DESIGNER COLUMNS & BLOGS / Design & Architecture

Posted in Design & Architecture on August 1, 2014 1:37 pm EDT

Life Cycle of a Church-Based School

Architect Ron Geyer covers the cycle that church-based schools seem to fall into: inauguration, maturation, separation, and opposition.









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By Ron Geyer

Just before 8 o’clock on a December evening, a fire broke out in the boys’ locker room near the gym at Southside Christian School in Greenville, South Carolina. The bright flames made for dramatic footage on that night’s Eyewitness News and startled viewers. Fortunately, none of the 100-or-so people in the gym that night one was hurt, even though damage by fire, smoke and water was extensive. Media coverage continued over several days.

Southside Christian School was a ministry of Southside Fellowship (now Fellowship Greenville), and ministry leaders immediately set out to repair the damage. They also began to grapple with something they realized from watching days of newspaper and television coverage. Even though both were housed in the same building, it seemed that none of the reporters, and few of their listeners and readers, had any idea that the school was just one part of a vibrant local church. Just as portions of their building had been consumed by fire, it seemed that the church had been swallowed by the academy.

"Just as portions of their building had been consumed by fire, it seemed that the church had been swallowed by the academy."

—Ron Geyer,Founder, Good City Architects, Greenville, SC

Though Southside’s revelation occurred through a dramatic turn of events, the assimilation of the parent by her child is one of four I’ve observed in the life of a church-based school. Each can and should be prepared for by churches called to this important ministry.


I can’t guess how many churches begin (and complete) their foray into Christian education with Mother’s Morning Out or full-fledged kindergarten programs. For most, it is an easy move – at least for their facilities. Three-year-olds on Tuesday require essentially the same provisions as three-year-olds on Sunday. The practice of offering a morning program 3 to 4 hours long coupled with an afternoon “Late Stay” seems designed to fit the weekday program to the template of fire codes designed to accommodate Sunday School. The most common pattern is to launch with the youngest grades, adding grades as the first students mature. The biggest issue is often the separation of storage: providing identifiable, and sometimes lockable place for each group’s “stuff.”


Complexity mounts as kids get older (isn’t that always the case?). The curriculum begins to include topics that ought to be taught in specialized spaces – chemistry, for instance. Larger students mean larger environments for eating and athletics that can outstrip what the church might have required for its other age grouped ministries. The pressure is particularly acute past middle school, leading to a large investment in resources that can no longer be shared.

Whatever the age group, the management challenges are legion. Even when the school has its own administration, church leaders at all levels spend a disproportionate amount of time dealing with “school issues.” It is not unusual to spend 4 of 5 weekdays dealing with personnel issues or as the referee of last resort in disputes between parents and teachers.

The Executive Pastor of one such school outlined some of the most frustrating realities:

• Church members whose children attend the school sometimes consider their tithe a kind of tuition prepayment plan and expect discounts, or reduce their support of the church since they “already contribute so much to the school.” Some do both.

• Church members who don’t have children in the school struggle with, and can come to resent, the growing cost of “non-church” building and operations.

• Non-church members want a voice in the leadership of their children’s school, whatever their spiritual qualifications.

• Everyone feels the pinch of escalating costs  continued >>