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Pews to Pens – Church Chairs and Change

By Ray Wheeler, DMin. We hear some great stories about change in congregational life. These stories of change always center on the role church chairs have in how the congregation intends to refocus its ministry efforts. Church chairs are not primary catalysts to developing a missional congregation or engaging in organizational change. However they are often a factor that highlights the opportunities and tensions of change.
I cannot claim that if you purchase church chairs your congregation will change into a more dynamic or missionally focused congregation. I can say that we frequently see that the purchase of chairs follows decisions made to revitalize a congregation’s mission. The simple fact is that what a congregation purchases correlates to its thinking about what it is doing in mission. The way a congregation thinks about mission is reflected in the type of building it uses, the type of furniture it uses, the language it uses to describe its reason for existence, the way people dress etc. This correlation is not always positive.
We have learned that churches coming to us to buy chairs share two significant characteristics: (1) they are in a change process that (2) results from thinking about how they serve their community. We see this so frequently that it seemed like a good idea to identify some of the patterns and pitfalls we see.
Purchases Reflect Change
It may be obvious that churches that come to us to buy chairs are changing something. But the obvious fact they are changing their seating masks a deeper and important shift in assumptions. For example: churches change seating from pews to stackable chairs; or purchase seating for a new building; or replace worn seating; or desire greater flexibility in facility use. Each of these statements is an outcome resulting from a change in thinking about how the congregation affects its community. Some of our customers explicitly define their reason for buying. Some are more implicit in their reasons for buying. Let me describe what I mean in a story:

Three churches buy chairs. The first is asked what they are doing. “I am buying chairs.” The second is asked the same question. “I am building a sanctuary.” The third is asked. “We are preparing a place for people to encounter and worship God.” The third church understood the interdependence of the congregation and its mission. It expressed a greater clarity of its purpose and a sense of interdependence between people needed to fulfill a mission. When that happens, no one is indispensable – the mission becomes clear. It makes the congregation efficient in the long run. [1]

Notice that each of the three churches in the story expresses a different level of understanding behind their purchase. We see an inverse relationship between clarity in mission and tension in change i.e., the degree to which a congregation explicitly describes its mission as the catalyst to a purchase reduces the tension of change. We also see the reverse i.e., to the degree a church attempts to purchase chairs without a clear sense of mission tension intensifies.
Successful Change is a Process
Every church that comes to us to buy chairs has thought about what they are trying to accomplish. However, not every church has made their thinking explicit. For example, one pastor called to cancel his chair order explaining that he resigned from his pastorate as a result of insisting that the congregation purchase chairs and replace their pews. This unfortunate situation resulted from the fact that the pastor attempted to force change without a process for managing change. Apparently he assumed that if chairs replace the existing pews then some of the unhealthy patterns of relationship within the church could be broken to allow for something new. The bad news is that the pastor had never talked about the unhealthy relational patterns he saw in his congregation. So, the congregation did not see a change in mission or the need for change they only saw a threat to the way they did things. They responded to the threat by neutralizing it – they fired the pastor.
Contrast this to another congregation that purchased chairs to replace their pews. The pews were old and limited the ability of the congregation to use their sanctuary in a flexible way. As they talked about reaching their community and the limitations presented by the fixed position of the pews they agreed a change in seating would help them use their facility more creatively. The congregation agreed on the mission. However part of them grieved the loss inherent in the change. They had seen a lot of powerful events occur in those pews. One of them got an idea. He suggested that they use the wood from their pews to make pens. The pens provided the congregation with a way to remember the great things that had happened in the past without impeding the change needed for the future. Additional pen sold as a fund raiser to offset the purchase of the chairs. The congregation loved the idea. They sent us one of the pens as a celebration of their mission.
So how does successful change occur? It is important to start with a premise offered by Shawchuck and Heuser;

