Over 300 volunteers pitch in to construct new UCC church
Written by Marilyn McClellan
March 2004


Workers and volunteers install ceiling beams in the new First Congregational UCC sanctuary.

Congregation turns building project into collaborative effort

When the members of First Congregational UCC in Bellingham, Wash., decided it was time to build a new church, they took the construction project both seriously and literally. Working with a creative and cooperative contractor, members not only dug deep into their pockets but also offered strong backs and willing hands to get the big job accomplished.

Decades of consistent growth had pushed the physical limits of the church's space. Back-pew worshippers were frustrated that they could not see the young faces of those on the chancel steps during the children's sermon, and visitors and older members found it increasingly difficult to find a place to sit, much less park.

So, after raising an impressive $1.8 million in a capital campaign, they set out to design and build a new facility—themselves. Working with a campaign advisor and a local architect, members drew up plans for a building that would resemble an historic Congregational meetinghouse.

Utilizing a simple rectangular shape, the plan called for the people to be gathered around a new wooden communion table, which would serve as the focal point of the sanctuary. Curved rows of pews would be encircled by a balcony in the rear, while the church's beloved 100-year-old pipe organ and 116-year-old church bell would find a rightful place in the new structure.

Taking advantage of a unique "pray, participate and pay" concept developed 20 years ago by the Pearson Construction Company in Bellingham, church members were given the opportunity to donate volunteer time—under the care of a professional contractor—in order to bring costs down and members' commitment up.

This participatory approach to church construction began in 1984 when Pearson's Steve Reynolds, now a vice president of the company, wondered how church building projects could recapture the nostalgia of years ago. So Reynolds developed a way to take advantage of the skills and talents of local church members. Since that time, Pearson's cooperative, innovative building methods have proved to be a godsend to many church groups and parochial schools in the Pacific Northwest.

Of course not all tasks can be completed by the unskilled; building codes simply don't allow it. That's why some of the biggest jobs—such as building the foundation, installing the wiring or completing the dry wall—are undertaken by professionals. Even so, there's still a good deal left over for a cadre of willing volunteers.

At First Congregational, church members—under the watchful eye of their construction supervisor—showed up to build forms, seal concrete, texture walls, sort bricks, insulate pipes, or just clean the work site. The most skilled volunteers patiently tutored the unskilled, and in the process, innumerable talents of church members were put to good work.

For example, Rick Scribner used his backhoe to clear the initial construction site, while D.C. Morse, through his company, donated much of the state-of-the-art heating-and-cooling system. Licensed plumber Steve Morrow donated more than 1,000 hours of after-work-time plumbing, while Jerry Couchman built a new pulpit—constructed in memory of his parents.

Artist Doug Hudson carved all the insets for the communion table, chancel furniture and entry doors, while Herb Ershig helped design and build the steel and glass panels that form the glass cross of light that adorns the sanctuary. Building committee chairperson Etta Kirk offered leadership and vision to the project, and long-time church member Barbara Green helped match willing volunteers with necessary tasks.

Members employed their respective talents to furnish a new kitchen, library and conference room; complete the landscaping; and even undertake a new outreach ministry initiated when one small group donated a new deep freezer. In other words, anyone who wanted to participate was afforded the opportunity.

Laurence Brewster, a longtime member, was touched by the dedication of the church's members. "I am most happy to witness this new group of members as fully dedicated as their spiritual forbearers," he said. "They have gone far more than the second mile to help."

By the time the new church was dedicated in October 2003, almost 300 volunteers had participated in some aspect of the project, while 150—ranging in age from 5 to 89—had assisted directly with the construction.

Over 6,000 volunteer hours were logged, a major factor in reducing the cost of the construction by thousands of dollars.

"So many members stepped forth to contribute," says the Rev. Donel G. McClellan of the pastoral team. "By the grace of God and with the help of a cooperative construction company, volunteers were able to help build their church just as they had over 120 years ago. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, members can look at the fresh new building and say, 'I did that!'"

Marilyn McClellan is a member of First Congregational UCC in Bellingham, Wash.

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