Chairs v. Pews: A Church Undecided

Timothy Tutt | OnFaith Voices By on

The church I previously served was in the midst of a remodeling campaign. As part of that, the idea was proposed to replace the pews in the sanctuary with chairs. The idea was that chairs would make the sanctuary a more flexible and useable space. Some folks in the congregation were really fond of pews. They liked the traditional look and feel of pews. They had warm memories of other churches with pews.

As churches (and any group of humans) are wont to do, coalitions were formed, conversations were had, hyperbole was employed, feelings were hurt, rumors were spread, opinions were expressed, minds were changed, meetings were convened. (But mostly, everybody got along.)

Finally, we decided to have a congregational vote. Chairs versus pews. The moderator called the meeting to order. (A great guy, by the way; a young lawyer who took his role seriously.) The chair people made their case. The pew people made their case. Questions were asked. Clarifications were offered The vote was called. I don’t remember exactly how many people were present. Let’s say 130. And the vote was a dead tie: 64 to 64. (I didn’t vote, and the moderator didn’t vote.)

Sixty-four people in favor of chairs and the same number in favor of pews. The moderator looked at me. I looked at him. “What do we do?” he asked. I replied, “Let’s sing a hymn and go home.” We did. We didn’t table the motion or ask for a recount or make any procedural motions as mapped out in Robert’s Rules of Order.

We just sang a hymn and quit.

What’s more interesting is that same congregation had voted unanimously a few years earlier to be open and affirming to LGBT persons. But we were split over pews versus chairs.

We kept the pews. As far as I know, that church still has them. In time, we joked about our congregational identity: What did it mean that a group of people were unanimous about welcoming all persons regardless of sexual orientation, but were divided about pews versus chairs? At least we got the big things right, we said.

The church I currently serve is in the midst of a refurbishing effort. The sanctuary is not useable for several weeks, so we are meeting for worship around tables in the social hall. A very different feel than the pews of our formal, Georgian sanctuary. And people are acting differently. They are sitting in different places each week. They are chit-chatting with each other a great deal more before the services. They are lingering longer for conversation after worship.

In a few weeks, we will move out of the social hall back to sanctuary and its pews. What lessons will we carry with us? Will we talk to each other more? Will we linger after worship? Will we want to replace the pews with chairs?

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