Entrusting a half-million-dollar renovation investment to a construction team made up of a retired pastor, a farmer, an administrative assistant, an engineer and a salesman may seem like a risky decision. But that’s what members of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, Arlington, Wash., chose to do last summer when they contacted Mission Builders to connect two existing buildings with a new entryway, plus build a preschool addition.

Mission Builders, an outreach ministry of the ELCA, gathers workers from across the country to work for minimum wage on a renovation or new-build construction project for a church or religious camp. Most are retired; many have minimal experience in construction when they first begin.

While hiring a team that includes nonprofessionals could be seen as risky, it turned out to be one of the best decisions the congregation could have made, said Dianne Engelsen, an Our Saviour’s council member at the time.

Through the build, the 124-year-old congregation gained valuable space that has benefited the community and, in turn, brought new members to Our Saviour’s. And since Mission Builders expects church members to work alongside the group on the project, a bond was created that wouldn’t have happened with a hired contractor.

“The camaraderie was really life-changing for our church,” Engelsen said. “Before then, we were people who met at church. After this, we were people who were friends.”

Impacting congregations

Mission Builders just celebrated its 30th anniversary, and much has been accomplished in three decades: it has constructed over 250 structures for more than 180 congregations and camps in 34 states.

The ministry has also saved organizations more than $25 million, which is usually the primary reason Mission Builders is contacted—groups are looking to save money, said Bill Graves, its director.

By working with Mission Builders, an organization can save 10 to 30 percent on a project, he said. If a Mission Builders architect is used upfront, sometimes more can be saved.

Architect fees typically cost 8 percent of a project’s total budget, Graves said. A $4 million project, for example, could include a $320,000 architect fee. A Mission Builders’ architect could offer pro bono work on the initial concepting and drawings, a potential savings of $64,000.

But, Graves said, “we want them to pursue us more importantly because of [our] impact of building community and faith. It will change their congregations. Congregants become more involved in their church.

“We want them to pursue us because of [our] impact of building community and faith. It will change their congregations.”

“So often, we’ll be working alongside congregation members, and you’ll see people introduce themselves to each other. ‘I don’t think I’ve met you before.’ ‘Well, I go [to the] Saturday night [service].’ ‘Oh, I go Sunday morning.’ ”

While one focus of Mission Builders is to construct structurally sound buildings, the group works just as eagerly to construct spiritually sound communities. The crew hosts daily devotions; invites congregants to Bible studies and to share meals and prayers; and generally becomes an integral part of their host congregation.

“[We] share one another’s faith stories and give people maybe of lesser faith the opportunity to learn from others,” Graves said. “We truly believe that witnessing is a very important part of our faith.”

Scott Summers, pastor of Our Saviour’s, said the spiritual emphasis of Mission Builders was incredibly important to the church, especially for the men who volunteered alongside the work crew.

“Expressing their faith, that’s not something Lutherans tend to do a lot of, particularly men,” he said. “[Seeing the Mission Builders] expressing their faith and leading devotions made a really big impact on the men here.”

Food for thought

Kathy Kjargaard was one of two Our Saviour’s members in charge of snacks and coffee during the construction project, finding host families and organizing Saturday potlucks open to the congregation and the workers.

At first she was doubtful that she would be able to find enough church volunteers to meet those expectations. “We’re a fairly small congregation,” Kjargaard said. “We thought it was going to be really challenging, but everyone took it to heart and people would make homemade rolls and buy huge watermelons and stick them in the church refrigerator.”

Several congregants—dubbed fondly as the Magnificent Seven—joined the work crew whole-heartedly and put in 40-hour shifts each week to help the project along. That level of participation probably wouldn’t have happened without the example of the Mission Builders, Kjargaard said.

Today the effects of that volunteer spirit are still felt. Eight church members have had major surgeries recently, Kjargaard said, but meal support is already in place to assist those congregants as they heal. “People are just used to thinking that way,” she said. “It’s not interpreted as a burden.”

That level of participation probably wouldn’t have happened without the example of the Mission Builders.

In total, 28 congregation members volunteered a total of 5,500 hours toward the build—not including those who cooked and prepared meals for the workers or donated time and efforts in other ways, Kjargaard said.

“Listening to the updates [presented] every other Sunday—and looking at guys in their 60s, 70s and even 80s who work[ed] all day in the sun—I think it inspired people,” Kjargaard said. “When I sit in Sunday service, it’s hard to find anyone who didn’t participate in one form or another.”

In fact, when her husband, Jim, suggested those who had volunteered during the project could stand to be recognized at the closing ceremonies of the project, Kjargaard quickly said no, realizing that only a handful a people would be left sitting.

“It was that kind of level of participation, and I had never seen that before,” she said.

Who are they?

The men and women of Mission Builders come from all backgrounds and professions to travel at their own expense to a build site. One out of six has a strong background in construction management and takes the reigns as project manager, coordinating the subcontractors hired by the congregation to tackle plumbing, electrical, and heating and air conditioning installations.

The rest of the Mission Builders work alongside parishioners to frame, put up trusses, install windows and siding and, finally, enclose the structure.

Nine out of 10 Mission Builders live in their own RVs on the construction site, while the rest are usually hosted by someone from the congregation. Many sign on for a whole summer of work, as a typical project takes about five months to complete, although some donate a week of their time each summer to help with a nearby build, Graves said.

Many Mission Builders, especially the spouses who can’t do heavy lifting, get involved in the greater community in which they’re working, volunteering at food pantries, helping at the church’s preschool and more.

It’s not a monetarily rewarding retirement plan, Graves said, adding, “You will not make money being a Mission Builder by the time you pay for your fuel and other expenses. That’s not what it’s all about.”

Instead, being a Mission Builder is about playing a role in the spiritual growth of others by building their faith, one structure at a time.

Being a Mission Builder is about playing a role in the spiritual growth of others by building their faith, one structure at a time.

Graves, who has a pharmaceutical background, joined Mission Builders after the group helped his home church, and he’s continued the mission because he enjoys the new Christians he meets every day. “I don’t mean to minimize tithing and giving, but at some point, the personal satisfaction [from monetary giving] was dramatically less than getting involved,” he said. “For me and my wife, Becky … we witness to others about [getting involved] in your church. Plus, what better way to see the U.S., what better way to meet new people?”

But more help is needed. Looking ahead to 2018 and 2019, Mission Builders has three times as many projects available as they do workers to build them, Graves said.

“Mission Builders can take virtually anyone,” Graves said. “As long as they have a desire to learn and the strength to lift, we can teach them to do almost anything.”


To learn more and see a list of current projects, visit elcamissionbuilders.org.

Stephanie N. Grimoldby
Grimoldby is a freelance writer living in Antioch, Ill.

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