The ultimate self-fulfilling prophesy in parish life is the belief that parishes go into some kind of hibernation in the summer, that parishes have a circadian rhythm the polar opposite of bears (little pun intended) who sleep through the winter. I found over the years that summers could be rather exciting venues during the dog days, opportunities to get to know my parishioners better and have fun (and learning) at the same time. The only real hurdles are two mindsets: that nothing exciting can happen if the pastor isn’t there, and a lot of people will be out of town and attendance won’t be so great.
Something to remember is that many Americans do not take vacations, and this is truer today than when I began pastoring in 1978. In fact, today’s U.S. worker takes fewer vacation days than counterparts in all of the other Western nations. So in many circumstances parish sponsored free or low-cost attractions are a welcomed respite. From a liturgical standpoint, we build better parish community with strongly affective experiences, such as common projects and having fun.
Never underestimate the power of enjoyment as a component of institutional fidelity. One Ascension Thursday (back when the feast was celebrated on Thursday in Florida) our evening Mass had just concluded and I noticed a little girl throwing a massive hissy fit—a really good one, rolling around and all—and I inquired from a safe distance if I should call the diocesan exorcist. The mother resignedly replied that her daughter was upset because there were no donuts! We served them after every Mass on Sundays. Whenever I drive by a Dunkin’ Donuts, or to be more honest, whenever I’m parking in the DD lot, I do get a nice thought that a cohort of adults is walking around with a psychological association of Mass and free donuts.
In my first full summer in charge of a parish someone came up with a really good idea: let’s have a Sunday where any parish family that cares to can meet at the 27th Street pier at New Smyrna Beach; the only “requirement” was to tie a yellow ribbon on your radio antenna so the cars could park together on the beach and folks could identify each other as being from the parish. As I had the full slate of Sunday Masses, many folks were already on the way home when I would finally arrive along with the afternoon thunderstorms. Somehow they had a blast without me.
Within a year or two my director of religious education, a Dominican Sister, devised a youth summer program the likes of which I have yet to see repeated. There was full-day programming for our CYO twice a week (which, in our modest sized parish, encompassed sixth through twelfth graders). The early week program was educational: a day on Bible study, world hunger, the Mass and other sacraments, etc. I think the kids brown-bagged their lunches, and of course we had some pick-up sports, etc. The later week activity was a full recreation day at one of our attractions or place of interest, if you attended the education day that week. Back in the 1980’s there was great cooperation from just about every major theme park; when I think of it, we took them to Busch Gardens, Wet N’ Wild (several times a summer), Six Gun Territory (now an Ocala strip mall), Silver Springs, Circus World, Boardwalk and Baseball, etc. Only Walt Disney refused my calls. Several of these named parks gave us a $2 group admission rate!
We budgeted about $4000 to subsidize the summer program, the same amount as our Sunday donut breakfasts. I never recall a money problem with the summer activities; the kids paid $2-$4 for the outings. We footed primarily the busses. We actually made money on the donuts, thanks to our affluent members who periodically tossed a U.S. Grant into the good will basket next to the coffee. The Sunday breakfast, if I may digress, came back to help us in so many ways, in terms of stewardship and liturgical fellowship; I am very grateful to the families who adopted that ministry week after week…with no running water and electricity at the site, no less.
Another thing about the summer programs was the amazing interest and involvement of parents. I can never remember a staff discussion about problems getting chaperones and adult volunteers. As you might imagine, of course, we needed an extra bus for all the fathers who took the day off work to “help me” at Busch Gardens and other sites with adult amenities. It was always rewarding to spend a day with the adults, particularly the guys—we had many a serious discussion on our chaperoning walks and “work breaks.” We didn’t exactly plan it this way, but what actually resulted was a program of weekly family outings under the umbrella of the church. And, now that I look back from the “post-scandal” era, I can see that we had an extremely safe environment with all of the parental supervision.
I realize here that I have gone overtime with nostalgia and a list of things that worked in the 1980’s. I have not said a word yet about 2015 and what a parish can do for adults. How about if we talk about that on Wednesday under Professional Development?