Arizona's long summers can be unkind to congregations. Attendance declines, and vacations or weekend getaways lead to many members of churches and temples not seeing each other for months as they come and go.
"We'll wait till we get back together to decide" is a comment that becomes part of the summer mantra for congregation's leaders who can't get calendars to jibe because so many aren't around.
Now this Labor Day weekend, the call goes out that vacations are over, and it's time to get down to business. Typically the Sunday after Labor Day is the traditional kickoff for an intense nine months of programs. It includes churches returning to a fuller schedule of weekend worship services, choirs practicing again and singing for worship, and Sunday schools getting back into session. "My fear always during the summer is that people will get out of the habit of regular worship, and all the things that are important," said Eric Brown, associate pastor of St. Matthew United Methodist Church in Mesa. "So it is a matter of reigniting the habit."
Congregational Church of the Valley in Scottsdale will hold Rally Sunday on Sept. 7 to showcase all the programs and opportunities available this fall and get people involved. Sept. 14 will be Rally Sunday for Bethany Lutheran Church, 4300 N. 82nd St., Scottsdale. They typically serve as a kind of volunteer jobs fairs, a time to formally promote children to their next grades of Sunday school and project a clear message that campus life is vibrant and bustling again.
Churches with many young families often pay more attention to public and private school calendars because they organize their weekend plans around when schools are in session or on break. "It is odd because, in a sense, our summer ends in July because of the way the Chandler school district is," said Don Anderson, executive pastor of Chandler Christian Church. "We are already a month into 'the fall,' and we all know it isn't fall." Then the schools take a break in late September, bringing new disruption to church programming.
"We have a very short season of high activity, so we plan special events for our programs, depending on the time of the year," Anderson said. Chandler Christian recently held a parenting seminar to bring more people together. It follows that up in September with a marriage conference.
"So we do something to draw them back and wake them back up," he said.
At Scottsdale Bible Church, the annual Promotions Sunday took place Aug. 17, a first step to start new Sunday school classes on its two campuses.
Another big push has been "featuring different areas of the church" from both the pulpit and "front and center out on the patio so the folks can get re-energized and can sign up," said Patti Bruna, minister of communications.
The senior pastors at both campuses will devote two weeks for a "major vision-casting blitz," she said. They will "really be articulating their vision not only for this fall, but for the next couple of years," she said.
"There is always a blitz in August for new volunteers to get onboard again," she said. Substitutes step in during the summer to fill roles, "but a lot of our folks just plug back in again in the fall." Many churches suspend Sunday school from June through August, but Scottsdale Bible maintains it through the summer. "There is a modest drop of people who are out of town, so it isn't as if we kind of close shop for three months and now are starting up again," she said.
The choir takes the summer off, and the church relies more on soloists, ensembles and instrumental groups, Bruna said.
Brown, at St. Matthew United Methodist, said his congregation hopes to get a kickoff bounce from the rededication of its remodeled sanctuary on Sept. 7. It includes a celebration and pancake breakfast. "That will be our kickoff for our fall," he said. Sunday school classes begin the next week, and the church will go from two services to four each Sunday. They will feature worship in the chapel, with Communion at 8 a.m.; traditional worship in the sanctuary and contemporary-style service, with Communion, in the fellowship hall, concurrently at 9 a.m.; and a blended service at 10:30 a.m. in the sanctuary.
"There is a lot of anticipation around here," said Brown, who moved here this summer from Pocatello, Idaho. Campus ministries have been setting up information tables each Sunday under a covered patio to promote fall programs. In the old days, Brown said, "people were more tuned in to what was going on in churches, and their lives were a bit less busy and you didn't have to work as hard to get people's attention." He blamed the "busyness of the world" for many being less tuned in to a church's programs and ministries.
That also is being addressed by an upgraded church Web site, a new pastor's blog and regular e-mails to church members, he said.
At Sonrise Community Church in Scottsdale, Pastor Curt Brown, a newcomer from Massachusetts, said he has noticed more flagging attendance during summers than he experienced on the East Coast. "I have especially learned since moving to Arizona there can be quite an exodus of people from the church," he said. "We look at it that the Lord Jesus Christ wants us to continue to maintain a faithful ministry day after day, week after week with the understanding that we are not going to catch everybody on the same Sunday."
He listed a litany of plans for programs kicking off on Wednesday, including Awana for children and weekly adult Bible studies, running concurrently, starting at 6:30 p.m.
Congregational Church of the Valley plans an ice cream social, church ministry fair, preschool rally and a Boy Scouts promotion as part of its Rally Sunday Sept. 7. Carol Powell said each ministry team will have a table. "It's almost like a job fair, but it's a ministry fair.
"This is our attempt to get out of those summer doldrums and bring some hope and some new energy to the church," she said.