Change has the ability to thrust even the strongest organizations into decline. But this need not happen. The decline is not due to change but to the organization’s response to it. On the other hand, change creates fresh opportunities for new enterprise…. The only congregations that will thrive in the coming decades will be those whose leaders have learned to respond to change, not resist or ignore it.[2]

So what steps are needed to effectively walk through change? Congregations like the one that turned their pews into pens walk through change in eight characteristic stages. Kotter describes these stages;

(1) Establish a sense of Urgency; (2) form a powerful guiding coalition; (3) create a vision; (4) communicate the vision; (5) empower others to act on the vision; (6) plan for and create short-term wins; (7) consolidate improvements and produce still more change; (8) institutionalize new approaches and then start all over again.[3]

While Kotter speaks to companies that must respond to fickle consumer habits his insights resonate with my pastoral experience in that creating urgency and empowering others to act on a dynamic vision is the crux of congregational leadership. People need inspiration to change but they also need a plan and some wins along the way to reassure them that change is possible. If leaders do not know how to introduce change then they are doomed to a cycle of inspired ideas, frustrated implementation, discouragement and back to inspired ideas. Without a clear change process leaders and congregations weary of change and simply yield to the status quo. Clearly change is unavoidable. A good shepherd knows how to nurture and discipline people in a process of change as they themselves are nurtured and disciplined along by the Good Shepherd.
So congregations purchase stackable church chairs as part of a change process. In the process of change they determine that there are benefits to seating that can be rearranged to meet specific needs. What are some of the benefits?
Seating Impacts Participation
Allan Hirsch in his book The Forgotten Ways points out that the way a sanctuary is arranged actually signals the kind of participation expected by the congregation. This impacts the nature of interaction in the Sunday morning service. He illustrates his experience in pastoral ministry in the following diagram.[4]

Hirsch makes the impact of facilities on a congregation’s mission explicit. The impact of facility design and furnishing is not typically understood. The fact is church chairs allow for multiple seating arrangements that can help facilitate specific outcomes in ministry. Yes, the humble chair can make a difference in whether a congregation accomplishes what it intends to do. To put is less romantically, seating (or furniture, facility design, color, lighting etc.) is either neutral or an impediment to ministry. Ambiance does matter in that facility design must reflect the philosophy of ministry and to the degree it does not it sets up a dissonance of expectation. Don’t arrange seating in a semi-circle if you expect the congregation to simply observe rather than participate. I remember the gasp that swept across one congregation when I raised my hand to ask a question during the sermon. The immediate non-verbal social pressure alerted me to the difference between a lecture hall and a sanctuary. (I like the exchange of a lecture hall much better than the muted silence of a sanctuary personally.)
Conclusion – Think about Outcomes and How to Get There
Reflecting on what happens when congregations buy chairs yields important insights that can make a big difference in (1) the effectiveness of a congregation’s mission and (2) the health of a congregation’s relationships with each other and with their community. Sitting where we do in the purchase process we see a lot of interesting behavior. We are sometimes in the unenviable position of a mirror that reflects behavior (positive and negative). We could sell and run i.e., act like peddlers of a commodity. But we think adding some reflection to the process so many churches engage in purchasing chairs may prove to be far more powerful. We would rather participate in some small way with the changes God is working in those congregations that come to us for church chairs. What do you think?

[1] Ichak Adizes. Corporate Life Cycles (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988), 127. Adizes tells a similar story that inspired my version of the story so he should receive credit for inspiring me.
[2] Norman Shawchuck and Roger Heuser. Leading the Congregation: Caring for Yourself While Serving the People (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1993), 165, 167.
[3] John P. Kotter. “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail” in Harvard Business Review on Change (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing, 1998), 7.
[4] Alan Hirsch. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 23-24. [1] Ichak Adizes. Corporate Life Cycles (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988), 127. Adizes tells a similar story that inspired my version of the story so he should receive credit for inspiring me.

Dr. Ray Wheeler is the Director of Global sales for Bertolini Inc and an adjunct instructor in leadership, church growth and ethics at Bethesda University California in Anaheim, California and Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California.