A Very Big Job
Karen Kelly has been at the helm of Saddleback’s campus expansion for two decades. As you might suspect, she has a lot of wisdom to impart.
KAREN KELLY HAS BEEN on staff at Saddleback Church for 19 years. She’s done it all – worked in the accounting department, as an office manager, in the human resources department, as director of operations, and finally, in her current capacity as the director of facility development.
Kelly has overseen the design and construction of nearly all the buildings for Saddleback, quite possible the world’s best-known church … and that’s a big job. But, as she explains, the church has humble beginnings – and it remains humble in its outreach endeavors.
Church Solutions: How did you originally land at Saddleback?
Karen Kelly: About 22 years ago, my husband and I decided we needed to find a new church. Saddleback was the first one we visited, and we immediately knew this was the place for us. The message was right in line with scripture and very applicable to our daily lives, and the music was exciting and joyful, so we stayed.
CS: Describe the church when it was founded.
KK: When Saddleback Church began, [Pastor] Rick [Warren] targeted the unchurched people in the community. It was a community of young families, so that was a key component in the focus of the church as well. Our growth has come from a strategic emphasis on doing what allows the unchurched seeker to feel welcome, comfortable, and loved by Jesus Christ.
It was important to reach these people without diluting the spiritual message, which has continued to this day, with thousands of people coming to Christ and growing in their walk with the Lord.
We didn’t have a campus for the first 15 years of our existence. For many years, we were the largest church in America without a church home. We met in schools and rented other church facilities and a hodgepodge of buildings for our worship services and ministry activities. I think it was important for God to hold us up in getting land, so we could be an example to other churches that growth is not about land and buildings.
CS: Do you have a background in project management?
KK: I didn’t have any experience or background in project management when I started working here. I learned quickly as I went along, and developed my skills and interest to the point of becoming the owner’s rep for our building projects. I’m continually learning.
Rick often says that all leaders are learners, and the church has supported me as I’ve taken classes that help me with my job. I now have a certificate in Project Management from the University of California, Irvine; a certificate in Interior Design from the Interior Designers Institute; and an AS degree in Landscape Design from Saddleback College.
There’s a lot to learn about coordinating building projects that you can’t learn in classrooms, so the work experience is invaluable. Many churches can’t afford to bring people in to lead their projects, so people get thrown into these positions.
I just hope that I can encourage them to keep growing and learning and ask lots of questions.
CS: What has it been like to see Saddleback grow into the hugely successful ministry it is today, both spiritually and physically?
KK: It certainly has been exciting to see the church grow and to see lives change. It’s also humbling to be allowed to be a part of it. I’ve seen the church grow from a community church to a church that has a global reach, and whenever I meet people whose lives have been changed by this ministry, either directly or indirectly, it’s awesome. I’m so honored to be a part of something that reaches beyond my world here in Southern California and changes lives for Jesus.
CS: Are people sometimes surprised to see how you’ve mixed Rick’s vision for a “peaceful, inspiring garden landscape” with tents and tilt-up concrete on your campus?
KK: I do think it can be surprising. Part of me would love to have all the temporary structures gone, but we’re constantly growing, and the tents are part of what we need to do. I think a growing church will always have space problems, so the tents are a visible reminder that we’re always growing and reaching more people.
They also help people remember that it’s not about buildings; it’s about people. A pioneering, sacrificing attitude is needed if a church is going to always welcome new folks.
We’re constantly looking at how we can improve things on the campus, but it takes time, money and planning. This campus looked pretty bare when we moved in – we called it a ‘moonscape.’ But after 12 years, we’ve been able to add buildings, hardscape and softscape to improve the look and try to keep some consistency in what we do.
We don’t always have the money to do what we would like, so we do the best we can with what’s available to us. I’m sure other churches can relate to that.
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