Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Radical Growth Idea for UU's

Begin Rant:

Let's quit privileging the practice of closing churches for the Summer.
This idea, which comes to us straight out of the pre-air conditioned centuries past, has it that it is necessary, ok, or even refreshing to close UU churches from Mid June to the week after Labor Day, that ministerial life-style must be centered around "summers off", and that it is funny to joke about how God trusts us to do this and assume that it does no harm.

I'm not saying end the practice...just quit catering to it.  Churches are free to do what they wish.  No doubt there are some old buildings which are insufferable in the Summer and just can't be updated.  However, we should feel sorry for those folks and see if we can help them upgrade to 20th century technology rather than letting them set the mind-set of our association.  No doubt some ministers' contracts are set in stone and can't be changed.  But instead of letting those folks drive ministerial practice, let's ask ourselves what's good for the people and communities we serve.

Last Sunday, the second week of August, was our Back to School Sunday in started here today, as it did in school systems all over the west and south.   We had a lively time of it, and...we had about a dozen visitors.  Some were traveling UU's, (who expressed their pleased shock at finding that the UU church was holds two services all Summer, and three starting the third week of August), some were people (UU's and newbies) who had just moved here and were looking for a church, some were just visiting.  Some will become members because, hey, we were actually open on a Sunday when they needed us.

Why has this church grown from 400 to 750 members in the past 20 years, a time when the rest of the denomination has barely held it's own?  Maybe because we're open when people are looking for a church?  Maybe because we give off the message, in this and lots of other ways, that we think that the religious quest is so important that we make it a year-round occupation to help people grow this way? Maybe because we know that people vacation year round and not, as they used to in New England, just go away in July and August?  Maybe because we aim to serve a population that includes working women, singles of all ages, people with only two weeks...or NO vacation, and the sort of working folks who don't get the Summer off?  Maybe it is just because, when they happened to brave their first visit to a UU church in August, there was a well-crafted worship service and a minister to meet.

Now, of course, UU churches can have any schedule they want to, so there will be no pressure to conform to this startling growth strategy.   But let's quit pretending that it's a good norm and sort of freeze it out of existence.

Let's quit talking about "start up Sunday" as if we all do that the Sunday after Labor Day.

Let's re-think the extraordinary idea that ministers, unlike any other class of workers except some University professors, should have two months of vacation and a month of accrued sabbatical leave each year. (UUMA Guidelines)

Let's put out a hymnal which has as many resources for Summer as for Spring and Fall.

Let's get enough sermons and worship materials on video, and enough churches video-prepared that one-minster and lay-lead churches can realistically have a high impact worship service every Sunday of the year.

Let's quit acting as if those UU ministers who work during the Summer are foolish martyrs and instead help the ministry conceive of work patters which give them time for study, preparation, and vacation, all through the year.

Rant Over


LeenKM said...

Our congregation does not stop having Sunday services for the summer, and our building is not air-conditioned. We do change from two services to one, and our minister is out of the pulpit until a couple weeks BEFORE Labor Day, to meet any folks new to the area who might be "church shopping" before school starts.

Our summer services are nearly all lay led and include music, and some are as unconventional as last Sunday's African dance (now an annual tradition)! Our religious services committee works very hard to round up members and/or guests to conduct summer services, and sometimes, they're among the best of the year because we get to step out of "the box" of the typical Sunday service format.

That said, I will note that summer services usually have much lower attendance rates which I attribute largely to vacations and the lack of RE classes - another thing to consider carrying through the summer?

Obijuan said...

While we contract down to a single service between Memorial and Labor Days, our door remain open on Sundays, and the quality of the worship remains. I wish more of our congregations were like this.

I was visiting my hometown in MA this summer while the wildfires were burning in New Mexico. I was fretting and feeling powerless. I needed church on a Sunday morning, but both local UU churches were shut down for the summer. What's the message to UUs and seekers in this instance? "The Methodists can take care of you for a couple of months"???? I'm a minister with my own congregation to go back and tend to, but I hate to think what the average lay person's response would be in that moment of need.

