Listen to the Empty Seats

Friendly Reminder: A Weekly Reflection from the Quaker Leadership Center


When you are a meeting or church leader, one of the most discouraging sights is when you look out from the front and see a room full of empty pews or empty chairs. In our better moments, we don’t let that emptiness pull us down. We focus instead on who is present and what the Spirit is doing in and through that group of Friends.

From time to time, however, it may be helpful to stop and listen to the empty seats. This may sound strange, but I’m not talking about chatting with a chair like Clint Eastwood in his infamous 2012 RNC speech. I mean pondering the stories told by the people who used to sit in those seats as well as the possibilities of folks who could sit in them if they were reached and invited. I suspect that the empty seats would tell stories about one or more of the following groups:

1. The old saints who filled the meetinghouse with prayer, worship, and words of grace and truth. In this case, give thanks for the “communion of saints” that came before you and consider how their prayers and prophecies may be fulfilled in the present day. Maybe it’s time to tell their stories again so you can “let their lives speak” to the current congregation.

2. Friends who are no longer able to attend in person due to health limitations of mind or body. If this is the case, hold them in the healing Light of Christ and find ways to keep them connected to the community.

3. Folks who do not feel spiritually and emotionally safe to join your meeting. This may be because of things Friends in the meeting have done or due to the never-ending array of abusive spiritual leaders in the news. Either way, this empty chair calls you to work toward a wider welcome and sound a clearer call to personal integrity and justice for the marginalized.

4. Former members who left due to offense or more spiritual excitement elsewhere. If there was offense, are you called to reach out for reconciliation (even if they don’t come back) or grieve the necessary parting of ways? If there were misaligned values, do you need to be clearer about the values and mission of the meeting or nurture a greater embrace of ideological/theological diversity?

5. Seekers who are looking for a life-giving community of faith where their questions and gifts are welcomed. Maybe they simply don’t know about you. If this is the case, help Friends get the word out and invite new folks to visit. Also, when you provide up-front leadership, speak to those seekers in the empty seats, even if they aren’t there yet. Because they might actually be there and you don’t know it. And because your meeting needs to cultivate a spirit of hospitality and mission. Sometimes we need to speak to the people we want to reach, not just the people we want to keep.

These are common stories but there are many more. For example, they may be empty due to cultural change and religious decline and there is little you can do. Or maybe the emptiness reflects the population decline in your region. But often, the stories call Friends to reflection and practical response. So take some time this week to listen. You may want to physically sit in the meetinghouse from a “facing bench” position and invite the Light to guide you.

What are the empty seats in your meetinghouse saying to you?

How are you called to pray or act in response?

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