by Donna Schaper

Pews are where most people sit to worship in old-line Protestantism. They are valuable as antiques, averaging $1,000 each in funky marketplaces. They tend to be uncomfortable, although The Comfortable Pew was the title of a once-popular Protestant book. They have the sound of discomfort and act as the perfect opposite of lounge chair in most people’s minds. They carry the weight of church. If cushioned, they take some of the backache out of sitting in them  


The day of the pew, whether comfortable or not, may have ended. Many congregations are thinking of removing them. Why? Three reasons join hands when considering pew removal: (1) more flexible worship is the order of the day, (2) a sanctuary with flexible seating can be more easily rented, and (3) many congregations want to be greener.

People still want to sit in sanctuaries and large meeting rooms: they just want to sit in different ways, in different-sized groups, and in individual chairs.

They also want to sit as a host and as a guest: congregations want not only to use their sanctuaries but also to rent them or give them away for other uses, to as many guests as they can find. The chairs are preferably stackable and light so that they can be moved several times a day or week. Multi-use is the order of the day. Arts organizations are the most likely users of church meeting halls, but they may also be used as event salons or for community gatherings. One wag seems to think that “if the church saved the arts in medieval times, the arts will save the church today.” That may be true, but a deeper truth is that rentals will save the church, no matter to whom or how magical or pedestrian the purpose. Churches can’t afford to have unused space. The cost for the worship hour is just too steep if that is all that is happening between the stains on the glass.

The green reason moves in right behind those of economy and diversity of purpose. Congregations want and need the heat to heat more than one hour a week. They want the electrical bill amortized over the year and to bring more back for its permanent buck.

These three related issues—the environment, the economy, and the congregation’s own preferences—encourage congregations to use their space well, both for money and for mission. The issue is “bigger” now because churches join many other institutions in facing even more extraordinary revenue and expense challenges. As the great stagnation (or recession, if you prefer) deepens, congregations face a lot of month left at the end of the money to pay their bills. Thus, fixed costs are getting a harder and longer look than they have for years.

In addition to the coalition of material issues causing the pew its identity crisis, there is a spiritual hunger regarding sacred space. Large open spaces are becoming more popular, even as their expenses become more apparent. They are indeed a luxury. Occupiers talk about a space that is not “surveilled,” where security cameras aren’t recording all that you do. Others talk about a need for a space where the coffee is not for sale, where you don’t have to buy anything but instead may offer money rather than have it demanded. Still others long for stillness, quiet, beauty, the usual hum and hymn of human desires as accompaniment to the spirit and its searches. And never forget that many sacred gathering rooms contain instruments—organs, pianos, and amplification systems—ways to make sound join light in inspiration. Sanctuaries and meeting rooms offer beauty. The pew question arises because we richly appreciate the beauty of our spaces and want to make sure we know the asset we have so that we can maintain it for ourselves and share it with others.

Multi-use space and sacred space can co-exist, especially if the congregation thinks it can. The conversation about pews has turned a corner: there is no longer resentment and failure surrounding the question of whether to pew or not. Many are beginning to sense possibility and have optimism in renewed uses for sacred space.

The negativities of many historic conversations about sacred spaces do need to be noted. Pastors can entertain each other all night long with what they could not do in the sanctuary. I recall someone telling the story of sacred radiators that could not be removed, even though they hadn’t worked for years. Go to any clergy conference and you will hear about sacred space, appurtenances, rugs, windows, and more. Congregations are notorious for their edifice complexes, their sense that the eternal can only reside in the permanent. Congregations are also rightly “in love” with the spaces they call sacred, and any clergy person who wants to be asked to leave has only to mess with the sense people have of the sacred. Note I said the “sense” people have of the sacred. What carries the sacred for people may not be sacred at all. Still and nevertheless, what people think it is matters. Pews are only one of many formerly controversial subjects when it comes to sacred space.

