PALM CITY, Fla.--The Rev. Dexter Kessler
watches worshipers at Sunday services slide into shiny wooden pews
that he loves but they don't.
Accustomed to a more cushy life outside church, parishioners here
and elsewhere are deciding in increasing numbers that there's no
sin in being comfortable in a house of worship.
At the newly built Episcopal Church of Advent here, Father Kessler's
church, the beautiful oak pews will soon be topped by thick mauve
cushions. That will add $5,000-plus to the $50,000 cost of the pews,
but it's money well spent to many of the church's 375 members, especially
some of the oldsters.
"For a lot of people, the padded pews will be more inviting,"
says Phil Leber, a retired Army engineer.
Believer in Austerity
Still, the change troubles Father Kessler. "I'm a traditionalist,"
he says. "I think a church should be austere."
An elderly anonymous benefactor, a member of the Episcopal Advent,
put his money where he sits by donating funds for the new cushions,
which will be delivered any day now. Says Father Kessler, reluctantly,
"It's pretty hard to turn down a large donation even when it's
for something that I personally don't want."
The market for restoring or replacing church pews has doubled to
about $200 million annually in the U.S. since 1990. Some affluent
members are pushing for creature comforts over custom.
At Hagerstown Bible Church, 50 miles west of Baltimore, leaders
recently decided to install cushions on newly renovated pews. "When
we noticed that some people bring their own cushions to church,
that alerted us to the need," says William Lowry, a board member.
The Rev. David Miller, whose Faith Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg
just spent $70,000 on new upholstered pews, says, "I love the
Lord, but there's no reason to hurt for an hour while doing so."
Church suppliers and renovators say that at least 50% of their
orders are for cushioned seating today, compared with 20% five years
ago. And cushions can cost as much as the pews themselves.
"I think it's a sin to cover up beautiful wood with upholstery,"
says Fredrick Taggart, who owns a church remodeling company in Mount
Joy, Pa. Mr. Taggart, who concedes that cushion demand is good for
his bottom line, is forgiving: "I understand that the baby
boomers are starting to feel a lot of aches and pains--and they're
the ones moving into church leadership now."
Theater seats now account for about 15% of all new church seating,
up from about 3% in 1990. That, too, is controversial. Those chairs,
some think, detract from the communal worship experience, and they
keep kids from resting their heads in parents' laps.
"A lot of churches are agonizing about this," says Douglas
Grabber, a salesman at Sauder Manufacturing Co., a pew maker in
Archbold, Ohio. The conversion to cushions certainly wasn't easy
last year for the Rev. George "Sparky" Pritchard at Immanuel
Baptist Church in Richmond, Va. "We had a battle," he
His 1,000-member church was built in the 1950's The pews are made
of rich mahogany. Most of them were in relatively good shape, he
says, "except for some carving on the back rows : 'I was here,'
and that type thing."
Still, some members pressed for padded pews during a $330,000 renovation
that included ventilation improvements, a new sound system and a
remodeled choir loft. Whenever vendors get a whiff of big spending
plans, some inevitably tempt to congregation with cushions.
Salesmen offered Immanuel Baptist the option of full padding, three
inches thick, on both the seats and the backs. One concern, says
Mr. Pritchard: "Would you be sitting up so high that your feet
wouldn't touch the floor?" Immanuel Baptist's leaders settled
on blue removable cushions. They rejected back pads.
Padded church seating was almost unheard of 50 years ago. And historically,
many churches didn't even offer seating, except to the sick and
elderly, until the 1500s. Before that, most people stood and kneeled
on the floor at worship services. While Roman Catholicism and the
early Anglican churches embraced magnificent edifices and stained
glass, they didn't believe in making congregations too comfy, and
some of their churches today still have unpadded kneeling rails.
American Puritanism tended to reject the soft life in church even
more, partly to emphasize its break with Catholicism.
Debe Tighe, office administrator at Grace Presbyterian Church in
Lanham, Md., which is unpadded, sings in the choir and also plays
in the chime group. "One of the reasons not to have cushions
is they absorb sound," she says.
At Palm City's Episcopal Church of the Advent, where the decision
in favor of cushions is a done deal, the debate lingers on. Jane
Rose, the church's volunteer office manager and former president
of the Episcopal Church Women, says older members may actually have
"a harder time sliding in and out of pews with cushions"
than on smooth wood.
As an alternative, one Advent teenager suggested in an essay that
the church return to the ancient religious practice of worshipping
outdoors--sitting on rocks. "That sounds very wonderful and
idyllic," says Valerie Graham, Advent's director of youth and
education. "But I think most of our kids are looking forward
to sitting on padded seats, not stones."
Father Kessler, who came to the ministry 13 years ago after a career
in accounting says his objection to padded seats has a practical
side. "They have to be cleaned and repaired when they get torn,"
And, he continues, "Wood reminds me of old churches, old-time
But as in so many debates, where you stand on this one depends
on where you sit. Father Kessler himself regularly takes a seat
in a throne-style, high-backed chair behind the alter. "What
do I know?," he says. "My chair is a beautiful antique
someone donated years ago, and it's quite well-padded."
Only one person caught it--only one person mentioned that pew cushions
can have an effect on the sound in the room. Depending on your worship
style, the acoustics of your room, and other factors, the addition
or removal of pads on pews may have a good or bad effect. The addition
of pads may help control certain problem frequencies of sound, or
they may reduce the natural reverberation so much that intelligibility
and the musical quality of the room is lost. Be sure to consult
a church acoustics expert before making such decisions.