At its most recent meeting, the SMUUCh Board of Trustees discussed how well the two-service Sunday format was or wasn’t working. Several members of the Board reported hearing from multiple members of the church who preferred a one-service format. On the recent Worship & Music survey, 10 percent of survey participants used the survey to state their preference for a single service on Sunday mornings. I prepared a memo (excerpted below) sharing my thoughts on two services.
History of Two Services
In the spring of the 2004, the Board of Trustees convened a task force to explore moving to two services. Worship service attendance was growing and some Sundays felt crowded in Fellowship Hall at our old 87th Street property. The task force received congregational input, held feedback sessions, met with the Minister and Director of Religious Education, and recommended a two service format with worship services at 9:00 and 11:15 with religious education for children and adults and a coffee hour between the services. In September 2004 we launched a two-service Sunday morning format. This schedule proved more popular in theory than in practice. Over the next several years we changed our Sunday morning schedule every single year. During this time we experimented with:
· Service times at 9:00, 9:15, 9:30, or 10:00 and 11:00, 11:15, or 11:30
· Children’s RE between the two services or during both services or a format that offered a more “traditional” Sunday school classroom experience during one service and an alternative activity during the other service.
· Adult Religious Education experiences (including forums) before the first service, between the two services, after the second service, and/or concurrent with one or both services.
· Having the choir sing mainly at one service, or alternate between singing at the early and late services, or sing at both services.
· Returning to one service during the summer or remaining at two services through the summer.
Around 2010 (I think) we settled on a schedule that worked better than any we had previously tried. The 9:30 and 11:15 service times produced the most balanced attendance. A 45 minute fellowship hour allowed plenty of time for visiting. Staffed toddler and preschool classes provided consistency for our youngest ones at both services.
Move to Pflumm
On 10/28/12 we held our first worship service at 9400 Pflumm. It was universally assumed that we would return to one service in our new church home. (Later, in conversations with experienced senior ministers in our movement it was suggested to me that returning to one service may have been a mistake.) From the first day in our new building, the sanctuary felt comfortably (and often uncomfortably) crowded. Most Sundays some families were unable to sit together, a large group stood in the foyer waiting for the children to depart for their classes, and people sat on the back bleachers or stood for the duration of the service.
As early as the end of the very first service in our new building I began to hear speculative conversations about moving to two services. The majority of these conversations began, “I know we’re going to have to move to two services eventually, but I hope we can put it off for as long as possible.” In January 2013, after two months worshipping in the new space, the executive committee and board discussed the possibility of moving to two services in the early spring. I weighed two options:
(1) Move to two services for the months of March, April, and May, then return to one service for the summer months, then move back to two services in the late summer.
(2) Remain at one service for the rest of the church year and move to a two service schedule in the late summer.
With the exception of holding two services on Easter Sunday 2013, I made the decision to wait until August 2013 to launch a two service format.
What do the numbers say?
There are currently 237 seats in the Sanctuary: 73 in the west section closest to the stage, 84 in the center section, 54 in the east section closest to the piano, 10 along the east wall, and 16 on the bleachers in the back of the room. Conventional wisdom says that when a sanctuary is 75% to 80% full it begins to feel crowded and it is time to begin planning to add an additional service. That would mean that when our attendance is 177 to 190 adults, the sanctuary will feel crowded.
The two service format began on August 4, 2013. We have had an adult attendance of 180 or higher at 12 of the 15 worship services since moving to two services.
With approximately 50 children present at the beginning of the worship service, if we moved back to one service we would start nearly every worship service with every seat taken and some congregants having to stand. After the children left, the service would be attended at a level at which the numbers would indicate that it is time to start planning to add a second service.
While several people have shared that they do not like the two service format, having one full service was unpopular or uncomfortable for some people. Keeping the fragrance free section free of fragrances proved to be a challenge with a full sanctuary. Congregants who use wheelchairs, walkers, or who are less steady on their feet have a tougher time navigating a full sanctuary. Families with young children appreciate a choice of service times as they are working around napping and feeding schedules. Many find it preferable to be able to choose between an early and a late service.
It is true that two services require more volunteer ushers, vergers, greeters, and hospitality hosts. It also requires more from our choir members and volunteer musicians. The other side of this coin is that it provides more volunteer opportunities. Some evangelical churches set an “Attend One, Serve One” expectation where members attend one worship service and fill a volunteer role at the second service. Some members who volunteer in the religious education program say that they are less likely to volunteer if they cannot also attend the worship service that morning.
Attendance has not been high enough this fall to make returning to one service impossible. If we returned to one service, we would all fit. However, if we returned to one service we would find ourselves back at a size at which we should begin planning to two services.
If it was our goal to stay at our current size, I would recommend returning to one service. If it is our goal to grow, we should probably stick with the two service format. We have estimated that we need to grow at an annual rate of least 10% to succeed in the new building. We may need to grow even more quickly than that. While we may be able to barely fit our current attendance numbers in a single service, if our attendance were to increase by 15% or 20% we simply wouldn’t fit in a single service. Put another way, would a worship service with 80 feel less empty with 96? Would a service with 100 feel more lively with 120? Are we better served trying to fill the sanctuary by decreasing the number of services or by growing our worship services by inviting our friends and the larger community to come worship with us?
The UUA has provided this helpful and thoughtful guide for adding additional worship services.
This Evangelical Christian article on multiple services is also a helpful resource (although a lot of other stuff on this site is icky.)