By Paul Maryniak, AFN Executive Editor Sep 3, 2017
Originally published Sept. 3, 2017 (Ahwatukee Foothills News)
Steve Barduson describes the trajectory of his education as going from the T-square to the cross.
In reality, both mark the career of the Ahwatukee man called “The Pastors’ Architect.”
Barduson has designed and overseen the construction of 80 churches in the Valley, including Mountain Park Community Church’s soon-to-open new home on 48th Street and Frye Road in Ahwatukee.
That church will replace Mountain Park’s 20-year-old building on Pecos Road and 24th Street – which Barduson also designed – as it falls to the South Mountain Freeway. The last service in the old building is slated for Sept. 10, with a grand opening of the new church scheduled Oct. 1.
“It’s the culmination of the 80 churches I’ve built and all the work that I’ve been part of,” said Barduson, who holds degrees in both architecture and theology. “Yes, it’s the most ambitious.”
The Minnesota native’s dual devotion to God and structure dates back to his underclassman days at Arizona State University, where his childhood religious inclination was revitalized when he hooked up with a group, Campus Crusade for Christ.
He was tempted to drop architecture and go to the seminary until a mentor advised, “If God has given you the gift of architecture and design, why don’t you at least pursue it.”
It took several more years before he decided to answer God’s call, graduating from ASU at the top of his class.
After an internship at an architectural firm, he got his license – then promptly enrolled in Dallas Theological Seminary.
“I have more theological training than anyone at Mountain Park, he said, noting that was because the seminary required an additional degree that pastors at Mountain Park did not have to pursue when they were in school.
After getting his divinity degree, he got a position as pastor of a South Tempe church, but that didn’t work out.
“I’d always wanted to go but didn’t necessarily want to be a corner pastor,” he said. “I wanted to be part of a movement.”
So, he went to work at an architectural firm in Phoenix – and discovered what he had been seeking.
“I realized this is my calling,” Barduson said. “I’m from both sides of the pulpit.”
Barduson – whose wife, Maggie, has her own real estate investment company and worked with him to home-school their five children – eventually grew his firm to a staff of about 15 and eventually sold it to a national architectural group in 2007.
He worked on churches but also developed commercial and office buildings “to help pay the bills.”
After working with that buyer for three years, he took a year’s sabbatical before deciding to start a small home-based architectural firm when “the phone started ringing” with calls from congregations.
He now has a staff of four and hires independent contractors to do most of the heavy work “so we can control the process but not have all the overhead of a staff.”
But the phone hasn’t stopped ringing, leaving Barduson “at the point where we’re so busy that it’s time to decide which way we are going.”
That way still includes building churches – a process in which Barduson said, “I pastor the pastors through the process.”
“One of my beefs against the seminary is that they don’t teach the pastors anything about this side of the business,” he said. “They don’t teach them how to build a team, how to raise that money, how to manage it where to put it. The construction and development and financing are just brutal. They need to have a hands-on part in it.”
Indeed, he has seen the tragedies that can happen when pastors don’t keep their hands on it.
He has worked for three congregations where trusted church leaders ran off with the building fund, one totaling $2 million. In one case, the theft brought construction to a halt, leaving only the shell of a new complex standing in Tempe for years.
Barduson, who also did the overall design of Gilbert’s famous Agritopia subdivision and is working on an office complex at the San Marcos Golf Course in downtown Chandler, said about 70 percent of his business involves churches.
His portfolio contains some of the Valley’s biggest churches – among which is Mountain Park Community as well as Scottsdale Bible Church, Highland Church in Scottsdale and Cornerstone in Chandler.
“My role is different now,” he said. “When I had the firm, I was the master planner and the rain maker.” That meant doing the initial design and overseeing the “flow of the project” before handing it off.
Now, he said, “I want to stay small enough so I can be involved in at least overseeing the whole project. If I can stay involved in the project, there’s a continuity.”
That continuity starts with nearly a year of studying the congregation to determine its “cultural DNA” though intensive meetings with groups of congregants and their leaders that can last for several hours to several days.
Anywhere from 20 to 150 people have participated in these sessions, split into manageable groups.
“We’ll ask them things like, ‘When you talk to a friend at the grocery store, how do you describe your church?’”
“Then we ask, ‘Tell us the God stories, the stories of your church that have endured. The story of the kid who donated his bike because you were doing a bike drive.’ That starts to fashion the culture. Are they fun, they serious? What’s unique to that church?
“The theology tends to be pretty stable over decades. The culture surprisingly stays somewhat stable. There’s ebbs and flows but there’s a theme that runs through it.”
His seminary training has given him the basic knowledge of whatever teachings are followed by a client congregation, from Catholic to Mormon, Episcopalian to Lutheran and beyond.
“The issue for me is all about how can I take a theological depth of what that church believes and all that it is in the culture and its believe system and put it together,” Barduson explained.
“They can be conservative theologically but a pop-culture church. How do you take the theological side and the culture side and put them together and have them physically represented in a building?”
With both Mountain Park buildings – where he and his family have worshipped for about 18 years – Barduson started with the premise that church leaders wanted their churches to be community centers.
Hence, both have see-through lobbies.
“The idea is the church wants to reach out to everyone and especially people who aren’t comfortable going to church. When they walk into the lobby, they can see through it and say, ‘OK, it’s a safe place to visit. Mountain Park is transparent. This is who we are. And the best way to depict that is glass.”
With the old Mountain Park church, the congregation had a mission.
“Instead of a crucifix that said, ‘unless you’re this kind of Christian, you can’t come in,’ they said, ‘Let’s make it look like a community center. We built that building intentionally without crosses or a steeple. It’s supposed to look like a community center.”
Still, it carries dozens of symbols that remind people of its core mission. For example, the partially broken pavement at the church entrance symbolizs the fact “we all come into church as broken people.”
At 48,000 square feet, the new Mountain Park Community Church is among Barduson’s largest creations – but not nearly as big as congregation members had hoped for.
Money became an issue, forcing Barduson to lead his clients in giving up some of the ideas they had started out with – such as a two-story slide in the main lobby that was supposed to reflect “we have fun.”
While he and a few congregants toured other churches across the country, including a 250,000-square-foot complex under construction in Texas, they realized their initial plan would have required 60,000 square feet.
“It was incredibly challenging because I believe in each one of those ministries so passionately that it was hard to say no to some things,” Barduson said.
Yet, as he hovers over the final weeks of fine-tuning his latest masterpiece, Barduson is happy – and thinks all of Ahwatukee will be impressed with what he has wrought.