Thursday, August 12, 2010

Faith Works 8-14

Faith Works 8-14-10

Jeff Gill


Summer's End and New Year Beginnings



This isn't always popular news, but school does in fact begin for some this week, most the week following.


From a parent and family – and church! – point of view, this is New Year's, with a resetting of all kinds of interior and exterior clocks whether you have kids in school or not.


And while summer has heat and calendar aplenty for us through September, for most of us, this makes for a technical end to vacation season and most summer activities, with so many amusement parks and pools closing down with Labor Day.


In the life of most faith communities, this also marks the end to the "summer slump." Sure, some folks will quickly say "if there was a summer slump, why am I so tired!" VBS and church camp to say the very least can call for extra bursts of energy that punctuate most churches' summers.


What the slump really refers to is a characteristic drop in attendance and offering income. That's extremely common, and in itself not a bad sign or indicator of poor congregational health.


This is a good time, though, for church leadership to reflect back on the summer and ask how schedules and programs and approaches worked, didn't work, and might change for next summer. I know I've been through more than a few discussions of this subject during the spring, when recollections of the previous summer blur into previous summers (and decades), and then there's a hurried scramble through minutes and reports from years past to figure out "what was the case last July?"


So I heartily commend to anyone who can in their church life: look at the summer of 2010 right now, and ask yourself "what served the mission and ministry of this fellowship best, and what could do with some adjustment?"


When attendance drops and offering doesn't, that tends to say a pretty good thing: folks are tending to their church commitment, even as their travels and vacations went on. If attendance doesn't budge much, or within historic norms, but offering drops significantly, that's a whole 'nother creature.


In my work with congregations of multiple denominations around the eastern and southern US, I can attest that the latter situation is all too common this year. There's some reassurance with the stable attendance, but declines in giving are probably the result of continued anxiety about the economy, about household employment and the future, and in too many cases, outright unemployment or income decreases that simply must rebound into the offering plate.


For many churches, the state of the budget as to income vs. expenses at August's end is going to be determinative for the 2011 budget. That can push program choices for next year's planning in its own way.


When you have the double whammy of declining attendance and offering, that should be plenty of reason for considering some changes. If you have the kind of worship space where you can adapt the seating, reconfiguring so folks don't look at empty seating during worship actually helps; even in traditional sanctuaries, roping off back pews or shifting to one side will work. A sense that no one's coming to worship makes people . . . well, not want to come to worship! Pulling people together when you know the numbers will be a bit smaller regardless maintains community and the kinds of connections that reaffirm worship attendance as a summer value.


Changing worship times is something that the summer can offer as a unique and uniquely safe opportunity. For those without air conditioning, an earlier service while the sun is already up early often is a help, and even when A/C is on tap, earlier means a cooler trip to and from the service, less energy use to keep the worship space cool, and an earlier service means more of the day – which may be the only day for some families to get out and around – for leisure activities. Promoting activity and exercise is not antithetical to faith, but can be a healthy partner.


And summertime can be a chance to experiment with a smaller, earlier, or different day worship time. Summer schedules are flipped about for everyone, and folks are used to having to check times and schedules for the fair and parks and venues, so a special service fits into the spirit of the season very well. Have you ever thought about adding a Wednesday evening or Saturday evening service? A summer "experiment" is a great chance to try it, and if it takes off, keep it up; if not, it was just another crazy summer experiment.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him what your church did differently this summer at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.