Needless to say that any change made in a church is difficult, which is why it is understandable that the process to replace 100-year-old pews took five years. The decision to get new pews was a mixture of need, desire, and hope.
The church I serve, St. John’s Presbyterian Church, is over 140 years old. The original pews are redwood and designed to be bolted to the sanctuary floor. The intricate design and curvature of the pews can be considered a part of the architectural design. A couple decades ago, the floors in the sanctuary needed to be refurbished, which meant ripping up the carpet and exposing the hardwood floors. Therefore, the pews had to be unbolted and were never secured back to the floor.
Over time, we played with different formations of the pews in the sanctuary and ultimately landed on a more circular formation.
The circular formation meant that every time there was a wedding or a concert, the pews had to be moved back into a front-to-back formation. The constant movement of these pews brought more wear and tear on these 100 year old pews that were already beginning to show their age. Every year, our budget for repairing these pews increased.
What became clear was that there was an increasing desire for the sanctuary to be flexible in its use and function. The sanctuary is the only large space to congregate. Our auditorium and fellowship hall was currently being used by a preschool, so the sanctuary needed to be a food pantry every Saturday morning, a playground for children camps during the week, and a site for weddings and concerts. Moving these heavy pews was cumbersome, but it was also clear that these pews were not made to be moved frequently.
As we began to play with the idea of getting new pews, the question of “what else” can the sanctuary be used for began to arise. We didn’t have any particular answers, but it was fun to dream. How better can we serve our community and our congregation by providing a space with flexibility?
The first year was just trying to figure out what flexible seating options were out there. At first, I looked at curved pews.
We even had a specialist come in to design options for us to suit our needs, but all that was suggested were chairs. Because we don’t have a sexton, it is either the other pastor or myself having to move the pews. The thought of moving chairs was exhausting. After months of research, I came across stackable pews designed and made by Luke Hughes & Co.
This was an answer to my prayer. The problem was that the company was in London. I could not find another company in the U.S. that made stackable pews. We decided to seek furniture vendors in the U.S. that could mimic a similar design. After acquiring a few samples, we invited the congregation to test them out and give feedback.
In order to decrease the amount of unhelpful critique, the comment cards narrowed feedback to just the structure and comfort of the pews. There was also room for additional comments for those who wanted to express more than what the comment card allowed. This was necessary because a direct comparison of the old pews to the new pews would not be fair. If the old pews are like a barcalounger, these new pews were more like park benches. What we needed to assess was not necessarily a comparison of the two, but the quality and function of new pew itself.
The additional comments ranged from constructive, such as . . .
The pew design is attractive, yet stylistically not in keeping with the design of the sanctuary. Also, the back of the pew is too low and is uncomfortable to sit in. It hits right in the middle of the back and doesn’t give much support.
to funny, such as . . .
Let’s get 500 plastic Adirondacks from Walmart.
to honest and scared, such as . . .
I’m terrified! I fear the new pews might very well prevent me from attending services. I think their selection would signal a lack of understanding and concern for those of us who are elderly and have physical problems and chronic pain. The old pew design appears to be contemporaneous and more in balance with the integrity and beauty of the church.
In the End
The constructive comments helped us realize that if we were to replace the pews, it would be worth to spend the money and go to the original source of the stackable pews. While our old pews served us well for 100 years, we wanted to invest in new pews that would do the same.
I can not say enough good things about the attentive customer care we received from Luke Hughes & Co. They were patient, prompt, and resourceful. It gave St. John’s great comfort that their clients were churches older than St. John’s. Churches in England are almost like looking into the future for churches in the U.S. These historic churches have long moved to flexible seating to accommodate their current and present needs. It also helped to know that one of their clients is the Queen of England herself. Luke Hughes & Co. redesigned the chancel furniture just in time for Prince Williams’ wedding.
They readily provided churches for me to contact as a reference for their quality of work. They sent us a sample pew for us to look over the quality and function of the pew. They quickly answered the many, many, MANY questions we had. In many ways, I felt they provided the needed pastoral care in order for us to move forward.
After lots of back and forth, it was only four months of waiting between the time we placed the order and the time that the pews arrived. This includes an 8-day hold from U.S. customs because the package looked suspicious. Luke Barton from Luke Hughes & Co. even flew all the way from London to celebrate with us.
We’ve now had the pews for a month and a half. I am pleased to say that as people are getting used to them, we have received a positive response. Even the strongest objectors have come around and said how much they like them. One thing we noticed is that the simplicity of the pews actually enhance the architecture of the sanctuary instead of competing with it. The acoustics of the sanctuary have increased as well.
We are still in transition of moving out the old pews and the new pews, but I am excited to now begin the dreaming of what else we can do in this space. To be continued, I guess . . .