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Brad Oaster: My Life In Church Building and Design Development

I work with churches all across the United States. I’m often asked by church leaders, building committee members and other folks, “How did you get into church development? How did you become a Nationally-known Church Developer?” It  wasn’t anything I had planned. Instead, it was all part of God’s bigger picture for my life.

When I grew up, I planned on being a pilot. Everything that I did was aimed at going to the United States Air Force Academy to fly military or become a commercial airline pilot. My dad was a pilot for Pan American and my stepmom was a flight attendant for United Airlines. Everything I did revolved around airports and aviation. When I graduated from high school, I went to the Air Force Academy and they asked what I wanted to do. I said, “I want to fly the meanest, fastest thing you’ve got!”  They asked how tall I was and I told them that I was six feet, six and a half inches. The cutoff for a fighter pilot or any pilot in the Air Force was six foot three—no exceptions. That killed my career in the Air Force.

So I went to Pan Am, sat in the cockpit of a 747 and I couldn’t get my knees under the panel because I have long legs. I couldn’t touch the rudder pedals, which meant I would not be able to turn left, and I couldn’t turn right… and I could not stop the airplane because that is where the brakes are. So my aviation career died at age 18.

I didn’t have a Plan B so I had to come up with something. I decided to be a real estate developer. There are several ways you can go about doing it: you can become a real estate broker, (a lot of brokers become developers or general contractors, and then become a developer.

Kim and I got married when I was nineteen and I got a job working for a company called Goodman Church Builders in San Jose, California. I walked on to the job site having zero experience at basically anything. The superintendent asked me what I could do and my answer was, “I’ll do anything!” Well, what he thought I said, “I can do anything,” which is a little different. He handed me a set of drawings, said, “Here kid, go start on the Administration wing.” I had never seen a set of blueprints in my life, but I was fortunate that Rick, Kim’s dad, and my new father-in-law, was a general contractor. Somehow I made it through the day. I took the drawings, went to Rick’s house, said, “Rick, what do I do?” He thought that was the funniest thing in the world that I’m now trying to build something not knowing how to read blueprints! Regardless, he spent the evening, in fact, every night, for the next several months, showing me how to read blueprints and what to do.

Every morning, I would come back to the superintendent who hired me and I would say, “Ken, here’s what I want to do today,” and I would parrot back what Rick had taught me the night before. Ken was really impressed because it appeared that I knew everything about the building. He was very impressed when I found a couple of errors in the drawings where the structural sheets didn’t quite align with the architectural. So he put me in charge of the entire framing crew. At 19, I had carpenters who were 35, 40 years old coming up to me, saying, “Hey boss, what do you want us to do?” Well, that was interesting.

It was a union job, so I had to join the Carpenters Union. I went down and signed up for apprenticeship school on Monday night, and they wouldn’t let me in because I didn’t have my high school diploma. So I had to drive home, get my high school diploma and go back. They said, “All right, you’re in.” So I went into the classroom, sat down and the instructor introduced himself and started handing out books. There were probably about thirty of us “baby apprentices” in there. Then the fellow next to me raised his hand and said, “Well, what if you can’t read?” The instructor didn’t skip a beat. “Oh! No problem, we’ve got the whole thing on cassette. How many people here can’t read?” Well, half the hands went up I’m looking around thinking, “I turned down the Air Force Academy, and I’m in here with a room full of guys who can’t read?” So I raised my hand and asked: “Excuse me, Mr. Instructor, but you made me drive all the way home, get my high school diploma just so I could be in this room with a room full of guys who can’t read my high school diploma, what’s up with that?” Well, he sternly told me to shut up and sit down. Well, not being quite the spiritual saint that you see before you now, I basically told him he could take his book, his union, and his cassette tapes and shove them—let’s just say where the sun doesn’t shine. I don’t honestly remember if I quit the union or if I was thrown out but I found myself in the hallway immediately after that statement. My career in the Union ended after fifteen minutes.

