Development with a purpose

Churches multiply and expand to meet swelling congregations

Just as small local markets have given way to big-box grocery stores and retailers, churches are trading in their steeples and chapel-style buildings for larger, flexible spaces to accommodate growing congregations.

Development of religious facilities is strong in Clark County. A number of new churches are popping up and existing congregations are expanding their facilities. Construction of church buildings has become a significant part of many local firms’ business. In fact, Don Foster Construction builds nothing but churches and has been doing it ever since 1978.

"It’s a ministry," said Don Foster. "It’s a personal reason to help churches get into quality facilities for the least amount (of money) possible."

Foster’s Vancouver-based firm has built more than 60 churches in Washington, Oregon and California, and he said there is a significant amount of development and expansion taking place. Nationwide, the annual value of house of worship construction has remained flat for the past several years at about $6 billion, versus just $2.9 billion in 1995, according to U.S. Census data.

Don Foster Construction recently completed work on the 45,000-square-foot, approximately $10 million Vancouver Church of Christ on Padden Parkway. The church relocated from a much smaller facility near Mill Plain Boulevard and Andresen Road. Church Elder Gene Cash said the congregation had outgrown its facility, making for limited parking and stifled growth. Cash agrees there is an expansion of religious facilities taking place locally.

"I think there is more interest in spirituality in today’s world than 10 or 20 years ago," he said.

The county’s population growth is likely a factor as well.

"The population is growing," said Josef Aalbue, pastor of Family of Christ Lutheran Church. "Our congregation has experienced a renaissance."

Family of Christ Lutheran Church has plans to expand its existing facility with a multi-phased project over the next five years. The church has tripled in size to about 270 members in the 10 years Aalbue has been pastor.

"We have simply outgrown the space we occupy," he said. "We’ve reached significant limitations and continue to grow."

Aalbue attributes population growth and creating awareness in its community for its need to expand. The church holds four neighborhood festivals each year to reach out beyond the four walls of its building.

Church buildings are getting bigger to accommodate more people and better reflect the services provided to members and the broader community.

East Park Church in Vancouver also has a phased expansion planned over the next decade. It just received approval for its master plan from the city and will begin developing the infrastructure for future facilities on its 12.5 acre site. Early in the process, the church will expand its worship area seating capacity from 270 to about 550. Later phases call for adding classroom and multi-purpose buildings.

Lead Pastor Dave Williams said East Park Church began its planning process several years ago and developed its master plan based on the church’s ministry.

"We can’t offer the kinds of programs we would like to offer to our congregation and the community," said Williams of its current facility.

The church would like to have after-school programs for teens, English-as-a-second-language classes for the community and offer counseling for help with life transitions, marriage trouble and addiction.

East Park Church wants its space to be flexible.

"I would like to see it busy seven days a week, not just Sunday morning," said Williams.

Healthy churches have made this shift, he added.

Over the past 15 years, church construction has grown to about 10 percent of Vancouver-based Schlecht Construction’s overall workload, said Vice President Bryan Halbert.

He said it seems the multi-purpose facility has become the center point of many churches.

"A facility with multiple uses is what we are seeing churches migrate towards," said Halbert.

Increasing costs of building materials and land doesn’t make it feasible to build specialty rooms only used for a few hours each week, he said. Church building projects tend to be funded by contributions through regular tithing and capital campaigns.

When complete, Family of Christ Lutheran Church will have added more than 20,000 square feet to its existing 8,000-square-foot church. Included will be a multi-purpose building, kitchen, classrooms and administration offices.

"It reflects the ministry we have now and projected ministry we anticipate," said Aalbue.

While multi-purpose facilities and classrooms are not entirely new to churches, the way they are being built has changed. "Form follows function," said Aalbue. "I have noticed some really interesting facilities being built in the Vancouver area," he said. "They don’t look like churches."

Vancouver Church of Christ held services at Heritage High School for two years after it sold its old facility to finance its new building. And even in its new facility, the worship area doubles as a gym and auditorium. The building includes a commercial kitchen, a fireside room, offices and classrooms. The church already has plans to build a larger auditorium later. Pre-school classes will be offered in the fall in the church’s classrooms, and future plans also include facilities for a K-12 school at the 20-acre site.

"We feel we need to be of service to the community and have (programs) for the neighborhood and broader community," said Cash.

Building communities

Examples of church construction in Clark County

Columbia Adventist Academy, Battleground
Multi-phased project to significantly expand and renovate existing school on 19-acre lot.

East Park Church, Vancouver
Multi-phased project to renovate existing worship space and add multi-purpose and classroom buildings.

Family of Christ Lutheran Church, Vancouver
Construction will begin this summer on multi-phased project nearly tripling building space.

Holy Redeemer Catholic Parish, Vancouver
Building 12,000-square-foot church and 6,000-square-foot administration building for new congregation leasing space in a strip mall in East Vancouver.

Home of God Christian Church, Vancouver
Building 36,000-square-foot facility on nearly six-acre lot.

Northwest Adventist Headquarters, Ridgefield
36,000-square-foot office complex for Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

Vancouver Church of Christ
Relocated to new 45,000-square-foot facility in 2005. Future auditorium and K-12 school planned for 20-acre site.

Zion Lutheran Church, Camas
In permitting process for future expansion.

Holy land

Like a business hoping to attract customers, churches look for certain things when scouting possible locations to build.

Don Foster of Don Foster Constructions, a Vancouver-based specialty contractor in church building, said visibility from main streets, accessibility and neighborhoods are taken into consideration.

Foster said it is getting costly to move due to rising land values and permitting, leading more churches to remodel or build on present land.

Vancouver Church of Christ relocated into a new facility last year on Padden Parkway from Mill Plain Boulevard and Andresen Road. The site, purchased 20 years ago, was chosen for its visibility.

"We knew Padden Parkway was off in the future," said. Elder Gene Cash. "We don’t want to hide."

Bryan Halbert, vice president of Vanvouver’s Schlecht Construction, said churches have unique zoning challenges. Churches are excluded from building on industrial land, which tends to be the cheapest, said Halbert. And they are allowed outright on commercial land – the most expensive. Other zoning designations allow churches as a conditional use, meaning each project must go through a conditional use permit process.

Most churches, which are exempt from paying property taxes, tend to be approved, said Foster.

Availability of land and zoning regulations present challenges to growing congregations, but "there is a great desire by many churches to work through that process and continue to expand," said Halbert.