Guiding Facility Growth with a Master Plan

Volume 52, Issue 2 :: Robin Whitehurst, AIA

Over time, the purpose and the people that worship facilities were built for evolves, and as a response so too must the facilities. Therefore, ministry leaders should create a facilities master plan process every five to ten years in parallel with their organization’s vision and mission to ensure alignment between the facility and the goals of the ministry. A building rarely remains static; there are many ways to maximize the use of the space and the first step is through master planning.

A master plan is a long-term vision, or roadmap, for the worship facility’s next decade and the solution to fully realizing the potential of ministry. Master plans provide a guide to help prioritize adaptations for ministry needs, maintenance, and funding. The most important part of the process is understanding how each ministry operates, its facility or space needs, and what the built environment can do to support those needs.

Narthex space

Narthex space now serves as overflow from the main sanctuary through the use of a folding glass wall. Photo courtesy of the author.


When first sitting down with ministries, it is common to hear “this is what I want.” The architect’s job is to challenge preconceptions and begin with “what activities does the ministry engage in?” Clients often come to the architect with what they believe is the solution. Architects start with identifying what’s missing to pinpoint higher-level needs and build a master plan around more concrete goals. A simple starting point is a list of what is to go on in the facility. It is vital to understand what services the facility will be supporting in order to determine the types of spaces needed and their relationship to each other.

These conclusions are teased out through a holistic engagement process with the congregation and ministry leaders. Highly interactive workshops, held by the architect, assist in developing ministry goals and drivers. Through this process, the architect can begin to identify areas of overlap and commonality to understand the overall character, mission, and vision that the building will need to embody.

Existing and New Facilities

For evaluating existing facilities, a full facilities condition assessment is needed to understand what spaces are available and what repairs, if any, are required to maintain the facilities’ functional performance. Facility condition assessments look for evidence of deferred maintenance, or components that have been neglected or are past their useful life. Furthermore, facility condition assessments evaluate the existing ministry buildings’ ability to support their needs.

When working with existing historic facilities, care is required to make sure that any changes stay true to the original character of the building. More and more congregations are looking for technology upgrades such as audio-visual components and lighting or reconfiguration to increase accessibility for aging congregations. It is the architect’s job to incorporate those needs while respecting the integrity of the historic fabric of the facility, so as not to change the original essence of the spiritual environment, which is often the goal of many congregations.

Another key trend in worship facilities is to create more flexible or adaptable environments. With purposeful space that can accommodate a variety of ministry needs, the need for dedicated, single-use space declines, offering the congregation more options for maximizing their use of the building with other activities.

Phase II of the master plan

Phase II of the master plan includes accommodations for a worship and community space in Howell Hall on the lower level.

Case Study

For example, North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois has welcomed individuals from all over the world for the past 100 years. The historic building is home to four multicultural congregations that worship in four different languages: English, Spanish, Japanese, and Karen—a Burmese language brought to the Chicago area by refugees. Although the ministries worship with their own language groups and represent a variety of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, they all congregate as one community within the church building’s diverse spaces.

  • The master planning started with meeting each faith group to:
  • Identify and prioritize goals and needs
  • Outline options for space planning
  • Establish a building-wide space use document
  • Draft 3-D renderings and floor plans
  • Estimate probable costs

In addition, a comprehensive facility condition assessment with code and accessibility studies was conducted to get a better understanding of the overall building renovations that were required. An issue that came to light during these meetings was the need for additional fellowship space on the main floor to accommodate congregants after services without disrupting another language group’s worship service occurring simultaneously in the lower level, Howell Hall.

The design solution was to expand the small narthex on the main floor, removing several rows of pews to make room for a gathering space. A folding glass partition was installed between the sanctuary and the fellowship area that could be opened up should the need for more worship space arise. The issue of acoustic separation was solved by separating the air distribution systems and providing insulation at the ceiling. Once the best options were determined for fulfilling each group’s initiatives and the overall building renovations that were required to improve safety, we divided the project into phases that would prioritize initiatives based on cost so the congregation could plan to fundraise accordingly.

The project was so successful it is now in Phase II of the master plan, which is to transform Howell Hall into a revitalized worship space and community center. The renovated Howell Hall will be equipped to host services for parishioners and convert into a vibrant multi-purpose community space, supporting the congregation’s various needs.


Master plans marry the design process with comprehensive needs analysis in order to help religious facilities reach their full potential and support their congregation. The master plan serves as a roadmap for the next ten years of renovations, maintenance, and funding to reach success for the congregation and accommodate modern technology and infrastructure needs while respecting the religious architecture. By assessing and implementing upgrades, the facility will be better equipped to serve ministries, promote congregant satisfaction, and reflect the spiritual mission of its members.

The author, a principal at Bailey Edward, has been its Faith Environment design leader for over 25 years. He also serves on the board of Partners for Sacred Places, a national nonprofit that assists religious communities plan and develop their facilities to best serve the public.

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