Seven Warnings about Memorials and Plaques in Your Church

March 20, 2019

A few years ago, I wrote a book about churches that have died, Autopsy of a Deceased Church. The methodology was simple but revealing. I interviewed several church members representing several different churches that had died.

One of the surprising issues consistent in all the interviews was the contentious issue of memorials and plaques in the church. Indeed, one interviewee put it bluntly, “We became obsessed about the plaques in the church. We had more fights about them than anything else.”

Wow.

And recently I watched the topic arise on Church Answers Central, our 24/7 question-and-answer forum. The impetus for the original post was a bequest of $10,000 left by a recently deceased church member. Some of the members in the church wanted to put a plaque on the wall in honor of her gift. The Church Answers’ community advised against it.

Here are the negative issues we have heard associated with memorials and plaques in the church:

  1. They can take the focus off of giving God alone the glory. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way, but we heard from too many leaders who told us the memorials got more attention than God.
  2. They may be placed in places that are not permanent. You’ve heard the story. The church had pews for many years. Almost every pew had a plaque attached to it. Then the pews became old and worn, so the church decided to replace them with more efficient chairs. One church member told me his church lost about one-third of its members when the pews were replaced. The fight was brutal. The story can be even more intense when an entire building named for someone is replaced.
  3. They may hold the church hostage from moving forward. Churches begin making decisions based upon what’s best for the plaques and memorials rather than what’s best for the church. One woman we interviewed said her church business meetings were often consumed with discussions and arguments about memorials. The church eventually closed its doors.
  4. They may be tainted if the person has a significant character failure. “The stained-glass windows destroyed our church,” the man told me in one of our interviews. Most of the windows had family or individual names attached to them. In this particular church, it was discovered that one of the names on the window was a serial sex abuser during his lifetime. “We fought over that issue until no one was left,” he told us.
  5. They can become the basis for bad financial decisions. I was talking to a pastor who had been offered a six-figure donation to the church. But the donation came with two stipulations. First, the donor wanted a new fellowship hall named for his late father who no one knew. Second, the funds could only be used toward a new fellowship hall even though the church voted a year earlier not to proceed with the project. It just did not seem it was needed. This member was attempting to use his funds to reverse the decision.
  6. They are not understood by new members and guests. A few years ago, one of our “secret guests” used in a church consultation wrote these words about her experience in the worship service of the church: “There were plaques everywhere with names that meant nothing to me. I felt like I was in a museum rather than a sanctuary. It seemed like this church is living in the past.”
  7. They are often mentioned in stories about the deaths of churches. As noted above, we first learned about the challenges of memorials and plaques in our interviews with members of deceased churches. In fact, the topic came up in all of our interviews. While correlation can’t prove causation, there is little doubt memorials and plaques can become a major distraction for a church.

Ironically, just last week I spoke with a pastor whose church wanted to convert an infrequently used parlor to a much-needed space for its life groups. But the family whose patriarch made a major donation to the church building fund years ago blocked the move.

After all, the parlor was named for him. The plaque above the door let everyone know whose room it was.

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39 Comments

  • Randall Shanks says on

    This whole thing seems strange. I’ve never been part of a church where folks asked/demanded that plaques and memorials be put up in honor of themselves. This seems so counter the principles of giving in Scripture. I do not have a problem with a church deciding to honor someone–we have a plaque in our lobby honoring the faithful ministry of a member who sacrificed service to the Lord at our church for 50 years. But absolutely no money, donations, or objects are involved; simply the memory of a life of good stewardship for the Lord in our congregation. And a reminder for those filling his shoes that God is looking for faithful men and women.

  • Neil MacQueen says on

    Great article. Wealthy man in my old church gave an expensive youthroom makeover to memorialize his dead son (suicide). Pity the poor teens who spilled on “his” carpet or moved the furniture. Plaque and picture of the son were front and center. Kids thought it was “creepy.”

  • Kim Fowler says on

    Gifts are not gifts when stipulations are put upon them. I’ve been in ministry for 40 years. I pastored a church that has a big picture of Jesus hung in an area that needs to be used for a screen to aid the choir. Someone gave the picture to the church years ago so some of the people don’t want to hurt their feelings. No the church can’t move forward.

  • We are in an unusual position. Two congregations (1 mile apart) joined together recently. As we close one of the buildings we are seeking to be wise stewards and pass onto other churches and missions everything that this congregation has duplicates of which other churches and missions truly need.

    Last week a man asked me what should be done with things initially given as memorials. My response, as lovingly as I could, was to remind him that to give a gift means it no longer belongs to you or it was never really given and that our Lord spoke of giving so that our left hand didn’t know what our right hand was doing.

    At this, the man smiled and said, “That’s what I thought too.”

  • In one of the churches I served they had not one, not two, not three but four home electric organs (the little spinet organs). All of them had brass plaques on them and were given to the church when granny died and they cleaned out her house. Only one of them even worked. But the families were still in the church and pitched a fit when I suggested getting rid of them. Then I suggested if they wanted the church to keep them, they could pay to have them fixed. Needless to say the answer was no. So, I took all three plaques off the non working organs and put them on the one that did work which was used in our chapel. They still spit on the ground when my name is mentioned. lol

  • Jerry Mann says on

    It (giving with strings attached) seems to be a symptom of forgetting the true source of the funds. The church I attended while I was in college (more than 50 years ago) had numerous memorial plaques throughout its building. I understand the church has relocated, I wonder if anyone remembers those plaques?

