What do I do with all the stuff in my church?

By Chase Smith

If you are a pastor walking into an older church and congregation, you know the feeling: It’s your first day as the pastor, you are walking around the church by yourself for the first time and you open every door and walk in every closet. You want to get your bearings; you want to see what the church has and where stuff is.

More than likely, you are overwhelmed by the number of fake flowers, cassette tapes, and kids’ crafts. No one will ever see this stuff, yet it takes up most of the church’s storage space. You also see the outdated decoration and plaques of dedication in someone’s memory.

What do we do with all this stuff?

In Part 1 of a two-part blog, I’ll write about what to do with the stuff that a church may hoard.

I like to listen to a variety of podcasts. Some deal with Christian leadership and church revitalization, some are just for the pleasure of learning something new. One podcast I like to listen to is “Revisionist History” by Malcom Gladwell. In his podcast he researches problems or situations the listener probably is not familiar with, and he narrates it in such a way that you are educated and intrigued. In Episodes 1 and 2 of his fifth season, he deals with the concept of hoarding. Specifically, he addresses the art world and how museums will hoard hundreds of thousands of pieces of artwork, the majority of which will never see the gallery floor. Gladwell discusses the inspiration behind the artwork, and the reasons people and museums hoard things.

All the items are kept because they have value to the person or organization. The first reason people or organizations hoard is that they see the item as instrumental. There just may come a day when they might need that specific item. Another reason people or organizations hoard is because they have an emotional attachment to the object that brings about intense memories. Finally, some people and organizations hoard things because, in their eyes, that object is beautiful. It is aesthetically pleasing to them. They like looking at it (even if they never actually do stop to look at it.)

As I listened to this podcast, I couldn’t help but think of the church. I have pastored two churches and walked around them and thought about all the “stuff” in the nooks and closets — taking up valuable space — that will never see the light of day. I think, “Why does the church keep this?” Or “We will never use this again; we might as well throw it away.” I see the dusty, out-of-date decorations that can’t be moved because one person will be mad.

As pastors, when we walk through the halls and see all the stuff in the closets and crevasses of our church, we should be mindful that there are reasons the church has kept all those things. They may have thought they would need it someday, even if it was only the slightest possibility. The church may think that piece of artwork is so beautiful that it must stay on the sanctuary wall. Or, and this is probably the most likely, that item brings back such intense memories of a day, or maybe even a person, they loved and want to remember.

So, what do we do? One of the psychologists Gladwell interviewed works primarily with hoarders said the “stuff” needs to be talked about, the value of that item needs to be discussed. When an item is discussed out loud with people who don’t have the same attachment, that item may start to lose some of its emotional value.

As church leaders, we need to guide our people through the exercise of talking about what we value in the church. What do we value more: people or things? One person or the whole congregation? Growth or stagnation? Do we prioritize having more storage space in the church, or do we value a ministry or organization that could use that space? If the church talks about what it values and arrives at a kingdom of God mindset, then the idea of cleaning out or changing things may not be so hard to swallow.

As always, the answer to any pastoral problem is to spend time loving the people toward God. Sure, you can take the fast approach and risk ticking off people and having an argument in the church about the ugly painting in the parlor. Sure, you can always just throw stuff away. But from my personal experience, you run the risk of your pre-K Sunday school teacher looking for those felt cutouts that you thought were worthless — and becoming irate when she finds out you threw them away.

So, what do you do with all that stuff? You talk about it. Try to understand why certain items carry such an emotional attachment for your people. As you do, you will learn more about the history of your church. You’ll also learn some things about the folks you are leading.

And that’s more important than just getting rid of stuff.

In Part 2, I’ll look at the spiritual issues that cause a church (or individual) to hoard stuff.

Published July 10, 2020

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Chase Smith

Chase and his wife Rebecca have six kids. He currently is serving families and individuals as a hospice chaplain. If you’d like to connect with Chase on Twitter you can find him @ChaseMSmith.