A Chemistry Conversation with Tim Cool
We're six months into the pandemic ... a pandemic that has forced churches to accelerate in both good ways and bad ways. In this Chemistry Conversation, Matt Steen talks with Tim Cool about what he is learning, and how he is encouraging churches to Renew, Rethink, and Release.
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Matt Steen: Well hey, this is Matt Steen, Co-Founder of Chemistry Staffing with another Chemistry conversation. And joining me today is Tim Cool. Tim, he's the “grand poo bah” behind Smart Church Solutions and just when it comes to facilities, when it comes to thinking through construction, when it comes to all that kind of practical stuff that we never figured out in seminary, he is the guy to talk to. Tim, thanks for taking some time to talk, man.
Tim Cool: Absolutely, my pleasure.
Matt Steen: We've been having conversations with guys all across the country these last couple of weeks just about what, we're six, seven months into the apocalypse. We have changed the way we have approached church and ways that we never imagined we would. So just kind of checking in with guys and saying, hey, what are you learning and what do you see church leaders really need to address in the next six months or so?
Tim Cool: Yeah. You've probably heard this from others that deal with giving maybe more than what we do, but we have seen COVID as being an accelerator.
Matt Steen: Really?
Tim Cool: And what I mean by that is if you were doing online giving before, you're doing it even more now. If you weren't doing online giving or you were thinking about it, you got into it pretty quickly. Same with online services. I've got clients right now that didn't even have online services six months ago, and now they've got fully-produced services.
Matt Steen: And that's big churches and small churches too.
Tim Cool: Oh yeah, this is not just a 50-person church. I've got a client in Oklahoma that runs 800 people that didn't do an online service. But now they are. The other accelerator, which is maybe more of a negative, is for churches that were in financial trouble, they're really in trouble. So we have seen churches that, particularly in some of the mainline denominations, that thought they have 3-5 years of runway time left are down to 6-8 months of runway time. We just did an assessment for a church in DC that we're basically let them know, you're insolvent right now, you need to vacate the building.
Matt Steen: I bet that conversation went over well.
Tim Cool: Well, no, it didn't go over real well. But it's what the Presbyterian needed. So what we're seeing from a facilities standpoint is some of your mainline denominations are basically taking over a bunch of property that they don't know what to do with. And that's a major deal. What do they do from a maintenance standpoint while they try to figure out what to do on it. Do they sell it? Do they repurpose it? Do they partner with the Southern Baptists to provide church planters opportunities? What do you do with all that? The other accelerator is people have become more keenly aware of the condition of their facilities. We have seen more churches asking us questions about, okay, we really need to improve our cleaning standards, what do we need to do? They're becoming more acutely aware of that. They're becoming acutely aware of the fact that, oh man, we really do have deferred maintenance, what are we going to do about this. And so we're seeing more of those conversations happening than we had pre-COVID.
Matt Steen: Anything that surprises you out of that? A lot of that seems to make a lot of sense, just kind of based on the overall trends church-wise before COVID and with all the crisis around COVID, I mean it makes sense that we're starting to up our cleaning thinking. Anything that really just catches you off guard in what you're seeing out there church wise.
Tim Cool: Well I shouldn't have been taken off guard by the acceleration of decline for mainline churches. I shouldn't have been, but it's clearly in my face. And it breaks my heart. You've got churches that have been in a location 50-100 years that at the time of inception these had taken ground for the Kingdom. Now we're losing ground. That's just, I don't know, that just kind of breaks my heart.
Matt Steen: So say you're a church that's in that situation. I remember when I planted a church in Baltimore, we were surrounded by so many of these big, beautiful facilities that were churches of maybe 20 or 30 people and the building was kind of crumbling around them because they didn't have the financial wherewithal to cover costs and all that kind of stuff. I mean, a church in that situation, how do you advise them besides telling the Presbytery that they've got to take over the facility?
Tim Cool: Yeah, what we've been working towards is helping churches go through what I'm calling the three "r" process. One is to evaluate whether there is an opportunity for renewal I'm using the word renewal verses revitalization. Thom and Sam Rainer, they've got the revitalization network...
Matt Steen: That gets copyrighted.
Tim Cool: Yeah, well, because of that, but also revitalization makes the assumption that we have to revitalize who we are. Renewal has the potential of being something "new." And so I'm challenging churches to think through, what does it mean for your church to exist in 2020 and 2021? It may mean that all you need is a 4,000 square foot assembly room somewhere and a couple of classrooms. You don't need a 50,000 square foot building anymore. The second "r" with that is repurpose. Another term that I like to go with that that's another "r" word is redemptive engineering. Is there a repurposing of the campuses? Again, not just for the church. But is there another way to utilize the resources? And then the third "r" is release. Do you need to sell it. At least in the churches we've been working with, Matt, it's a combination of all three. It's not just one. It's a combination of there's a renewal that has to happen, a repurposing of the structure which may also require a total or partial release of part of the campus.
