief that engagement with the community is the most important step for churches right now.
“The event really helped us to see that we are part of a wider group of churches successfully and successively doing that,” he says.
“We’re excited to see ourselves being included in that number. The event affirmed our mission and challenged us to continue in that work.”