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

  • Jim Walker says on

    Our policy for memorials says that they must be used within one years time of the passing. It isn’t fully effective but we are moving in that direction. Otherwise we end up with money that hangs around for years and years after it has been given.

  • Many years ago I was a member of a church that had one building named after the late mother of a man in the church. Some years later, I was on that church’s missions committee, and we needed to have a meeting to revise our budget downward. The missions budget had been based on what people had promised to give to the program if they were able. That man and his wife had accidentally each put in a slip for the $100,000 that they had agreed on for the year. They didn’t think they could afford $200,000 that year. Even being on the committee, I would have never known that so much of the money was coming from that one couple, if there had not been the mix-up. I knew then that he had learned the joy of giving inconspicuously.

  • Back in 1981, I visited a church in Missouri where some friends attended, and noticed the plaques. There seemed to be one on EVERYthing in the building — every pew, every window, every room, every communion and offering tray, etc. And I noted that the church was slowly sliding downhill in just about every way. There seemed to be no direction, no moving forward, and very little life or interest in trying.

    A couple of years later, lightning struck their steeple, and the church burned to the ground. They rebuilt — without all the plaques. In the years following, it became a slowly growing church with outreach, excitement, interest, and evident life.

    Coincidence?

  • I’ll never forget visiting a highly acclaimed church that actually had a telescope in the sanctuary so that members could view their plaques under window panes. I left shaking my head feeling their focus was all wrong (no pun intended). Needless to say, the church no longer exists.

  • One recommendation I’ve tried to stick with regarding memorials and honoraria: unsolicited gifts are used for meaningful things based on the decision of Parish leadership and will be recorded in our memorial book/listing – there are no strings attached. If a gift is solicited (like a new organ) there is the opportunity for a memorial plaque if the donor chooses. But the stipulation is when the item passes its useful life it will be retired, most likely without ceremony.

    In past churches, I have appreciated a general memorial plaque for those who have given in memory or honor of someone. But it’s simply a physical record without presumption, and definitely unobtrusive.

  • Larry Steen says on

    My Dad, on the church counting team, once noted at dinner table that the people who gave undesignated tithes and offerings week after week, month after month, never got a plaque, and often gave far more without recognition, than the folks who would be recognized with a plague for donating to some special project. Dad was one of the former, and he shared this fact with his family in a teaching moment, hoping that his sons would follow his example. It worked for me.

  • So an interesting “God thing” happened today.

    Yesterday I was in our sanctuary and for whatever reason my attention was drawn to the stained glass window “plaques.” I walked around and looked at the names on each one.

    As I reflected I noticed two things:
    1. All of the families represented are the ones who have been the largest causes of division in our church, with the exception of one.
    2. It seemed odd and self promoting to place “in honor of” plaques and memorials in a church to me. It seems to be more of a way of preserving power and family name recognition, for continued and future power.

    And then today I had this article come into my email! In 21 years as a Christian and 11 as a minister I’ve been aware of memorials/plaques, but never processed their connection to power and divisiness until today. Thanks Thom!

  • Rob Hull says on

    Please note that isn’t my photo I don’t know how it got there

  • Rob Hull says on

    I co-pastored a church for five years. One day, removed and boxed up a bunched up a few photos and plaques of missionaries the church no longer supported. I was rebuked by several members of the small dying congregation while I was behind the pulpit one Sunday. I resigned shortly afterwards, within 5 years following that event, the church doors closed. They couldn’t get out the past.

  • Our church has a plaque for “Honorary Deacons” and we have named our former pastor “Pastor Emeritus”. I just searched on “What does the Bible say about seeking honor from men” and got a whole page-long list of verses which caution against doing the very thing exemplified by those plaques. I can think of a lot of pejoratives which might apply.

    Folks don’t need to seek that, and we don’t need to grant that, which seems to be letting the world’s ways creep into the House of Prayer.

  • Jeff Gardner says on

    #6 is an issue at our church. Some folks wanted shutters on the worship center windows outside, and they decided to fund it through donations in memory of a former beloved pastor who passed during his tenure as pastor. It was a sweet gesture, and the shutters really dressed up the building, but the plaque they put up makes no mention of the shutters, and where it was placed it makes it appear that the whole building (not just the shutters) is in his memory.

    On the lighter side, I have often wanted to go into worship centers when no one was there and move the little plaques around to different windows and pews just to see if anyone notices! And has anyone else noticed there’s only one letter difference between “plaque” and “plague”?

  • If you go to any church in the Commonwealth, there will be plaques on the wall for the war dead. The older churches and cathedrals will have tombs and even people buried in the walls. That hasn’t seem to hurt Anglicanism. It all depends on how well the leadership (mis)manages or defuses the fights.