Letter to the UUCGN Congregation from Rev. Tony Fisher
April 22, 2019
There has been some consternation about the shift in Sunday morning schedule for next season so I’d like to give some background into the history and speak to the difficult issues with which the Responding to Growth Subcommittee has had to wrestle.
Please keep in mind that the primary problem we’re trying to solve (or should I say the wonderful challenge with which we are faced) is that we often have more people showing up for our main Sunday service than we have seats for.
For over twenty years the Sunday schedule at UUCGN was that the Forum was held at 9:00 am and the Sunday service in the sanctuary at 10:30 am. Four years ago, we started experiencing consistent overcrowding at our Sunday worship services during season.
A clear rule of thumb for thinking about going to two services (for any congregation) is if the sanctuary is over 80% full on most Sundays. With that kind of attendance, it is thought that a congregation is not fully able to be welcoming to everyone who shows up and many who do come through the doors will choose not to come back because of that feeling of overcrowding.
Many members of the congregation recognized that we needed to address this issue as far back as 2015, which is why the first item in our vision for 2020 reads “We will provide a quality worship service experience in the sanctuary for all who wish to attend.” To accomplish this, the Responding to Growth sub-committee was formed to try and figure next steps.
During the 2016 high season we kept the schedule the same but regularly opened up the sliding doors at the back of the sanctuary for extra seating and also set up Thomas Hall as an overflow room where people could watch the worship service as it was streamed to the TV monitors there. Neither experience was perfect. The lack of good sound and the crowded feeling in the hospitality area was problematic, and the images and the sound were not great in Thomas Hall. While a few people didn’t mind watching the service there, the experience was less than satisfying for most. We were not living into our vision.
During the 2017 high season, a Saturday afternoon service was introduced in the hope that a service on a different day would draw enough people away from Sunday morning to solve the overcrowding. Unfortunately, while there were a few folks who loved the Saturday format, attendance wasn’t high enough to make a dent on Sunday and in fact, more new people continued to arrive so the Sunday challenge was increasing.
Also during that year, the Forum began to experience a few sessions where it was necessary to shift the presentation to the sanctuary when popular speakers were scheduled and the number of attendees exceeded the 60+ that Thomas Hall could hold comfortably.
It was decided that for the 2017-2018 season we needed to try to hold two services on Sunday morning to alleviate the overcrowding. Many congregations somehow manage to do this but the challenge here was (and is) to fit two services, a Forum and our coffee hour/fellowship time into one small time-span on Sunday morning. We believed at that time that we needed to begin the day at 8:30 am in order to finish early enough for most people. The committee sent out a survey to get the preference of the congregation, but the results didn’t give us a clear mandate.
Even at that time, the committee was aware that the only thing that could drive enough people to shift to their service going time would be to get most Forum attendees to choose an earlier service and the only way to have that happen would be to place the Forum at the start of the morning. But here we ran into significant opposition from the Forum organizers and some of the attendees. 8:30 was too early. So instead, and with only a wish and a prayer that people would choose an early morning Worship, we scheduled the early service at 8:30 last year. The results were predictable. We had a strong start, but attendance at the early service dropped off and the impact on second service attendance was minimal. And still more people were finding UUCGN!
The big success story with the schedule last year was attendance at the Forum, which increased given 9:45 start time. But we were still not solving the main problem. We still had overflow attendance at many of our second services. And when the forum had to shift full time to the sanctuary other stresses began to arise.
With fifteen minutes between the first service and the forum and between the forum and the second service, the time to shift people out of the sanctuary and to make adjustments in the set up for each service was minimal and stressful. With a lack of regular volunteers to make AV and furniture adjustments the responsibility often fell to the minister who should have been out at the front doors welcoming members and guests. Visitors arriving for the second service would find a chaotic flow of people and not a calm Sunday morning sanctuary,
The compromise this year was really no compromise at all. The early service was moved to 9:00 am but reduced to 45 minutes. With the loss of joys and sorrows and the spoken meditation to shorten the service, the minister felt it important to add a meditation service at 8:30 (this had been a successful piece of the Saturday format in 2016) and while more people chose to attend the early service on a regular basis this year, the hard end time to accommodate the Forum start time often made the service seemed rushed and still we didn’t keep up with the curve of late service attendees. The second service was still often completely full and many times overflowing during this season (total attendance on Sundays has been up close to 300 this year) and we didn’t resolve any of the stressors.
So here we are, still trying to resolve the primary problem and once again at a decision point. The current plan to put the Forum first for next season is creating some unhappiness. The Responding to Growth Committee feels that this is an option that needs to be tried and has done some wonderful work to present the reasoning in a clear format on our website.
I‘m grateful for everyone who has responded to the planned schedule and for the ideas that have been offered. This is what congregational life is like. We work together, we listen to one another, we make decisions and then, we do it all over again!