Two Services - Considering, Doing, Thriving!

Overhead view of crowd of people

By Christine Robinson

Out of space? Good for you! Here are some things to think about and plan for.

Going to two services offers advantages beyond solving space problems. It offers choices in service timing, for instance. This might seem like a small matter at this point, but congregations who shrink from two services to one often find that their attendance shrinks by about 10% when they do. People like options! It can offer choices in service type, and is a common way many Christian congregations have solved the “music wars” that rage between the lovers of the organ and the lovers of contemporary Christian music. Having two services also allows RE teachers and other volunteers to attend worship.

However, make no mistake about it, going to two services is a BIG DEAL. It will impact the minister, the worship team, the RE director and teaching teams, make building scheduling more complex, is a huge challenge for the publicity staff or team, and has a budget impact. Because of this, the first thing you will want to do is ask yourselves if you really NEED or WANT to do this. Usually a board/staff task force takes this challenge on, producing for the board and congregation an answer to the question, “What are our challenges and why will two services solve them?

If the presenting issue is crowding, are there ways to arrange your sanctuary space to accommodate more people? Could you use video to have a concurrent “video café” in a smaller room, or use projection of video to make a part of your sanctuary which is now undesirable because of sight lines, more desirable? Sometimes creative thinking can go a long way! And while video equipment and a new corps of volunteers is an undertaking, it’s not as big an undertaking or expense as two services. (not to mention a building project)

There is a rule of thumb that says that a sanctuary feels full at 85% of capacity, and if it is that full week after week during the “high season” (whenever that is in your community), you will be stifling both growth and your ability to serve your members. This rule of thumb has no scientific backing, so take it with a grain of salt, but it is also true that what the architect or fire marshal says your seating capacity is should be treated as a maximum for holidays and the largest memorial services, not as feasible Sunday after Sunday. Why can’t you expect to fill all your seats?

  • Because people hate to sit in the front row…or rows…or anywhere they can’t see well (which is where some well-placed video screens can help a lot). Or the balcony if there is no elevator or near the table placed for children’s “quiet” activities or ….fill in the blank! Where do people not like to sit in your sanctuary?
  • Because people often come to church in couples and groups and expect to sit together. If they can’t they will think twice about coming again. (the shorter your rows, the bigger a problem this is…)
  • Because a lot of people will stand rather than crowd into the one empty seat in the middle of a row, and then think your church is too full. (You can mitigate this problem if the worship leader notices crowding at the opening of a service, and before asking people to be seated after the first hymn, says, “We’ve got a big crowd today, so if there are empty seats in your row, please move in so latecomers will be seated.”)
  • Because more people than you might realize are quite uncomfortable being crowded. If they think they will have to sit elbow to elbow with others, they just won’t come.
  • Because even your regulars might think twice about coming to church if they wake up late and realize that finding a seat is going to be a hassle.
  • Because visitors coming into a crowded sanctuary may think, “There is nowhere here for me,” and try another congregation.

Once a decision has been made that you should be planning for two services, you will need a robust and diverse planning team. Remember…two services effects everybody in the building on Sunday morning and more besides, so make sure your committee consists of people from different facets of your congregation’s life, and checks in with everyone they can think of, over and over, until you are pretty sure you have thought of everything.

Give yourself plenty of time to plan, make decisions, and publicize this change. A year is not too long. Three months is only enough in an emergency or for a smaller congregation. The best time to start two services? The Fall, while attendance is high, weather is good, and holiday crowds lie ahead of you.

Resign yourself to the fact that very few people are going to love this idea and some will hate it forever. It’s a big change. If the board has rightly determined that it is a change that must be made and the message goes out that this is what we need to do to be the most effective congregation we can be, most people will adjust.

Some Things to Think about as You Plan


  1. Both of the new service times should be NEW. Make everybody adjust and you will have a better balance of attendance at your new services.
  2. Consider RE and Worship Prep when setting the time of your early service.
  3. Plan enough time between the services so that the parking lot clears out. Discover how long it takes about 2/3 of your parking spaces to become available after a service by going out and watching what happens.
  4. Time your services based on staff and program needs. This is not the time for a survey! People will adjust best to what works for those putting on Sunday programs.
  5. Consider whether you want more or less time between services. More time means some programming can happen between services, and there is less of an issue with parking and services running overtime, but it means a longer morning for staff, musicians, and RE teachers who want to stay for the service.
  6. You can return to one service for your “low season”. Do so in a way that people will remember and is easy to talk about (Memorial Day-Labor Day or The week after Easter till the week after Halloween, or July and August, or use your public school opening and closing dates.) You can have one service the week after Christmas if you publicize the heck out of it. But that’s all the changing you can do! Always remember: the person who shows up for a service that has been canceled will think twice before coming again.

