Thom Rainer shared an incredibly helpful article about the warnings of memorials and plaques in churches. If you're in any form of church leadership, this is incredibly valuable. Chances are, your church has some memorials or plaques hanging somewhere. It could be on the backs of pews, on a Norman Rockwell-type painting, or even over a parlor door. And in (almost) every case, it's a bad idea.
I think there are times and places to honor a legacy of faithful service. I think it's entirely appropriate to recognize volunteers, staff members, and pastors during a worship service. I think it's good to celebrate a church's history and its impact in the community. I've even seen churches with a prominent history have a heritage room. Those can be a blessing and reminder of God's care, provision, and work through a local church.
Normally when we think of memorials and plaques we're thinking of those that come attached to a financial gift or to memorialize a person or family. I don't think those are wise for a church, and I'd encourage any pastor or church to determine how they will navigate those issues and decline these requests/demands.
1. They can turn a church into a museum to the past - Museums are wonderful places to visit, they're filled with artifacts and memories and you can get up close to things you've only read about (hint: go to the Smithsonian sometime, it's mind blowing). But museums have one hard and fast rule: no touching. The things in a museum are to be looked at, not used. Churches fall into that with memorials because they become artifacts to look at rather than a facility or space to be used. More so, it communicates an unspoken message about the "old days."
2. They can handcuff a church's ability to use space or resources - Whenever something is done as a memorial, it automatically becomes a fixed piece. You can't move it. You can't get rid of it. You have to keep the memorial where it was placed. It could be a painting, a piano, a pew, or an outdoor fixture. It's there. Churches have to be flexible in their facility usages, most of us don't have 100,000 square feet to use. We have to repurpose space. It's a matter of good stewardship. Memorials handcuff a church from using space or resources for multiple purposes (think a church parlor).
3. They often become untouchable sacred cows - When a memorial becomes a sacred cow, it becomes something that can never be touched, moved, removed, adjusted, or anything. It becomes something untouchable in discussions. Any sacred cow in the church is dangerous, because sacred cows by their existence create a subset of worship and devotion. Normally when we think of sacred cows, we think about programs or ministries that do nothing but can't be deleted, or about spaces that are unspoken claimed (my Sunday school room).
4. They foster a culture where leverage = influence - In a lot of circles, the guy who writes a big check gets the big pull. My college's football stadium was named for a pizza company because the founder wrote a big check to build the stadium, NASCAR's championship has changed so many times because of the big check written by the corporate sponsor, and in college football it seems like every other year a booster writing a big check gets a coach fired. Churches should not be governed or influenced this way. When it happens, it creates an unhealthy culture. The same thing happens when people use their giving as an unspoken vote. It's divisive, it's ugly, and it's ungodly.
5. They cripple a church's ability to move forward - Decisions always have to be filtered through the memorial's donors and family. The memorial becomes something that keeps a church hinged to its past rather than free to look forward to a better future.
How have you handled memorials in your church?
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.