Permit me a little history. At my church, Judson Memorial in New York City, we took out our pews in 1959. Our church historian, Grace Goodman, a member for 51 years, which is to say from her twenties to her seventies, says they came out when we started hosting the Judson Dance Theater, which became what we now know as modern dance. Grace says, “We had to move the big heavy pews to the side of the room each evening there was a dance performance (often a Saturday night), and then move them back for church. They were a nuisance to move, and the constant handling also began to weaken some of them so they began to fall apart. Finally—I don’t recall exactly what discussion was or was not held—a decision was reached to simply scrap the remaining pews and get folding chairs. We knew that would be a lot more flexible, and could also be adjusted for the number of people who actually showed up for Sunday, which was not so many then. So it was a practical decision, but of course based on the long-standing theological understanding that the meeting room was an all-purpose room, not a sanctified sanctuary for worship only (sanctified when the people meet there for worship—it’s the people and the activity that sanctify it). Also,  

the understanding that there is nothing unholy about dance or other arts—they too are part of God’s creation for us to appreciate and learn from). So the seating arrangements were incidental, practical—no religious overtones that I’m aware of. I don’t recall if this interpretation was explicit or one that just evolved after the practice. Often the action is first and the understanding later.”

Similar to our history at Judson, a woman I met from a Presbyterian Church in Wellington, New Zealand, said they took their pews out because “they were so uncomfortable that people wouldn’t come to our revenue-producing concerts anymore.”

Clearly theology and practicality have a way of colliding in any change of ecclesiastical interior decorating. Moving the pews out is more a practical decision than a theological one, although every practical decision has theological implications. As Grace says, Judson was not desacralizing the space so much as using it in differently holy ways throughout the week. Today the meeting room’s chairs are stacked and restacked three or four times on an average day.

Moving out of history, let us rejoin the contemporary conversation with an articulation of the reasons to “pew and not to pew.”

Five Reasons to Move the Pews 

 The first reason is stewardship. Few congregations understand how much a gift from the past their sacred space is. Very few even pay a mortgage on it, much less rent. Stewardship is the right use of resources on behalf of the deepest mission we can name. When space is unused, stewardship is the victim. One of the most creative fundraising projects I ever saw involved a small congregation with a large building (sound familiar?) who mortgaged it. They gave themselves a mortgage intentionally so they could have the money from the building to do program. This financial decision not only turned their annual stewardship around. It gave them a new lease on their precarious life. They are thriving today and not just because of their wise financial decision. They also learned how to take a risk. Risk-taking congregations minimally draw down the institutional decline and make it go quicker, which is also good stewardship. Maximally, they survive to take more risks on behalf of their mission.

The second reason is green. Any congregation that only uses its sacred space once a week is figuratively opening the windows in winter and keeping them closed in summer. They are wasting energy. The cost per Sunday—even if the church is open all day Sunday—is seven times what it would be if the sanctuary were used seven days a week. That is a high price to pay for worship. Once the pews are out and chairs are in, the sanctuary can be set for thirty or three hundred or for whatever size group it needs to be set. That freedom keeps the green going. Only the rare congregation will be able to be used all the time. But every instance of additional rental or free use will keep the cost of energy lower than it is. Some congregations are able to use their pews for multiple uses, but very few enjoy the full flexibility that chairs give.

The third reason is community service. Most communities are starved for space, especially free or beautiful or large space. Giving away space is a beautiful thing. Accounting can be tricky, but we should value the space at market rate and add its gift to our mission budget. You’d be surprised at the market rate is for a large meeting room, even if only thirty people are in it on a Tuesday morning teaching or learning English as a second language or learning how to use computers or knitting. Whole cost accounting helps us understand what the building really costs us—in custodial, electrical, heating and cooling, security, maintenance, and more. Giving away the building at a rate that is true to what the congregation is paying is a remarkably edifying experience. We learn what it is we have, and we are also able to put a true value on what it costs to worship there on Sunday.

