One of the most surprising things I learned about our (and many other) UU church is that it takes the summer off. Church doesn't close, but the ministers are pretty much gone for six weeks. Lay leaders perform the services. Why is that? My husband I and both come from traditional faith backgrounds and it was very surprising to learn of this tradition. I don't know where it stems from, but it is pretty much universally accepted in the UU faith. As such, we take the summer off. While there are great lay lead services, many of them feel very disjointed and, frankly, it is a crap shoot as to whether or not it was worth it to go. Therefore, we don't.
I have wavered back and forth on whether or not a summer break is a good idea. Part of me really enjoys taking some time off. We are both very active in the congregation and it is nice to be able to focus on other activities, sleep in, and recharge. I find that I come back energized for the new year and excited to reconnect with friends I only see on Sunday. I do feel that ministers also need down time. An exhausted, burned out minister is never what a congregation needs. Parishioners put a lot of expectations on ministers that can quickly lead to this if they are not given time to recoup.
A stronger part of me feels that it is a disservice to the faith. Many other traditions slow down for the summer (which I think is very apropos), but the minister is still present in the church. How can we present ourselves to the larger community as a "real" faith when we don't honor it enough to keep the ministers around? As I mentioned above, I do think minister's need a break - but not for six straight weeks every summer. I don't know of any other profession where that is the norm. While some might say they are paid little for the job they do, I would disagree. I have seen our minister's salaries and they are well compensated. While I agree that it is nice to give congregates the chance for lay ministry, it should be done sporadically throughout the year - not in one long chain.
When I do attend summer services and see a new face, I am always anxious that they will not come back. The summer services are often thrown together with no real form. Some are so much better then others. I find myself apologizing to visitors and asking them to come back in the fall, when the ministers return. And that is what really gets me. I think our ministers do a fantastic job with their sermons. For many people who visit the church, it took a lot of nerve for them to walk through the door. I feel that our church community has so much to offer, that I want our best foot forward when new people attend. Who wants to come back if the service was haphazard? Or the ministers are no where to be found? Or the lay sermon was meandering, without a point? Not many. I hope that visitor give us a try over many Sundays, but first impressions mean so much. My husband and I were lucky that the first time we attended was in the fall, the sermon was what we were looking for, and the music was great.
I think Unitarians need to really look into whether summer breaks are the best for their community. It might be. Or, maybe, we are missing more then we are gaining.