Dear Church Family,
I want to take an opportunity to specifically address an issue with our building plans that has some of you deeply concerned. This will be a little long, but I want to make sure the work of our building committee is understood. I also want to share with you my great sense of hope for the future of Custer Road!
Let me begin by saying that we have a wonderful church. God is fully present here, and we have a remarkable team of lay leaders, church members, clergy, and staff who have been working tirelessly for the past two years so that we might be prepared to take our next steps toward the vision that God has placed before us. Indeed, God is calling us to share the love of Jesus in such a way that it will impact our community for generations to come!
During the past two weeks, our building committee has received approvals from our Board of Trustees, Finance Committee, and Church Council to present a final set of building plans for our campus re-design to the congregation for approval. The initial set of plans that were presented to the congregation last year were beautiful and ambitious, but were ultimately too expensive. In an attempt to bring the scope of the project back in line with our budget, the architects and building committee spent the past few months reworking and revising the plans in accordance with Custer Road’s five pillars: worship, evangelism, disciple making, family building, and missions.
In order to address some of the concerns that have been lifted up, I think that it is important that everyone has a clear understanding as to why the chapel has been removed as part of the building redesign. I’ll speak to it here, but I also want to let you know that we have created a special Frequently Asked Questions section about the Chapel on our Above and Beyond website. You’ll also find a video there from Joanne Bryan, a longtime Custer Road member and one of the co-chairs of our building committee. She brings a valuable perspective to change that is worth listening to.
First, the chapel’s current location has proven to be an insurmountable barrier to achieving a vision for making our building more open and accessible to all of our age-level ministries. This vision has a couple of key components. First is a new children’s area that is centrally located, easy to find, tailored to fit our current and future ministry needs, and engages children and their families as soon as they walk into our church. Most importantly, the new space will address existing security concerns by creating a single point of entry that is accessible only with credentials. The building will also provide us with true lockdown capabilities in the event of an emergency.
The second component of this vision address the need for an openness and connectivity that our campus currently lacks. As a result of multiple building phases over the years, we have narrow hallways, disconnected check in areas, partially hidden stairwells, small bathrooms, and a number of other issues that make it extremely difficult for large crowds to navigate our building. Despite the fact that we have a wonderful hospitality team, our building is very confusing for first-time guests and visitors to our church. Removing the chapel along with the network of corridors that surround it will allow us to create a main front entrance to the church, widen the front hallways, and add a large central staircase that will connect all three floors of our building and provide better access to our children’s and youth areas, worship spaces, and adult Sunday School classes. The goal of this is to improve traffic flow, navigation and the sense of community that is so vital to who we are as a church. Unfortunately, the chapel is located right in the midst where all of these primary sections of our building come together. From a logistical and engineering standpoint, this goal cannot be accomplished if the chapel remains in its present location.
Why are we not building a new chapel?
The initial plans featured a new chapel in a different location near the front of the church. Unfortunately, once it became clear that the scope of the project would have to be reduced, some major problems became apparent. Once the building committee and trustees started modifying the plans, the architects advised us that, because we could not afford to build out the front elevation of the church, attempting to squeeze in a 60-70 seat chapel (which would be smaller than ideal for a congregation of our size) near the entrance would create a new set of access and navigation issues. In turn, our contractors advised us that even with a modest design, building the chapel would require an additional build out and take up a large portion of the already reduced front elevation of the church. It would have also added an additional $1 million to the total cost of the project. Despite the budget restrictions, several other design options were considered, but ultimately it was determined that these alternate options would have an adverse impact on the other ministry areas that we are also trying to support.
This was one of the difficult decisions that our building committee was called upon to make, and each member of the committee recognized that it would also be difficult for some of our church members as well. For over twenty years, the chapel has served as a sacred space for baptisms, weddings, funerals and more. As such, it is difficult to imagine our campus without it.
In some ways, it reminds me of moving out of our last home, the one that had pencil marks on the door where we measured the growth of our children over the years. We wept as we drove away from our house for the last time because we were emotionally connected to it just as so many of us are also emotionally connected to our church building. But that move proved to be for a really good reason. God had a new chapter in store for our family, and I believe He has a new chapter in store for our church too.
