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Churches hit summer slump

It's the sizzling season for empty pews, sparser crowds and services and, for some staffers, a respite.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE and KYLA K. WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000


With the school year ended and winter condominiums in mothballs, even religious communities can succumb to summer doldrums.

Soaring temperatures traditionally are accompanied by falling attendance and, as a result, dwindling offerings in collection plates. Empty pews also call for a cut in worship services and programs, which for clergy and their staff can mean a welcome opportunity for a breather.

There is a term for this slowdown that envelops religious circles during Florida's hottest months.

"We call it the summer slump," said the Rev. Jerry Straszheim of Lutheran Church of the Cross.

Yet summer also is the time to plan for busy fall and winter months. And it is a popular season for weddings and programs such as mission trips and the ubiquitous vacation Bible school.

As an example, youths from six area United Church of Christ congregations started this year's summer holidays with a weekend retreat at Pass-a-Grille Beach Community Church.

Wading into the Gulf of Mexico at sunrise, they renewed their baptisms and followed the informal rite with a communion breakfast on the beach.

Despite their best efforts, however, most religious communities find themselves in a sort of summer repose.

"It's kind of a down time," agreed the Rev. Robert Schneider of Holy Family Catholic Church.

It is a truth evident in the bulletins the church prints for Sunday services.

"In the wintertime," Schneider said, "we publish about 1,900 a week and we take that down to about 1,400 a week for the summertime."

In Largo, at Anona United Methodist Church, attendance also drops by the hundreds.

"We have about 1,200 to 1,400 in the winter, 900 to 1,100 in the summer," said the Rev. Jack Stephenson.

"This year, Easter was late. A lot of people wait until Easter to go up North. This year, they went early," Stephenson said.

Nonetheless, services and activities at the church, which has a staff 50, remain the same during the summer.

"There are people who live here full time, and our church will serve them full time," Stephenson said. The Rev. Julio B. Rivero of St. John Vianney Catholic Church on St. Pete Beach said there is a 25 percent to 35 percent drop in attendance once winter residents depart. The church also, however, benefits from summer vacationers, many from England, Ireland and Canada, he said.

At Pass-a-Grille Beach Community Church, schedule adjustments are made for the slow summer months.

"We are at one service for half of the year, even though we could have two services," said the Rev. Emily B. Bell, associate pastor.

"Our membership is very close to 800. We're running now around 325 to 350 and during our season, when everybody is here, we'll run 550 to 600."

That does not mean the church comes to a standstill, Bell said.

"We kind of make a joke around here that we are in down time, but we don't know when it is. If we have any down time, it's July and August," she said.

At St. Brendan Catholic Church in Clearwater, where at least 50 percent of the church's 1,175 members leave for their Northern homes for the summer, the staff is able to take a breather, parish manager Harry Ericson said.

St. Brendan is so packed from November to April that parishioners sometimes have to stand, he said.

"We literally have to open up a whole wing that we don't normally use," Ericson said.

The trend, said Anona's Stephenson, who has a doctorate in ecclesiology -- which includes the study of church architecture -- is to design worship spaces with divided sanctuaries so a section can be closed during the summer.

If there is an exception to the summer slump, it is evident at Pinellas Community Church, which grew from a handful of members in 1992 to 500 in five years.

"We almost have unmanageable growth between September and June," said the Rev. David Melendez. "It gets a little more sane in the summer."

For Christians who follow a strict liturgical calendar, summer can be an uneventful time compared to the hectic Advent-to-Easter months. But to hear Melendez tell it, every season is chock-full of events for Pinellas Community Church.

"We try to be a purpose-driven church rather than a liturgy-driven or calendar-driven church," he said.

To that end, summer is when the church tries to get acquainted with its newest followers, the result of vigorous evangelistic efforts around Easter.

"We take time to get them plugged in," Melendez said. "Summer is a good time to develop community."

And unlike many churches, Pinellas Community Church does not worry that its members will take a vacation from their financial responsibilities.

"They tithe," Melendez said, "and many of the members mail in their contributions."

For some churches, the hot weather dip in offerings is temporary.

"We balance that out when everybody is here," said Schneider of his Holy Family Church.

"Of course, our amount per Sunday is down, but we work on pledges for the year and we don't have trouble meeting them," said Bell of Pass-a-Grille.

Added Straszheim of Lutheran Church of the Cross, "You hope people give before they go or they make it up when they get back."

Straszheim is understanding of the drop in summer church attendance -- to a point.

"I certainly don't begrudge people going on vacation," he said.

But, said the minister, summer should not be used as an excuse to break faith commitments.

"We're creatures of habit. I don't apologize for calling worship and study a habit. My experience working with people is that when we get into bad habits, that is when life becomes difficult," Straszheim said.

"People don't decide to become irreligious. . . . Summertime is when good habits need to be maintained."

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