4 Keys to Site Selection for Multisite Churches
I originally thought my calling was to use my talents to build high-rise buildings. I was in the high-rise world for the better part of three decades and thought I would stay my whole life, but then I bumped into a gentleman named Lyle Schaller.
A member at my home church, he was a great influence on me. Before he passed away, Lyle would come up to me after worship on Sundays, tap me and say, "What's up this week, young man? What are you doing to advance the Kingdom? Never be afraid to use your secular gifts to do the Lord's work."
God has a way of tapping us on the shoulder, too. Eventually, I was called away from the high-rise world, and I built my first church. I was hooked. I soon realized churches need a facility partner with expertise in property development—people who understand how to deal with local municipalities and governance, how to get projects re-zoned or get special-use permits, and myriad other details related to site selection.
Multisite churches face many of these complexities, especially as they endeavor to multiply and extend their footprint more prominently into their communities. Site selection is a critical aspect of a church’s multisite strategy. Typically, however, pastors are ill equipped to navigate this aspect of church growth.
For this reason, Aspen Group assists churches that need help with site selection. Here are four keys we use to help narrow the search for a new campus:
Networks and Nodes
We identify strategic locations that meet your demographic, geographic, economic and cultural reasons for becoming a multisite. We specify a target area and determine distance from your adjacent campus nodes, which is most effective in urban areas.
The most effective multisites are 15-30 minutes apart. Why? Because when you target a geographic area and then create a network of other locations—or nodes—you can optimize ministry programming. For example, the youth group on Wednesday nights might be too small at three locations, but at one of the nodes, we could do a youth group that brings multiple locations together with only a 15-minute drive for everyone. Thus, we can use the resources of the larger campus to support others as long as we build a closely knit network.
Adaptive Reuse or Green Site
We prioritize whether we're moving forward with an adaptive reuse building or a brand new building—a “green grass” or “green site.”
Adaptability is the way in which we judge whether or not a building can be reused. We talk about buildings as having “good bones.” Does it have enough power? Is the water line big enough? Do we need to upsize a transformer? Is there enough gas coming into the building? Will the existing land handle that new footprint or that new parking lot?
We also want to look at development regulations, such as zoning versus private covenants. Many major corporations in our country enter into private covenants when they select a site. For example, when a Target store is built, they go to the shopping center developer and say, "Here are our private covenants. We will bring Target to you, but you cannot have any childcare centers, karate studios, churches, etc. We want strictly retail."
We can generally get a public body to lean in toward having a church, but private covenants are almost impossible to beat.
When you are selecting a site, make sure you know your neighbors. We always try to look for a way to show how we're going to change the community in a positive way. It's not about our space. It's about God's space, and so that's our focus—to be able to tell that story and help the local government and community understand what that story will look like.
In our experience, adaptive reuse is also a bonus because you're effectively stewarding God's resources; you generally get twice the ministry space for the money.
Parking Ratios and Passing Periods
The modern congregation requires parking at a ratio of 2:1, or one parking space for every two seats in the auditorium (plus the number of staff and volunteers on site at any one time). So, 400 seats in the auditorium plus 10 staff and volunteers mean 210 parking spaces. Many local governments only require parking in a 4:1 ratio; some even only require 8:1.
A building should not be excluded from the search criteria because it lacks the total number of spaces on site. Sometimes you can find a creative solution to parking by looking to the neighbors.
The closer the passing periods are between ministry services, the more parking you're going to need. It’s important to make sure you can move the passing period far enough apart so it gives people time to connect in between services, but it also allows for everything to recycle in the parking lot.
One of the last things we look at is price. While in the private sector, we primarily evaluate properties for their high return on financial investment. For churches, however, we have to look at the overall return on ministry investment.
Most of us think paying less for something is always good. Cheap can be an admirable quality, except when it comes to church site selection. It doesn’t pay to select a church location based on how cheap you can get the building if the building and location don’t serve your ministry mission and vision.
For example, if your church’s mission is centered on serving a community in the downtown area of your city, it wouldn’t make sense to buy a church at the edge of town just because it meets your price criteria. Don’t sacrifice your mission just because you find a church that’s the right price.
So first and foremost, we evaluate whether a location will meet your ministry mission and vision. Next we ask, does it meet the ministry investment criteria? If you're a multisite, are you going to spend $6 million on each campus? Or in your ministry expansion, would you rather spend $2.5 to $3.5 million on campuses and do twice as many?
As I mentioned in the adaptive reuse section above, one way churches can get a higher yield on their investment is by selecting a site that was originally built for commercial use. It is quite possible to turn an office structure, retail center, or warehouse into a church, while preserving its future functionality as an office or warehouse. This means that if you ever need to move from an adaptive reuse space, you’ll be able to sell the structure not as a church, but as the site’s originally intended use. Consequently, you’ll have a much broader pool of potential buyers for your space than if you were trying to sell a church building as a church building.
Also, it is far easier for lenders and appraisers to find comparables on adaptive reuse sites versus church buildings. And when a lender can identify the comparable value of a property, they are more likely to finance the purchase, typically at 70-80 percent of the appraised value.
Adaptively reusing commercial buildings is a current trend that will continue to grow as the retail market shifts to online purchasing and away from brick and mortar stores. Converting sites from commercial to church use is one effective way for multisites to make ministry dollars stretch farther and expand into new sites more quickly.