Sharon said...

As someone just entering the ministry, I don't think that two months of vacation for the minister are a problem (I think all working folks deserve more vacation than we tend to get). And clergy burnout is high.

But saving up the two months to take during the summer IS a problem. Most clergy I know who do this are exhausted by April and May. I know it can be incredibly difficult to schedule vacation time, but I also think that doing so is an important thing to model for over-worked congregants, who also have a hard time scheduling and taking vacations.

I agree that our churches need to run year-round, and I don't like to see the worship service times change during the summer either. That's just confusing for people. We want church attendance to be a good, strong HABIT (i.e., spiritual practice), and changing the times breaks the habit.

Paul Oakley said...

Amen! to Christine's post and to Sharon's recognition that it is the scheduling of two months of vacation not that there are two months of vacation time that is the issue.

My home congregation is a tiny emerging congregation in the hinterland of southern Illinois. From the time we first committed to weekly services in September 2005, our only exception to that was Christmas Sunday of 2006, when it was clear that almost all of the congregation had family obligations elsewhere on that day. But after that one miss, services have been constant.

If a tiny upstart congregation can keep going year-round, so can the bigger, established churches. All that is required is an act of will.

It dramatically changes visibility to be up and running year-round.

Judy said...

Both my home congregation and the one where I'll be serving as intern minister are open during the summer. One scales down to a single service. Both offer a single all-ages RE group. Neither are air-conditioned, though it's not widely needed for the most part given Pacific NW summers. I can't think of very many churches in my district that do close. Religious and spiritual needs might change for some during the summer, but they don't evaporate. We have a responsibility to those in our congregations, and to our communities.

I'm in agreement that a key issue is insuring that clergy and professional religious leaders have adequate time off. Burnout is all too real and harmful.
As someone coming to ministry from higher education, who has grown accustomed to "summers off" (though faculty are busy with non-teaching professional duties), I find value in how some of my ministerial colleagues weave in vacation and study leave throughout the year, instead of saving it up. Seems like a better recipe for keeping fresh and vital.

There's also a hint of classism in the summers-off, close the doors to church approach. Many jobs don't come with much vacation time, if any -- espcially if you're an hourly worker. What message does our closure send, given these circumstances?

Matt Alspaugh said...

Christine, I completely agree with you.

The congregation I serve has very intentionally been moving to a more full and worshipful summer service. Last year, we moved from an adult forum format to full lay led services. This year we added a one-room RE program, and I've preached on occasion. We have several other activities in the summer -- a Farmers Market, an Arts and Lecture program -- and these are drawing new people into our Sunday worship. It's important to me that they experience quality, consistent worship and programming.

UU Clicker said...

Yes! Iminister speaks my mind about the minister's schedule with time off at shorter intervals, the class bias in favor of those who summer elsewhere, and the need to have a quality service to welcome seekers.

Rev. Katie Norris said...

Great post Christine. As the part time minister of a small congregation, I like at the end of your post where you mention alternative ways to provide good quality, real worship services, such as recording a few services. There are many fantastic preachers across the world and watching a sermon or two of theirs would be great!

Worship services are important to people and are much needed all year round.

Justin Schroeder said...


We changed up our summer format this year - had ministers preaching regularly and had a consistent summer theme. As a result, our attendance nearly doubled. Tons of newcomers, lots of regulars, and a new tone set: "We don't 'shut down' in the summer." I think it's important to respect the rhythms of your community, and be aware of when attendance might be less, but that doesn't mean we close up shop, or slow it way down for 2 months.

Thanks for the provocative rant. - Justin

Mary Ellen Morgan said...

Neighborhood UU Church in Pasadena experienced the same growth your church did when they moved from a lay led summer service to Ministers in the pulpit with the same high quality music as we had the rest of the year. Innovative summer RE also helped bring in new families.