Over the last decade Biola University has added several new academic buildings on our campus, including two much needed parking structures. While serving different functions, they all started out the same – as a hole in the ground. The most recent, our new Lim Center for Science and Technology, involved a really big hole before construction could begin.

As I’ve watched the quarrying around here over these years, I’ve done some thinking about holes. I’ve dug a lot of them in my life. And whenever a constructive idea crosses my mind, I have to ask myself some pretty important questions. This is critical whether I’m digging in the back yard to plant a new rose or excavating the landscape of my job here to establish a new structure in our ministry to students and alumni.

Many of you may be considering some new ‘construction’ in your ministry. That’s great. But it might be good to ask yourself these helpful questions before you start to dig.  

Do I really want to dig this hole? 

Using a shovel may seem child’s play, but make no mistake. Digging holes is hard work. The cost in physical exertion and the inconvenience of having dirt all over you and your surroundings is significant. When setting off to create a foundation for a new ministry, it’s wise to count the cost, just like that tower builder Jesus mentioned in Luke 14:28. 

Of course, if the purpose of our efforts is worthwhile, we won’t mind all the trouble. In light of all the wonderful ministry preparation and support that are housed in our new Biola buildings, all the expense, noise, inconvenience and messiness was worth it. 

Am I digging in the right place? 

Few mistakes are as depressing (and costly) as realizing you’ve dug a hole in the wrong place. Hearing "Honey, I wanted to plant the begonias on the OTHER SIDE of the yard" is not an encouraging word from my lovely wife. As we contemplate laying the foundation for a new ministry, it’s important we ask ourselves if this is the right kind of expansion at the right time and in the right place.

A few years into our pastorate in the Pacific Northwest we realized some of our young people were now college-aged and needing fellowship with their peers. The temptation was to create a college group for them, but our town was many miles from any college, and there were few college kids in our community. So, rather than re-invent the wheel, with our blessing we sent our young people down the road fifteen miles to a large church in a growing suburb with a thriving collegiate ministry.

This church had already dug that hole and raised up a wonderful structure. Placing such a ministry in our context would have been ill fitted to our community and deprived our young people of exposure to a wider circle of their contemporaries. In this case not digging a hole at all was "digging in the right place."

Is this hole the right size? 

When digging holes, size does matter. As an amateur horticulturalist, I know that when planting a tree, one must dig a hole deeper and wider than one thinks, to allow for the future expansion and health of the root system and provide enough distance between the tree and other plants, once the tree is fully grown. Right-sized holes are assured when the digger keeps to a plan. He or she knows what the finished product will most likely look like, and designs the foundation accordingly.

Size matters, and so does precision. The excavators here on camps have shown amazing accuracy as they carved the soil to fit the planned structures above it. One mistake at ground level and everything goes wrong. There is plenty of room for the buildings and open areas around them for interaction and passage. Our ministry plans need to anticipate growth and follow a plan that effectively meets the requirements of our people’s needs.

Am I using the right tools? 

Soil conditions vary from place to place. One house I helped build in the mid-80s was situated on virgin ground in Anaheim near Disneyland. This dirt had never been turned. When we tried to dig footings for the foundation our pick axes bounced off the surface – using the pointy end, no less! There was no other recourse than to rent a backhoe and make the trenches with horsepower and iron.

When digging foundations for new ministries, we can find ourselves in tough soil, too. The resistance isn’t usually hard to feel, and it comes from all kinds of sources. "We’ve never done that here before." "We tried that once and it didn’t work."  Sound familiar? The church council of Acts 15 proves just how impactful turning new ground can be. Thankfully all of us who are Gentiles can rejoice that the leaders resorted to searching the Word, bathing the process in prayer, and depending upon the Holy Spirit for confirmation of their course.

What is that I just hit?  

Not long after the digging began for our new Talbot building, the crew inadvertently snagged some water lines. Several times during the early days of the ‘big dig’ we were without water due to such incidents. And as the project pressed on into subsequent months, another concern was unearthed. Every time an area was excavated, a gentleman with a small trowel would descend into the hole and scrape around, looking for bones. Yes, they were concerned about uncovering an ancient graveyard or another one of those mammoths like that discovered in the building of our new Hope Hall dormitory a few years earlier.

Communities put dig alert signs in places where underground utilities are present. This makes sense, since it’s counter productive to undo someone else’s hard work as you do your new work. Churches should set up some of their own signs, too, I think. How many times have you blissfully started to dig the foundation for a new ministry only to offend someone whose previous efforts were lying just below the surface? One memorable instance in our experience was when our associate pastor moved the church library to a new space, thinking this would enlarge its potential and increase its usefulness.

Little did he realize that many church members had labored tirelessly years before building it just like they wanted it and just where they wanted it. His shovel hit pretty important history, and some folk never let him forget it. He should have stopped when he felt some resistance, and spent time doing some careful archaeology on the site. The new location was nice, but the price for making a new hole for it was pretty steep.

Is the hot tub ready? 

After a hard day in my yard on the business end of a shovel, I’m ready to soak for a while. The toil involved in adding beautiful plants to our flowerbeds is considerable. And in spite of my genetically determined Dutch farmer work ethic, I’ve learned the value of giving myself time to be refreshed. People in ministry exert a lot of energy in establishing effective ministries. But we’re not so good at taking breaks along the way. My folks taught me well. We farmed hard and we played hard. Quick fishing trips to the lake, hanging out at the drive-in, and visiting relatives in California – they knew how to kick back after a hard season of labor.  

We ought to strive for excellence as we dig holes for the foundations of our envisioned ministries. It’s worth doing right, and it must not be done cheaply. Having good answers to these questions will contribute to good results from our work.