Matt Steen: And I'm sure the release thing just has to strike fear into the heart of pastors and the heart of board members and all that kind of thing, just because of what you said. You know, this is a historic facility that we've taken ground in the past, and it's almost like we're admitting defeat. What kind of wisdom do you have for church leaders that are struggling through this? How do you walk them through that process?
Tim Cool: This church in DC that we did the assessment for is in the District of Columbia, it's not a suburb. We're talking about four or five blocks from Dupont Circle, so we're in the middle of embassy row and all this kind of... this is a church that is very valuable that frankly is worth nothing because it is in the historic district and it's got a very limited zoning requirement, so there's not much repurposing you can do. So in that case, what we've suggested is what do you think about creating some sort of mixed juice ministry complex. Not a mixed juice commercial complex, but are there two or three different congregations that could utilize this facility in different-sized worship rooms, different times of the day, the weekend. Could you all office out of the same space and share the same custodial team? Could you find other non-profits? The sanctuary’s large enough you could do some events in there and drive revenue. So again, how do you renew the individual congregations to right-size the portion of the facility they use but literally repurpose it.
Matt Steen: That's great, that's brilliant. As we go deeper in this, do you see more and more churches having to kind of rethink and repurpose and find out where the renewal comes from?
Tim Cool: Yeah, I think they have to. The challenge with most churches - I'm going to be really blunt - is too often the leaders of the churches take off their business hat and put on their ignorant hat when they walk into the front doors. They don't apply good business principles to running a church or church building. And so you've got to put on your hat that thinks beyond us four and no more in the pews and that kind of thing. The challenge is, when churches try to do it alone... we just had a conversation with the Presbyterian Church of Canada. They've had a number of congregations that have tried to do this kind of renewal, repurposing on their own and they've signed documents now that are going to really hamper the church. Because they tried to do it on their own without some kind of guidance, they've stepped into a pile of poo basically. And so we're just encouraging churches, as you're going through this, don't try to go at it alone. This is uncharted territory for most churches, but you've got to start having those discussions. And don't wait until you're down to 20 people. If you see a trend line already going down, don't wait until you're below sea level.
Matt Steen: Yeah, that's great. I know we've only got a few minutes, but something that you said kind of brought something up in my head. Say you're a church that pre-COVID, back in February before all this became nuts, was starting to think through building and expansion and all that kind of thing and said, hey, we're just going to push pause on this for the next six months and see where things... how should we be thinking differently now as we start to think through what a facility looks like?
Tim Cool: Yes, great question. The first place would be to set the current plans aside totally, almost forget they exist, and rethink how are we doing ministry in the post-COVID world, and how would we utilize the facilities we have, are they adequate or not, and then determine what's that look like. You may end up with the same building or renovation project that you were thinking, but don't just assume that you need the same space as you did back then. You may need a better TV studio for broadcast than you need 10 new classrooms. There may be a heavier weight on technology purchase than on square footage addition. Those are the types of things you think about. Or do we need to think about bigger open rooms instead of a bunch of smaller closed off rooms? What does that look like? We can't escape the fact that the gathered church needs to gather. I'm convinced of that. So let's not lose sight of that. The crazies that are saying we're never going back to the church buildings again - really?
Matt Steen: Well they've been saying that for 20 years, a lot of them anyhow.
Tim Cool: Frankly, if we were going back to the house church movement, which I'm not going to speak one way or the other on, the bottom line is we all need bigger houses. I don't have a house that can accommodate 100 people in my living room. So you know, think through - again, go back to the who are you, what has God called you to do, why do you do things the way you do it, how will you do them now going forward. And then look at, what's the right tool to accommodate all that. Don't start with the tool.
Matt Steen: That's great advice. So Tim, thank you for that. Thanks for taking some time, sharing your wisdom. Really appreciate, love what you do. Think more churches probably need to talk to you than they probably already are. But if we want to find you, it's smartchurchsolutions.com. And anywhere else that we should be looking for you?
Tim Cool: Hey, if anybody is looking for a primer or something to put them to bed, we just released a new book called Entrusted: An Intentional Guide to Church Facility Stewardship. Dr. Thom Rainer wrote the forward in the book for me and a bunch of cool guys did the endorsements. It just gives you an overall primer on the concept of facility stewardship.
Matt Steen: Very cool, we'll definitely link to that below this. Tim, thank you so much. Really, really enjoy spending time with you.
Tim Cool: Thanks, Matt.