The fourth reason is what I’m going to call waste. Wasting anything is a theological and spiritual mistake. As they say in Money Ball, “we value what others do not.” Waste is not something a religious congregation wants to be known for. Instead, we want to be known for a kind of extravagant frugality, placing value on how much we have been given. Dark churches with locked doors give a wasteful message.

The fifth reason is what I’m going to call revenue. Finding a community college or free health clinic or homeless shelter or social action group or musical group or theater or dance company—or whatever—to become partners in our space is a brilliant way to enhance revenue. With that revenue we can do the rest of our mission in worship, staffing, outreach, and more. Without revenue, we turn into stingy prunes. This makes us unattractive and only adds to the message that we think only current congregational members deserve the sacred space that we have. We do not. It is our space on loan from the past for the future. Delaying maintenance used to be the “cool” thing to do by people who always fought to help the poor when the budget fights began. That delayed maintenance has all but destroyed most urban churches, and if energy costs keep rising, it will take its toll on wealthier congregations as well. Even if we don’t have much of a congregation or a program right now, delaying maintenance, by not earning money renting, is a way to destroy the future as well as the present. Who knows what is going to happen to Protestantism in the next few decades? How dare we abuse the gift we have and not maintain it? Sometimes the only ways to maintain our buildings is to rent them out. Before we ignore that possibility or act like we don’t see it, best we at least consider renting our space. Usually that will require movable chairs instead of pews.

Five Reasons Not to Remove the Pews 

 The congregation may have key stakeholders who may not want either money or mission for the church. They may only want things to be the way they are now. Make sure you know you have the power to make the change and not just to cause trouble before you start. The pews can always be moved out later. There is a kairos to consensus in congregations. When the time is right, move the pews out. When the time is not right, don’t. Never forget the unpleasant but true saying, “All this church needs is a few good funerals.”

Secondly, the key stakeholders may cause a kind of trouble that the community can’t handle or doesn’t know how to handle. Church conflict is a cruel thing. Be ready for it in any serious change to the building. The building is the holder for the community. It brings out the worst in people as well as the best. Don’t think that it will be easy to move pews. The moment may be right but if the members don’t want it, the moment is immediately fraught.

Third, there are powerful emotions for some people in pews. It has to do with who sat there with them over time. I remember my own grandmother and her fur coat, which had pockets filled with Life Savers for me. We worshipped in German and English from a pew. Without careful preparation, especially around the issues of what is sacred about space and pew, people will think you are trying to hurt them if you try to move the pews.

Fourth, there may be no renters in your community. There surely are partners in mission who could use free space. But you may not be able to give it away. Be financially cautious as you make the decision to remove the pews. Chairs are not inexpensive, averaging $225 each. You may be able to sell one pew to an antique dealer, but don’t count on a windfall.

Fifth, if removing the pews adds to a sense of blame and shame about congregational decline, it may be too high a price to pay. If removing the pews can help develop a sense of excitement that our best days are today and tomorrow, the time may be right. Assessing the mood of the move is very important.

By all means, have a great thanksgiving service for the pews when you do move them. Kiss them, thank them, and tell them good-bye!


Discussion Questions

  1. Does your church have pews? Do you feel that they enable or restrict your worship services?
  2. Do you often rent out your worship space to outside individuals or organizations? In the same way, do your pews enable or restrict that?
  3. How could using removable/stackable chairs reduce your energy costs? If using chairs instead of pews would enable you to rent out your worship space, could that reduce your costs elsewhere? Could extra money be brought in from these events?
  4. Are their individuals in your congregation, or on staff, that would disapprove of removing the pews from your worship space? What specific elements do they reject? What elements in your worship space are considered “holy”?
  5. How could your space be better utilized if you were to remove the pews?
  6. If it is practical to remove the pews from your space, is now the right time to do it? Why or why not? What factors may need to change in order to make this feasible?



Congregations magazine, 2012-09-10
2012 Issue 3, Number 3