The Problem of Church Clutter

Tidying up and editing our spaces is big business — especially during this pandemic year. And for good reason — our space impacts our mood in ways we may not recognize.

While church clutter may seem like a trivial problem, it is not. A cluttered church communicates a message at odds with what it intends. A cluttered space communicates that this space is not ready to welcome guests and visitors.

The opposite kind of space — a clutter-free space — communicates hospitality. The hotel industry understands this — which is why hotels keep tabletops clear and decor items sparse.

Unfortunately, many churches don’t understand the inverse correlation between clutter and hospitality. I’ve run into far too many cluttered churches.

What Church Clutter Looks Like

Maybe you’ve encountered these scenarios:

The pulpit shelves hold several candle lighters, but when it’s time to light a candle, the lighters are either empty, used-up, or dysfunctional.

The library has Christian Education curriculum from 1983, but it’s “still good” because it was never used.

The balcony pews contain stacks of yellowed Special Offering envelopes.

When the office light bulbs burn out someone runs to the store — even though the supply closet is stuffed and chances are it contains a light bulb.

The pastor’s office — well, it isn’t exactly paperless.

Why Church Spaces Become Cluttered

It’s easy for church space to become cluttered. While people feel very free to add items to church space, they don’t feel free to detract items.

Usually there are many people sharing church space, and who’s in charge of keeping it clean? Unless your church is blessed with adequate custodial staff (which is a rarity), chances are that your physical space needs attention. Routine cleaning of toilets and floors does not tackle a clutter problem.

What Church Clutter Communicates

Clutter tells every person who enters: this space doesn’t really matter.

Clutter tells church volunteers: good luck finding what you need! It’s easier to just buy more.

Clutter tells the clergy: Hey there, take care of me! Hey there, I’m over here! Are you going to finish what you started? Clutter not only speaks, it shouts and confuses and distracts. What is your church clutter saying?

Who is the Guest, Who is the Host?

Church clutter asks us a basic question: Do your church members think of themselves as hosts or as guests?

Clutter-clearing is the work of a host, which is hard work and must be constantly repeated. Think of the tasks a host performs to be ready for a dinner party: Prepare the meal. Set the table. Light the candles. Empty the trash. 

Next time, repeat the process.

In this pandemic year we’re not having dinner parties, and church life has changed drastically — but that is all the more reason to use the time to prepare for whatever lies ahead.

What are the clutter-clearing and hosting tasks at church? We might need to recycle piles of unused bulletins. Shred the obsolete financial files. Purge the kitchen cupboards. Tidy the toys in the nursery.

Yes, in the future we will have to repeat the process. Such is the rhythm of life — a rhythm we might even miss right now!

When the hosting tasks are accomplished in timely ways, the result is obvious: church space is ready for guests, and is consistently presentable.

Cluttered space sends a clear message, whether or not that message is intentional. Clutter says that we are preoccupied with our own past–our messes, our failures, our unfinished business–and are unready to welcome our future, including guests.

What Jesus Says About Clutter

Sometimes clergy think that we are like Jesus, too preoccupied with “things above” to worry about things on earth. Our precious energy goes to more important agendas: babies to welcome, grieving people to comfort, new neighbors to evangelize, pithy thoughts to tweet. Who has time to worry about church clutter?

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. ~ Jesus, Matthew 6:19-21.

Some people think this verse is a license to ignore earthly stuff, but I take the opposite meaning. Jesus acknowledges that material possessions matter because they occupy our minds as well as our physical space.

Our stuff is not our treasure, but that doesn’t mean it’s trivial. Ignoring clutter invites it to multiply, to loom larger than it should, and to become actively negative. If you’ve ever dealt with a moth infestation in your winter clothes, or a shelf full of mildewed books, you know that Jesus wasn’t talking in pretty metaphors when he named moth and rust as enemies. Stuff can literally rot.

How to Tackle Church Clutter

How does your church handle its clutter? Often we let the lowest common denominator rule. Every church has a few saints who, in the name of thrift, see a potential use for every item. God bless them! But stop them, please. Unnecessary items impede ministry, a dynamic that’s true even if we’re not consciously aware of it.

It’s helpful to designate a small group of 2 or 3 or 4 people who are empowered to tackle clutter. As they clear, they can make a list, or snap photos, of items they intend to remove. The list or photos can be shared in many ways. That way parishioners cannot say they weren’t warned, or that people acted in a clandestine manner. Perhaps some people will want to take certain items home with them.

Tackle the problem room by room, or closet by closet, or category by category — whichever seems best for your situation. Some people prefer to tackle the hardest space first, others go for low-hanging fruit.

I have served four churches and they have all had significant clutter issues. It took time and energy to clear the clutter, work that we tackled even though we were small churches. After we cleared the clutter — over a period of months — we felt relief. People remarked that the space looked better.

Open space opens the heart.

Open space creates a sense of hospitality and welcome.

I’ve recently taken another church position. Guess what? Although a previous pastor began the clearing process, the building is undergoing major changes so there’s more uncluttering ahead!


4 responses to “The Problem of Church Clutter”

  1. Meredyth Avatar

    I remember leading my vestry on a “field trip” to our entryway. I showed them offering envelopes three years old, brochures with my predecessor’s name (and her predecessor on some of them !). They simply didn’t see it any more. I was new, so my vision was unclouded.

  2. Perfect timing for me to read this. I am on a 2-week vacation and one thing I wanted to is to clean up the clutter in my spaces in church. Thanks for the motivation.

  3. Rev. Dr. Jill McCrory Avatar
    Rev. Dr. Jill McCrory

    It is often difficult when the clutter “means” something to people. Those paraments that the mice have been feasting on in the attic storeroom were made by the youth group, who are all adults, but one of the mothers remains and how in the world could you even THINK about putting those in the dumpster? The old praying hands sculpture in a closet, well don’t you know that miss petunia gave that to the church back in 1959? And so it goes.

    1. Rev. Dr. Katy Hinman Avatar
      Rev. Dr. Katy Hinman

      One thing that I tried to help my church think about was how we might honor those people in other ways. It really helps if you have someone with an artistic bent, for instance. Perhaps some small parts of the paraments could be used in an art project for the youth room or a photo of the praying hands sculpture could be part of a larger mosaic of all sorts of ways that people have contributed to the life of the church over the years. At my last church, we took out several rows of pews. We had a stack of dedication plaques from the people who had donated for those pews, so it became an interesting exercise to think about how we might honor them in another way (and not just make another “plaque plaque” – framed board with a bunch of plaques on it). Sadly, I left to take another job before that came to fruition (not sure if they’ve made a decision yet), but we were beginning to talk to some artists about possible ways to display or use them. My favored idea was making them into “leaves” for a tree to commemorate all who had been part of the church.

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