What do you do when two Sunday services are not enough? That’s the situation Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship in Appleton, WI (599 members), faced in 2001. Despite two services, the sanctuary and religious education classes were still too full. “We take seriously the rule that if the sanctuary is 80 percent full it’s time to think about another service,” says the Rev. Roger Bertschausen.
That’s when the fellowship added Saturday to the schedule, beginning a service at 4:30 p.m. From the beginning it was a success, Bertschausen says. “It started strongly and built over time. It’s been a really successful thing for us.” An average of 85 adults and 60 children and youth attend the Saturday service. Two years ago the congregation added a third service on Sunday. The 8 a.m. Sunday service draws an average of 35 adults (there is no RE at that hour). The numbers at 9:15 and 10:45 a.m. are 90/30 and 100/35.
Bertschausen says Saturday attracts people who have to work on Sunday, youth and young adults who want to sleep in, seniors, and a lot of families. “By 4:30, daytime activities are winding down,” he says. “They come to church and then they can go out to eat afterward. It seems to be a really good time for them. And there’s a fair amount of youth sports on Sunday morning now.” Another reason: “About half our congregation is ex-Catholic. They’re used to going to Mass on Saturday afternoon.”
First UU Church of San Diego (819) started a Saturday service in October, but it’s doing less well, says the Rev. Dr. Arvid Straube. “People love the service, although we have an attendance of only 30 or 40.” He believes the 4 p.m. start time may be too early. “We’ll be going to 5 p.m. in April. “We think there’s a market there.”
Are there drawbacks to Saturday services? “It is more time for me, but it’s not a big deal,” says Bertschausen. “Most of my time goes into writing the sermon, and whether it’s for three or four services doesn’t matter. This actually frees up Saturday night for me because I have to write my sermon before then. And I get to bed earlier and I can enjoy Sunday morning more.” He also gave up teaching classes on Sunday evening. “That was part of the tradeoff.” One drawback: Saturday weddings have to be done by 3 p.m.
Bridget Kramer, director of religious education at Fox Valley, says a Saturday service means finding more volunteers, but that hasn’t been a serious problem. “It’s more difficult, but not that difficult.”
The bulk of the middle and high schoolers attend the Saturday service. That works well because they don’t have to get up on Sunday morning. After the Saturday service they often gather for social events.
Bertschausen issues a caution. “Don’t add a Saturday service unless your staff is already fairly compensated or you are willing to take away some other responsibility.” He adds, “A Saturday service is more likely to succeed if you frame it as permanent rather than an experiment.” The primary additional cost for a Saturday service at Fox Valley is for the paid pianist and heating and cooling. The choir sings monthly at all four services.
Fox Valley is planning to build a larger sanctuary in a few years. “Even then I’m sure we’ll keep the Saturday service,” he said. “The people that come to it just never came on Sunday morning. This is a time that works for them.”
Several congregations have chosen to add a third or fourth service on Sunday afternoons. Among them are First Unitarian Church in Albuquerque, with a contemporary service at 1 p.m.; Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, MN, at 4:30 p.m.; and First Unitarian Church in Milwaukee, WI, at 5 p.m.
The First Unitarian Society of Madison, WI (1,565), holds a third worship service at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, as does First Unitarian in Des Moines. After several years the Saturday service was only marginally successful, says Madison’s senior minister the Rev. Dr. Michael Schuler, “but the people who were attending felt so strongly about it they recruited others. After four years it was clearly sustainable.”
From 90 to 120 adults attend on Saturday, compared to 350 to 425 at each of the Sunday services. RE attendance is roughly equal at all three services. Says Schuler, “The service itself is a little less formal, but it is of a high quality, including music. We could not offer second-rate music and hope to attract people.” Adding opportunities for socializing and community building also helped, he says. “It’s easier to get to know other people. Those who attend really enjoy that.”