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Sanctuaries under construction

Congregations are redefining — and redesigning — holy spaces

by Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

LOUISVILLE — The rooms we occupy — those places where breath is taken, words are spoken and memories are made — are often taken for granted. They have four walls and a ceiling, reflecting the personality of the occupant or the traditions of an organization. But can rooms be more?

It’s a question pastors are asking of the holiest of spaces — the church sanctuary — as they seek to not only redefine what “sanctuary” is on a philosophical level, but to physically redesign it as well. This involves more than just removing pews to make way for a children’s “prayer ground” — a recent trend that provides young disciples a supervised play-and-pray area in the sanctuary during worship. It’s more than brave property committee members replacing nailed-to-the-floor pews with moveable chairs, thus allowing for flexible seating that can pave the way for innovative worship experiences.

It’s even more than a fresh coat of paint on tired walls or replacing threadbare carpet stained over the years with Vacation Bible School juice and Christmas Eve candle wax, as many congregations did when they seized Covid’s unoccupied spaces as the opportunity to get to these long-talked-about repairs.

Rather, pastors are seeing sanctuaries as restorative spaces where people carrying the scars and burdens of a world in constant turmoil find healing and peace — and even justice.

Empathy in architecture
While meeting with the pastor search committee of First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Illinois, the Rev. Susan Phillips asked about any delayed maintenance on the 200-year-old-plus historic building, often referred to as “the Lincoln church” as Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln are said to have worshiped there.

“I wanted to know about its upkeep,” said Phillips, noting that there seemed to be a lot of untapped potential — and repairs — for the 40,000-square-foot building in which about 12,000 square feet was accessible.

Shortly after being installed as First Presbyterian’s minister, Phillips began exploring the mission and ministry of the cavernous building. She began by asking three questions at a 2018 congregational retreat: Who were we? Who are we now? And where are we going?

Construction plans

Today’s sanctuaries are under construction, as congregations reimagine holy spaces. Courtesy of Dreamstime

With the answers pointing towards the desire to reach out to its neighbors, she then invited community leaders to do a walk-through of the church, allowing their fresh eyes to see possibilities that members may have become blind to. “I wanted them to look at our space and imagine how to use it,” said Phillips.

It was at this time that Phillips and the session also heard about “trauma-informed design” — a growing architectural trend where space is designed for those suffering from PTSD, mental health issues and other traumas. With the need becoming more urgent for racial healing, the church leaders were intrigued. When they met in February 2020 with an architect specializing in trauma-informed design, little did they know how timely their interest in this trend would be.

Enter Covid: a virus that not only took lives, but frayed nerves, deepened divisions and brought to light the need for congregations to acknowledge and address the very real problem of “collective trauma.”

“We are all carrying some trauma now. But even before Covid, there was the ‘secondary trauma’ of caring for loved ones or experiencing compassion fatigue,” said Phillips, adding that as First Presbyterian continues moving forward with renovation plans, it is even more vital that they do so keeping the elements of trauma-informed design in mind.

According to E4H, Environments for Health Architecture, a firm dedicated to creating environments that enhance health and well-being, an estimated 70% of adults in the U. S. have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives, and up to 20% of these people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). An estimated 5% of Americans — that’s more than 13 million people — are struggling with PTSD at any given time. The pandemic is only increasing these numbers.

When working with clients, E4H starts by taking them through an exercise where they invite people to imagine standing in a dark, damp basement with a low ceiling compared to standing in an airy atrium. When asked which space they would prefer, the atrium wins all the time, underscoring that one’s surroundings inform the nervous system. For people with PTSD, other mental health challenges or trauma, “poorly designed space can be particularly detrimental to their healing process,” says E4H.

The goal of trauma-informed design, the firm added, is to create environments that promote a sense of calm, safety, dignity, empowerment and well-being for all occupants by thoughtful furniture choices, visual interest, light and color, art and biophilic design, which is the practice of connecting people and nature within buildings.

Creating a homey sanctuary
The Rev. Chris Shelton of Broadway Presbyterian Church in Manhattan will never forget when he began redefining what a sanctuary was.

It was Scout Sunday, February 2020, and Shelton had invited the Boy Scouts who were reading Scripture that morning to come early to rehearse. All was going smoothly until a 10-year-old Black scout stepped up to the pulpit, stood at the microphone and gazed out at the rows of pews. He then banged on the lectern and said, “The court will now come to order.”

The other boys snickered, but Shelton wasn’t laughing. In that moment, he said it became “crystal clear” how a child, especially a child of color, saw the sanctuary not as holy space. “Rather, he saw a room of judgment,” said Shelton. The boy sparked what would be a “long, ongoing conversation” with the session on how people viewed the sanctuary through the lens of their own — and very different — experiences.

“How can our space communicate a place of love rather than a place of judgment?” Shelton asked. “Don’t get me wrong. I believe in a God of judgment, but what God judges is how we are as a community: how we act towards one another, how we love and how we serve others.”

As with countless other pastors and as the pandemic brought in-person worship to a halt, Shelton embraced the unprecedented moment as the time to “reimagine our sanctuary.” It was a moment for Broadway Presbyterian to finally get to refinishing its well-worn wooden sanctuary floor. But rather than just sand and revarnish the floor, the session made the creative decision to lay down a labyrinth on the floorboards. Not only would the labyrinth be an opportunity to invite the community to experience a spiritual practice often employed for the healing of frazzled souls, but the circuitous design “would provide a wonderful focal point for those watching services online,” said Shelton.