  • Ralph Hough says on

    I believe keeping the mission up front is crucial, and at the same time, it is good to honor those to whom honor is due but without locking the church into commitments with memorials and so forth. In our liturgical form of worship use of the memorials for the altar and chancel area needs/upkeep is done. But also ask for permission from family of those funds lying in wait to plant the ministry arm of your church that is looking to reach out to the community. Three of three persons we spoke to about beginning a Christian school said yes to donating the memorials given on behalf of their family members for that purpose!

  • I am new in a Church where the founding pastor of 33 years retired. The Church property has plaques and memorials all over it. Plus their is a cemetery. The past two years transition has nearly killed me. Thankfully I took the advice from some prominent christian leaders to write up a contract in which I couldn’t be fired for 4 years except for Biblical/Moral failure. It’s only been two years and I would have already been fired 4 times for complete non-essential issues. The controlling and demanding people have left and this Church has now made the turn to new growth and fruit production. It’s been brutal for every reason this article mentions plus some. God is good.

  • Doug Napier says on

    One church I attended had a reasonable solution to honoring gifts. For anyone that requested it, if they gave a gift of any size their name, and nothing else, was placed on a plaque. All the names were the same size regardless of how much was given. The plaque was in a side hall where it was easily found but not dominate.

  • Robert Leonard Martin says on

    I jokingly refer to our church as the 6th Street Memorial Baptist church, because of all the plaques with the names of deceased members.

  • Dave Betzner says on

    I get it and agree SO offer a responsive and responsible way to deal with Memorials that is tactical, honors our Lord and grows the Kingdom. One of the biggest problems I have experienced is the amounts of of memorial monies carried for years unused which also creates problems because it sends a message to donors that isn’t helpful because folks expect memorial monies to be used inhonor of loved ones.

  • Judith Gotwald says on

    Many churches have hallways and narthex walls lined with portraits of pastors and sometimes even bishops.

    I visited a seminary that had plaques everywhere. I was surprised not to see one on the bathroom stall door. Of course, they were the byproduct of fund-raising efforts—as are the names on stained glassed windows.

    But your secret visitor (possibly accustomed to looking for fault) notices memorial plaques with the names of lay people and it is evidence of an ailing laity.

    People like recognition for sacrifice. Sadly, they are not likely to get a plaque for teaching Sunday School. So they buy a pew—most certainly when they were asked to buy a pew.

    The answer may be found in the book of Nehemiah. The name of everyone who pounded a nail is listed—and occasionally reread thousands of years later—even after the rebuilt temple was destroyed. Tell the people’s story. Visitors might want to become part of it.

    • Thanks, Judith. The reason the issue often becomes more pronounced with laity memorialized is that the family remains in the church. That is not typically the case with pastors.

      • Very timely…I just had a member talk to my last Sunday about devising a plaque honoring those who have passed on. I will share this with him, and let him see the danger of having this done.
        Thank you for this great information.

      • Carol Abrams says on

        I feel that a memorial tree in a church is a wonderful way for family and friends to see that their love ones are not forgotten. I love the Memorial brick at the Veteran Memorial park in my community. It is an honor for my family and friends to go there and see his name.
        I would like for the members our church to get the same feelings when they see that their friends and loves ones are not forgotten.
        Please share what problems you think this will cause.

    • Lisa Simmons says on

      I wrote this relating to this topic
      PREFERRED SEATING
      Come in my friend
      your spot’s reserved
      right up front
      Where you deserve
      To sit in our
      most honored place
      Where you can see
      the Pastor’s face
      And he will point
      you out today
      So all will know
      how much you gave
      Since you’re the owner
      Of the bank
      where our church’s
      loan was made
      We had your name
      engraved in stone
      so all will know
      that you alone
      made the way
      for us to build
      this sanctuary
      where pews are filled.

      Excuse me please
      there’s some commotion
      Please find out
      who had the notion
      to let “them” in
      they’re hardly dressed
      to attend our church
      they’re such a mess

      Ok Ok let them in
      seat them in back
      so full of sin
      Just look at them
      Have they no couth?
      Maybe at least
      they’ll hear the truth.

      It’s time to start
      I’ll take my place
      I’m in the choir
      “Ama—ziiiing Grace…”
      Smile at the crowd
      nod to our guest
      so he will know
      we like him best
      I hope those
      in the back will see
      how a Christian’s
      s’posed to be.

      Maybe next time
      if they come
      they’ll take a bath
      or maybe some
      will comb their hair
      or brush their teeth
      They probably just
      came here to see
      if we’d give them
      a free handout
      to use for sin
      I have no doubt.

      Thank you sir
      so glad you came
      you bet we’ll always
      know your name
      we hope you’ll come
      again some time
      and bring your wife
      she can meet mine.

      I understand
      you’re a busy man
      Oh yes a boat
      shouldn’t stay on land
      Well, when you’re free
      you’re welcome here
      your name’s among
      those we revere.

      Did “they” leave?
      I sure hope so
      What did they want?
      Don’t want to know…

      They said someone
      told them to come
      that Jesus loves
      everyone
      And church is where
      they’d find love
      where people only
      look above

      Where God is seated
      on His throne
      and no one has
      to stand alone
      The place where
      all are welcomed in
      It doesn’t matter
      what your sin

      God help us see
      we’re all the same
      And yours can be
      the only name
      that is engraved
      on all our hearts
      Jesus help us
      now to start
      to be your hands
      and your feet
      and show Your love
      to the least of these.

      Lisa Simmons
      My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if someone comes into your assembly wearing a gold ring and fine clothing, and a poor person enters in filthy clothes, do you pay attention to the one who is finely dressed and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and to the poor person, “You stand over there,” or “Sit on the floor”? If so, have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor! Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to? But if you fulfill the royal law as expressed in this scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well James 2:1-8

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