If a search engine has brought you here because you need serious help painting a church sanctuary, thanks for visiting, but you have come to the wrong place.

I am writing forty “memories” of my pastoral service in six congregations, a Lenten discipline of some sort. And today, an odd thing: I happened to have been pastor to two churches in a row that freshened the look of their worship space. And, yes, in fact, I have lived to tell the stories.

In the rural northeast corner of Vermont, dubbed the Northeast Kingdom by former governor and U.S. Senator George Aiken, I served the East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church. As I have previously written, that church made a major building renovation in order to make the church accessible to residents of the new assisted living facility across the road. Construction of the new front entrance necessitated the repainting of the interior welcoming space (which also serves as the church’s adult Sunday School room). With that space opening into the sanctuary itself, the church decided a fresh coat of paint would look good in there.

I suppose that if I’d kept quiet, the local painters would have matched the medium green paint that had been on the walls maybe since 1908. But with the gathering space being painted a somewhat brighter color, I suggested we look at some other options, with the term “brighter” the operative motive. My memory is that there was surprisingly little opposition to a change of scenery in there. We’re not talking about a radical change, you see, but a mere adjustment to go from medium green to the addition of a bit of yellow.

While there may have been some whispered reservations, the only comment I actually heard came from a life-long member whose family had helped start the church. Her thought was that if that color had been the one chosen originally, and had been there all this time, she didn’t see the need to change it. But she didn’t fuss, and may even have agreed that there was a little more joy in the slightly sunnier warmth of the walls when the job was accomplished.

A few years later, I was called to my next (and last) pastorate, way south, in Upstate New York — the First Presbyterian Church of Ulysses, in Trumansburg. (Ulysses, by the way, was the name of the Finger Lakes area town in which T-burg was founded.) Soon after arriving as pastor, I discovered that I would be there for the church’s Bicentennial Celebration. That 200th anniversary is a very big deal, of course, and those occasions don’t roll around without some major activities. The Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) would be visiting, a musical composition would be commissioned, we’d have a banquet, and the church historian would be writing historical vignettes for the newsletter to remind us from whence we have come.

We adopted a special Bicentennial logo and slogan. (I have to confess I suggested what I thought was a concise phrase to be built into the logo, and the committee voted it in…and only when I saw it as a finished piece did I realize how lame it was. Get ready: “Looking Back…Moving Forward.” See how it captures the past and future in four words? And how ridiculous the image is of someone looking backward and walking ahead at the same time? Downright dangerous. “Look where you’re going!!”)

And then there was “The 200 Forward Fund,” a capital campaign to raise $100,000 for an endowment, and $100,000 to renovate the sanctuary. For a church of just about 200 members, raising $200,000 was a stretch, to be sure. The financial specialists took on the fundraising, and I took on the role of the theologian/curmudgeon saying, “Whoa…let’s think about what we want to do with the worship space. Let’s examine some options and not just re-do what’s there.” Now we already had determined that the original floor (circa 1848) of the sanctuary had to be replaced, sad as that was to admit. But beyond the floor?

In the previous generation a gifted Ithaca designer/artist had transformed the sanctuary’s design using the technique called trompe l’oeil, meaning “to deceive the eye.” Columns, window treatments, huge marble panels, and an impressive optical illusion were painted onto the walls of the church. Basically, it was all –how does one say it? — fake. But fun, in a serious kind of way. When one entered the doors of the sanctuary, one’s eyes were indeed fooled into seeing architectural features that weren’t really there. We can save the discussion about a church pretending to be something it’s not for another time. Then again, I wonder if my sermons fooled the ear, the way the sanctuary fooled the eye.

Still, by the 200th birthday of the church, the walls were somewhat dingy-looking, and plaster was peeling in places. And the huge “dome” in the ceiling, more precisely perhaps a saucer-style dome visible only in the interior of the building, had some electrical issues which kept its lights from being safely turned on. So, it was time, we all agreed, for a restoration OR a renovation…let’s be open here, I begged.

Before the church made any decision about the direction to take, I got permission to bring in a friend who was an expert in liturgical design and sacred architecture. We gave the Rev. Lynn Miller some information about the church, its history and present design, and flew her north to present to our committee several alternatives. It was taking some time, I knew, and some expense, yes, but I knew it was “the right thing to do.” I truly wanted to be open the Spirit here, and think not so much about the past, but about the future. Lynn’s ideas were creative, imaginative, and realistic in terms of budget and function. One was especially “far out,” another would have been true to the colonial design of the church exterior, and maybe even reflective of what the original interior might have looked like.

But the vast majority of committee members liked what we already had: “fool the eye.” And the original artist returned to renew her work from 25-30 years before. We so appreciated her input and her willingness to climb very tall ladders and scaffolds to do the work. (She also announced that she wouldn’t be doing this again!) Some adjustments were made in color, and the dome was painted a light sky blue (…not Carolina blue this Virginia fan pleads!), and the lighting was restored. Interestingly, when asked why the dome had not been blue before, the artist said that the church had run out of budget in the previous generation, and the color had been omitted from the project back then.

I boldly asked that a huge desk-like communion table be replaced with something that looked more like a table than a coffin, and that was accomplished by a local carpenter who presented us with a lovely, simple Shaker-style table. Plus a new pulpit, complete with the denomination’s seal fashioned from inlaid wood of various natural colors made the chancel area complete. Pews were restored and repainted by congregational volunteers, and some accessibility accommodations were added to the the final plans. The floor, by the way, was “rescued” flooring from an old factory further upstate, re-planed and beautifully finished, truly authentic for the original building,

Again, as in the case of my previous church, there may have been some grumblings that never reached my ears, but the vast majority of folks were very pleased when we moved into our renewed space on a special dedicatory Sunday. I did hear one staff person remark that she thought the switch from a yellow faux marble panel to a rose color reminded her of a bawdy house. I did have the moxie to ask her how she knew what a bawdy house looked like, and her response shall go without comment here.

So… how to paint a sanctuary? Thoughtfully. Carefully. Wear paint clothes. But be prepared to duck.

Tomorrow, celebrating the advice that said, “Don’t sell the small church short.”

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