Online worship also influenced the redesign of the sanctuary by leading Shelton to create a more intimate environment, which was needed for worship to translate well digitally. As Shelton pointed out, “A camera pointing to a lectern in a large, empty sanctuary just isn’t intimate.”

Shelton took a cue from the Presbyterian pastor, children’s TV host and “saint of hospitality” himself, Mister Rogers, and placed a couch and a coffee table in the pulpit area. It was at the coffee table that Shelton would break the bread and share the cup of the Lord’s Supper. The pastor even added a 36-gallon aquarium where he would give the benediction from, sending forth people to be the church in the world, as he domestically fed the fish.

Being online also called the pastor’s attention to the clutter that magically and mysteriously accumulates in many sanctuaries. “We realized we needed to treat our worship space like our homes. We wouldn’t leave our rooms messy if we had guests coming over, would we?” he asked. “Junk collecting in the pews is never a welcoming look — on camera or in person.” So during the pandemic, more closet space was built in the sanctuary to organize and hide the clutter.

Now that Broadway Presbyterian is back to in-person worship, leadership has made a commitment to continue livestreaming. They have also committed to continue creating an intimate worship environment, preferring to view their space not as a courtroom that needs to come to order, but rather as a home that says, “Welcome. Stay awhile.” The couch remains — as does the 36-gallon fish tank.

“It’s our beautiful tank of living water, reminding us of our baptisms,” said Shelton, admitting people seeing it for the first time do a double take, but then remark how soothing the fish are. That makes Shelton smile. “I’m a big believer in the way in which we worship, and the space we worship in, says something about the God we worship.”

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today. If you have been inspired by this article to take a renewed look at your church sanctuary, drop her an email at

Tweaking the blueprints

Let there be light — and technology

Rev. Paul Moore, Chain of Lakes Church, Blaine, Minnesota, new sanctuaru

After some Covid delays, the Rev. Paul Moore and the congregation of Chain of Lakes Church in Blaine, Minnesota, broke ground for a sanctuary of their own. The key design element was for the building to have lots of light. Photo courtesy of Chain of Lakes Church

For congregations that had new church construction plans in place prior to Covid, they admit that the pandemic was not only a valuable lesson in patience and trusting in God, but it caused inevitable delays that led to tweaking their blueprints.

In 2019, Chain of Lakes Church in Blaine, Minnesota, was moving full speed ahead with plans for a building of its very own to be anchored in a sprawling new housing community. Those plans hit a snag in 2020 as pandemic uncertainties slowed construction, raised the prices of materials and led to lenders getting more cautious.

That didn’t deter the Rev. Paul Moore and the congregation. “We learned to adapt,” he said, settling on a building slightly smaller than they had envisioned and seeking ways to save money by doing the brunt of the painting and tiling themselves.

Chain of Lakes Church broke ground in early spring 2022. By June, the congregation was not only worshiping inside, but was also opening the doors wide, hosting several open houses for the community.

While the pandemic finally brought the church into the digital 21st century, it was also a time that reaffirmed Moore’s view that having a building is still important in building relationships. “I know the church is not a building, but having an established building of your own helps create identity,” he said.

Of course, while building the new space, an eye towards room for technology was included, even more than it would have been before the pandemic. The other tweak in the plans was the growing desire to “create a place of beauty,” said Moore, as the world during Covid became so ugly.

“We incorporated a lot of windows into our design. We now have such beautiful natural light that the second Sunday we were in our space we didn’t even turn the lights on,” he said. The only light that is kept on is the one that illuminates the cross on the façade of the building. “It is our way of being the beacon of light that is now in this community,” he said.

In June, the Rev. Chineta Goodjoin and the congregation of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Anaheim, California, moved into their new space that, like Chain of Lakes, is swathed in natural light. The interior, said Goodjoin, was also created to exude the warmth of the congregation, with warm woods and colors used throughout the building.

While building during the time of Covid, the need to build in the equipment needed to continue digital worship in the future was added into the plans. “Our online presence grew during the pandemic. We knew we wanted to keep that going strong,” said Goodjoin.

One of the most meaningful design elements of the new church, though, is one that no one can see. “Before the carpet went down, we turned the floor into a time capsule fundraiser, inviting people to write their prayers on the wood, including lots of Scripture references and praises to God,” said Goodjoin.

A look at trauma-informed design

What do spaces that can help people with trauma feel safe and welcomed look like? According to E4H, Environments for Health Architecture, these are some of the elements of trauma-informed design:

• Clear sight lines, high ceilings and minimal barriers make a person feel safe and decrease a perceived sense of being trapped.
• Spaces that are easy to navigate with clear signage to create a sense of calm.
• Dedicated spaces for yoga and meditation rooms. Churches might want to consider a dedicated prayer room.
• Furniture that has elements of softness, comfort and “cocooning,” which can make users feel protected and safe.
• Limited use of distracting wallcoverings or carpeting, which increase stress and anxiety.
• More use of symmetry and soft patterning, which create a sense of grounding.
• Lighting with controls that can be manipulated for those with light sensitivities and visual impairments.
• The avoidance of deeply hued colors such as red and orange.
• The use of cool colors (blue, green, purple) that create a calming effect.
• The avoidance of stark white walls.
• Windows and natural light wherever possible.
• Incorporating nature paintings and photography, which are associated with an increased positive mood and a reduction in stress levels.
• Design that includes vegetation, gardens and green spaces, which studies have shown can reduce stress and pain and promote tranquility.

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