The Ten Commandments of Church Parking Lots

My story is many years old, but its impact still lives with me today.

On a Sunday morning, I was walking outside the worship center and greeting people as they came into the church where I was serving as pastor. I saw a car moving slowly in the parking lot. The driver obviously could not find a place to park.

I walked toward the car. The driver rolled down his window and called to me by name: “Hey, Thom, where do you park around here?”

The man was a coach in the baseball league where I coached with one of my sons. I didn’t really know much about him, but I was glad to see him at church. I led him to one of the few available parking spots. He thanked me: “Thanks, Thom, I was about to give up and go home.”

A few months later, the man, his wife, and two of his older children responded to the gospel and became followers of Christ.

It is for reasons such as this one, I am committed to the practical aspects of ministry. Certainly, the Word of God and His truths are foundational and much more important. But to neglect practical ministry is to be unwise and, perhaps, even sinful.

Over the years, I have gathered untold volumes of information about practical ministries in churches. Let me share with you some of these lessons about parking lots through “ten commandments.”

  1. You shall have at least one greeter in the parking lot. That person makes an immediate impression on guests.
  2. You shall understand the 80% rule applies to parking lots. When the parking lot is 80% full, it appears totally full to a guest.
  3. You shall calculate your attendees per car ratio. On the average, two persons come together in a car to church. But that number can vary significantly by church, and it definitely affects how many spaces a lot should have.
  4. You shall have more than adequate handicap spaces. Do not limit these spaces to code requirements; exceed the requirements.
  5. You shall have more than adequate guest parking. Make certain you have at least one more guest spot than the highest number of guest cars you have for a given worship service.
  6. You shall have parking for needy groups in the church. Those groups vary by church. One church has several places for expectant mothers. Another church has spots for the “over 80” attendees.
  7. You shall not have an ugly, poorly marked parking lot. Remember, the parking lot is the first place your guests will see when they visit your church. What kind of first impression do you want to make?
  8. You shall not require guests to park in an obscure, far place. I preached at a church where the pastor told me to park in guest parking. I was blown away when I saw it was the furthest place from the church facilities, and it was poorly marked.
  9. You shall not have reserve parking for the pastor and staff. Those parking spots communicate privilege instead of service.
  10. You shall have clear and prominent signs in the parking lot. Good signage makes a good first impression. Bad signage does the opposite.

Are parking lots the most important facet of our ministries? Absolutely not. Not even close. But they can be used of God toward making an eternal difference.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue.

Posted on March 9, 2016

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Dr. Rainer,
    I’ve got to thank you for these posts. I would say they have been beneficial to me. I do have a struggle though. I read so much about having to make church ‘user friendly’ to people,guests, visitors, unchurched, and unsaved. As a pastor I have been criticized by some in my church and other pastors about adapting to the consumerism of our society. But I believe anything that will draw people to Jesus is necessary. But then I struggle when I see people who will wait in a 35 minute line for Chipotle or walk through mud at a concert and use a port-a-potty.
    This is not a rant at all. Our church is not mega by any means but we have had consistent steady and good growth over the last three years. We have nearly doubled every year. We are a church plant. But I can’t help but feel the need to inch the bar higher and higher, but then I lower it for those who can’t reach it. It is difficult being all things to all people. Its difficult bringing Peter close when he falls and sending Judas away when he does. There is a balance, wisdom, and discernment needed at every turn. I constantly ask God for wisdom and of course He gives it. Thank you for being one of those sources of wisdom for the Kingdom.

  • Thom, as usual, thank you for great insights. Many do not realize the importance of something so common as a parking lot. We have had designated “guest” spaces across from the main entrance of our church, but the marking on the parking lot pavement has faded and needs repainting. Thank you also for #9. While we have not had a marked reserved spot for the pastor, I have typically parked in the same spot on Sundays as well as during the week nearest the church office on the rear educational building. It is not near the auditorium entrance, and I intentionally do not park near where most people enter the facility. However, for the past couple of year we have had a Spanish speaking congregation meeting in our Ed building, and often their pastor or another key member parks in “my” space. It has irritated me in the past, because the Spanish pastor who comes to the office occasionally during the week sees my car in that space. Yesterday (Sunday) upon arriving at church we saw the Spanish pastor’s car parked where I typically parked, and my wife expressed frustration that he was in “our” space. Having already read this post on the 9th, I was able to gently express to here that a reserved space expresses status rather than servanthood and that it was alright. Thank you for ministering to me first, and allowing me to express that truth kindly to my wife!

  • Marcos Otero says on

    I have learned that as long as your church has a genuine love, interest and a hunger for the lost and the Word especially your leadership this will create an atmosphere of unity; at that point this whole parking lot issue will be history.

  • The smallish old Baptist church I attend was originally a Brethren church. When our church took it over we inherited the parking lot that is further down the road because the church property is not large enough for both the church building and the parking lot.

    We would love to be able to do something with it, but the area does not allow for expansion. I think your list is wonderful and it is something I will try to keep in mind if the Lord allows us to find somewhere to move to. We have been praying for better facilities and the ability to expand. Thank you for the thought-provoker on something that every church has to deal with in some way.