That’s why I’m so encouraged by the vision of our church leaders. They have a God-given vision for the future that is profound. Deep inside them is a burning desire to reverse years of decline and stagnation here at Custer Road, to see more young adults, young families, and adults of all ages brought into our fellowship, and to see people grow as disciples of Jesus Christ! That’s a big vision. And to do this, it takes leaders who are willing to serve with grace, courage and conviction. I’m grateful they’ve stepped into this role. I’m also grateful for the surviving members of the Sowell family (to whom the chapel is dedicated) who have offered their prayers and support for this project. It makes my heart smile to know that they still have a vested interest in what God is doing here at Custer Road.
What do we have to gain?
We can’t talk about the removal of the chapel in isolation. Here are some important things to remember: We have an amazing Sanctuary. It’s a cathedral to the glory of God, a sacred space to all of us, and it is staying right where it is. One of the neat things about the redesign of our Fellowship Hall is that our new worship venue will occupy the same space that once served as our sanctuary! I find this to be incredibly exciting. The redesign of this space accomplishes many things. It will have a stage area, a sound system, a cross, and lighting to allow use for a modern worship service on Sunday mornings for 300 people. But it’s much more than a modern worship space. During the week, it will also be a highly versatile room that can be used for conferences, receptions, dinners, recitals, lectures, and yes, even weddings and funerals.
Why is this significant? Because while we are losing a 100 seat chapel, we are gaining a worship venue that seats three times as many, plus a new children’s ministry building, new gathering areas, and everything else that comes with the redesign. These gains are significant and should not simply be dismissed.
As part of their evaluation process, the architects and building committee looked over every square foot of our church and analyzed its usage. They wanted to look at a complete year’s use. For example, in 2015, our chapel was used most frequently (52 times) by an outside choral group as rehearsal space. There were other events, like fourteen choir leadership meetings. There were 13 private recitals and four Eagle Scout Court of Honor ceremonies. All of these are easily accommodated in the redesigned fellowship hall space or in other areas of the church. The chapel also served 13 funeral services which could be held in our Sanctuary or new worship space. (A complete list of the events is on the Frequently Asked Questions page.)
From an event standpoint, one irreplaceable thing we lose with the chapel is a traditional place to have smaller weddings. We had four weddings in the chapel in 2015. These could have been conducted in the sanctuary, but it is understandable that for smaller wedding parties, our sanctuary can feel overwhelming. The reality is that couples may choose to look at other venues because of it. And that’s OK, because this is an area where priority had to be given to our values. It’s why this process began with our 5 Pillars. The building redesign will be absolutely transformative for our children’s and worship ministries. I have no doubt about this. In my mind, it is not worth giving all of this up because we have somehow come to believe that what happens in the chapel can only happen in the chapel.
The chapel is more than just a venue for events. It is also a quiet and sacred place for reflection and prayer. I received a kind email from a woman this week who said she likes to pray in the chapel every Sunday morning, and she said she would miss it terribly if there were not a place like this. She’s right. Our church does need an intimate space for prayer. As such, we’ve explored some alternatives. We’ve received a very generous donation from someone who would like to help us create a prayer room. It will be located in one of the larger rooms in the hallway behind the Sanctuary. It would be nice if we could repurpose a couple of the pews from the chapel, and include a small altar table and a kneeling rail. This could be a beautiful place that draws us into the presence of God during those quiet times of reflection. It could also be used to serve communion on Sunday mornings when it’s not offered in the Sanctuary. We will also be repurposing the stained glass window from the current Chapel and displaying it prominently in the new stairwell which will connect all three floors of our campus. You can see that here.
Change is hard, no doubt. I take seriously my role as your pastor in helping our church navigate change. I understand where some of you are coming from; the chapel means a lot to me too, and it’s why I wanted to write you this letter.
I want to invite you to lift your eyes up, to see God’s vision for a glorious future. And lest anyone think we are placing our hope in a building, we most certainly are not. Our hope is in the transformative power of the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We have been entrusted with many resources, and our building is an important tool that we can use to carry out the ministries to which God is calling us.
Please feel free to contact the church if you have any questions. Our lay leadership teams want to be completely transparent and forthcoming, because this church is important to all of us. Visit aboveandbeyond.crumc.org and see the Q&A section in particular. There is a place to submit further questions there, should you have any.
I love this church, and I’m so proud to be your pastor. Custer Road has a history of making bold decisions for the sake of the Kingdom. Let’s see where God takes us next!
Yours for the Kingdom,
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