When I went back to work the next day and talked to Ken, the superintendent, he asked how apprenticeship school was. I told him the story and he thought it was the funniest thing he had ever heard. He said, “Congratulations, kid! You’re now management.” “That sounds impressive. What does that mean?” I asked. He told me to show up half an hour early to get all the cords out, open up the gate, get everything ready for all the carpenters and all the tradesmen when they showed up. Then I should work just like you have been, framing the building, doing what I had been doing. Then I needed to stay half an hour late and you close everything up. And if the union agent—called the BDA or a business agent – showed up, which they often did, he told me to drop my tool belt and get in the trailer. I ate lunch in the job trailer and if it rained, I came to work anyway. (Carpenters don’t work when it rains but I did because I was now management.)

So, I spent a lot of time in the job trailer with Ken. On that first project, he taught me how to schedule sub-contractors, how to write contracts with mechanical contractors, electrical and drywall. The roofing guys taught me how to conduct inspections, whether it was the city building department or the fire department. He taught me how to do draws with the bank and how to tour church folks through the property. Basically, he taught me how to manage the entire project from start to finish. By the end of my first job at Central Christian Church in San Jose California, at 19 years old, I was the assistant project manager for Goodman Church Builders.

The next job that came along, Church of The Chimes in San Jose, Goodman subcontracted the project to me. I wasn’t old enough or experienced enough to be a general contractor, so I partnered with my father-in-law, Rick, who was the general contractor who taught me pretty much everything I know. We did the project together.

While that project was wrapping up, a carload of pastors came by and asked me if I would come meet with them. Goodman had given them a bit on their project of 1.3 million but they only had $800,000. Between what they could borrow and what they could raise $800,000 was it. They were stuck and asked me if I would go on staff at Calvary Chapel and build the facility for them. I figured l would because Goodman did not have another job lined up in the Bay Area. I questioned what would happen if the church ran out of money. Dan Greenly, the pastor, said, “We’ll just take an offering every week until we finish the project. And I thought, “Wow! Long-term employment.” I got into the drawings and realized that if I reduce it by one seat – from a thousand seats to 999 – I could change the building from a type three, 1-hour fire-rated building to a type four non-rated building. That meant we would not have to put a sprinkler system in the building. And I could redesign the structural system, too. I saved the church $300,000 on the project.

The next thing I learned was from my friend Steve Wozniak. When Steve was building the Apple computer, he couldn’t afford all the parts that he needed, so he and Steve Jobs would dumpster dive. They would go to Atari and Hewlett Packard and go diving through the dumpsters looking for spare parts to build a computer, because they couldn’t afford to buy them. We couldn’t afford all the materials for Calvary, so we did our version of dumpster diving. I took the structural engineer down to the local steel junkyard and we went through a recycled steel pile and found all the beams and columns that we would need for the superstructure at Calvary. The structural engineer handpicked the beams and columns, we had them dropped at the church. I cleaned them up with a wire brush and painted them bright red with spray paint that I bought from Sears. Instead of paying $79,000 dollars for the structural steel system, we got the entire thing up and in place for $20 grand.

Other things we did for that project are too numerous to mention here. At the end of the project, we had built an octagon shaped building with a 999-seat auditorium with two floors:  700 seats on the main floor and 299 in the balcony. The cost was $29 a square foot in 1982. No one in the Bay Area, including all the expert builders and the architects, thought it was possible. No one could do that, but we did it. We simply did everything humanly possible on our part, and asked God to fill in the rest. He came through with flying colors!

After that project, I had church, after church, after church — all over, wanting a 999-seat auditorium for $29 a square foot. We never did match that price but we were consistently under budget.

That gives you a little bit of background into my history: how I got started in church development and how I became one of the top church developers in United States. We have a lot of information on our website, along with many informational e-books that you can download for free. If you would like more information all in one place, order “Making Room to Make Disciples”. We’d love to help you. Remember what Solomon says, Seek wisdom, get knowledge. They will serve you well.

Call me  now at 719-439-3019 to get help with your facility development. I look forward to hearing from you.

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