  • Very sad to see so many blinded by the world and in direct conflict with the Bible. Repent and return to the Biblical Christian pattern. You’re sincere and wonderful people but you’re US business pattern for church is in direct conflict with scripture.

    • Becky Parrish says on

      Your comment intrigues me as I stuggle with this very issue. How do we know what is acceptable and reasonable in regards to our church buildings? Those terms are very subjective and there is no clear mandate from Scripture for the NT church regarding our houses of worship.
      My heart is especially burdened for the persecuted and poverty stricken church around the world. When we here in the US have such abundant financial means, how can we be so selfish as to spend the insane amount of money we do on buildings that cater to our comfort rather than just our needs and all but ignore our brothers and sisters in need?
      I appreciate any Scripture references or biblical principles that shed light on this topic. Thank you.

  • Jeremy Edgar says on

    #9 is a big one. It doesn’t matter that the pastor is there often…no spot for you! Read in soup Nazi voice for best effect 😉

    What do you think about designated smoking areas?

  • Becky Parrish says on

    Our church went through a parking lot project about last year. It was partly funded through private donations, but also subsidized by church funds. I point this out because there were some conflicting opinions about the need for a new lot (imagine that!) and those who donated the money were very offended by those who questioned the proposal.
    Know that we had a parking lot that was about 50% gravel, half broken up blacktop, had very poor lighting, and very few handicapped spots for a congregation comprised of approximately 40% senior citizens. It was definitely a problem that needed a solution. I care about the elderly in my church family and I also sympathize with families with mulitple young children having to tred across a gravely lot with toddlers and baby carriers in tow. I was there not long ago myself. I truly did care. And yet, I struggled with this project.

    Here was my struggle : we have brothers and sisters around the world who gather for corporate worship in places we here in the US would consider uninhabitable. They meet in buildings with no indoor plumbing; no windows or air conditioning or heat; no kitchens or fellowship halls; no chairs or pews. How is it okay for us to spend $30k on a parking lot that is unnecessary in light of the *real* hardships of these?
    I could go on and on about the lavishness we pour upon oursleves here in our church buildings in the States. It literally makes my stomach turn. When I try to put myself in the shoes of our suffering brothers and sisters aroubd the world, I can’t help but wonder what they think of western Christians. I have heard that some of them pray for us because they fear our faith is not real since we have so much material wealth that we must think we have no need for God. I digress.
    Perhaps you can help me to understand the biblical view here or where my thinking is off. I’d appreciate it.

  • agh. I’d run fast from a church with parking lot attendants if I was a visitor. Not every one wants to be inundated with attention on arrival!

  • Dear Thom,

    Thank you so much for touching on this subject! What do you recommend for churches with unpaved parking lots? My church has no parking lines, handicap, or guest parking markers. It’s all gravel. And the space between vehicles when parked is quite large. What can I do now as pastor of my church? Blessings!

    • Kathy Keener says on

      I think of a few ways to start:
      1. Get the leadership team to agree to get there early and model parking at the angle and distance you desire people to emulate. Once they start modeling, ask them to start talking about it – asking people to take a look and follow.
      2. Ask for a few parking volunteers. I think of what is assembled for community fireworks displays or at the fairgrounds at fair time. Flag them in and have them politely line up the cars. Have them look for handicap plates/stickers and send those folks to the area reserved nearest the door.
      3. Signs for special needs can be ordered or can be made of card stock and laminated, then wired or stapled to a post or easel.
      4. Preach about hospitality. Ask those who are able to extend hospitality for others.
      5. Ask families and neighbors to ride together, so there aren’t five cars from one household. (It is good environmental stewardship, too.)

  • Prescott Jay Erwin says on

    At our place, the planners made a grave error deciding WHERE to put the parking lot. After a major fire on its land-locked campus in town, the church purchased property outside of town in a beautiful setting. They opted to present a pretty picture for passers-by, tucking the parking lot behind the building. It IS pretty, but no one would ever know there’s anything happening here. It will take a “lot” of money to change our “lot.” PLEASE make sure people can see cars in front of your church!

  • Thanks Dr Rainer. I am a church planter on the coast of North Carolina that began in a warehouse three years ago with limited parking but plenty of seating. We saw the 80% rule prove itself to be true for three years. In November God allowed us to purchase a church building that was built by another plant 7 years ago. When the facility was built they only constructed about 30 parking places for a 250 seet sanctuary. Ugh here we go again. Before our first service we graded off and put in gravel for an additional 25. Of course 55 spaces isn’t nearly enough either so every week I experience the same nightmare you are discussing. We do have an acre of standing trees that we just had clear cut and are currently trying to raise funds to grade, gravel and install parking. Please pray for us as we raise these funds. The point that I want to make is I believe the parking issue is one of the biggest reasons that the church that built the building closed after 7 years of ministry. To the visitor no parking = we don’t have room for you. I wish the previous owners of the facility had read this article 7 years ago.

  • I would say be thoughtful and only take one space with your one car. You know, park between the lines. Plus, please don’t park so close to the vehicle next to you that they can’t open the door to get in. (Happened to us ladt Sunday – thankfully not on both sides!)