Worship and Music

  1. Two services almost never split evenly in attendance and commonly split 1/3-2/3. A good worship service needs a critical mass of people. A mid-sized congregation needs at least 50 people at each service. Larger congregations should go by proportion. Plan for at least 1/4, and preferably 1/3 of the total attendees to be at the smaller service or it will be an orphan. Average worship attendance less than 75? You should be looking at other options besides a second service. Very few people will go to a service with 20 people if they can go to a service with 55.
  2. If the second service is not on Sunday morning, (late Saturday afternoon is second best, Sunday evening and Wednesday evenings have also been tried but don’t often work.) you have both more opportunities and even more complexity.
  3. If you have opted for two services a half an hour apart, and are in a situation where you must empty the parking lot between services so that second service folks can park, you will be forever in the position of timing that first service to be no more than an hour, no matter what. You will need to impress this on guest speakers and musicians. It is one of the complexities of two service…a price of success.
  4. The congregation’s choir will have to decide how to handle the change. It is too much to ask one choir to sing at two services every week, so consider the possibilities. The choir could sing less often at both services, while other musicians and musical groups from the congregation or community did likewise or the choir could sing at once service and other musicians could sing and play for the other service. This second way is easier on the choir but quite a bit harder on those planning worship. If you do it this way, it is critical that those other musicians are just as competent and interesting as the choir! Some congregations decide to have two different styles of service, with choir and organ at one service, which is more formal and traditional in nature and a contemporary style, informal service with a band at the other. Only the sermon and reading stay the same. This scheme is not easy on preachers!

Religious Education

  1. It is better to have RE at only one service than to have two sets of RE classes that don’t have a critical mass of kids. Parents are not impressed with more than a 2-year span in a classroom.
  2. If you have RE at only one service, you need a solid child care program at the other service for kids who don’t want to be in the service AND very attractive options for kids in the service (such as an activity table and small library of seat activities for children and teens who come with their parents.) Select quiet activities, pad the table, carpet the floor, and save sanctuary seats near the table for parents. People who want the congregation to succeed will get used to the little noises kids make, especially if they are reminded. Person doing announcements: “We are so glad to have families with us and we don’t mind the little noises children make. There are activities …..” (Such a table is becoming more common in UU congregations, even with robust RE programs.
  3. Two services of RE is more complex for RE directors to manage and their hours should be adjusted accordingly.
  4. One benefit of two services for RE is that people are more likely to volunteer to teach more often if they can attend worship before or after. But to make that work, thought has to be given to what their kids (most of them have them!) will do during that second hour.
  5. It is often possible to have two full RE programs for nursery, preschool, and primary school, with kids 4th grade and up all at one service.

Staff Items

  1. Many staff positions will need beefing up when you go to two services. Building care and child care folks will have to stay longer each Sunday. If you have admin hours on Sunday, they will need to be increased. The Publications/publicity position becomes more complex. Building scheduling is affected. And the minister(s) will spend an inordinate amount of energy for a year calming nerves frazzled by change (including their own)
  2. It takes more than twice as much energy to lead two services or run two RE sessions as it takes to run one. Sunday evening activities are likely to be much less attractive to them after the switch to two services.

Other Programs and Considerations

  1. Two services causes a natural splitting of the community. There is no getting around this. Some people will come to the coffee hour between services to connect with ‘everybody’, but most people will start to feel that the service they go to is their community. Fact of the matter is that very few people can relate to more than 50 people, but some will decry this loss forever. Once you are adjusted to two services, you might want to redouble community building efforts to compensate. However, your refrain forever will be, “Two congregation share one building, one staff, and get to know each other at all the other programs we offer here! Nifty! Thrifty!”
  2. The congregation accustomed to holding meetings after their worship service has another big adjustment when it goes to two services….meeting times have to change. If you hold meetings after second service you disadvantage the first service folks, which is not fair. These are often your newer folks and you don’t want to teach them that nobody wants them to be a part of congregational business! When you have two services congregational meetings have to move to afternoon or evening and have to be made extra attractive to get folks to return.


  1. Your first job is to help the congregation adjust to the fact that two services mean that the congregation is successful and thriving! They need to hear all the reasons for the change and the reasoning behind the details of the change (why 11:15?) Publicize, publicize, publicize. Jolly them up, and remind them that this change is driven by success and mission.
  2. At least one congregation filled their new early service and RE program very successfully and felt the trick was offering free breakfast Burritos, coffee, and juice to all early attenders. It’s cheaper than building a new building!
  3. Present your first program year as an experiment, promising to give folks a chance to evaluate the change. Tweak if necessary.
  4. Expect resistance and crankiness. It’s just human. Have a little fun with it. In the first few weeks of the change, provide staff and leaders with a stock of candy kisses to hand to everyone with a complaint. (or compliment!) Let the president of the board wear a target on their chest for a few weeks. Preach on change as a constant in life. Tell the congregation how amazing they are, to be willing to make this change for the good of the congregation and it’s mission.
  5. Your trial run should go at least three months…6 is better, and 9 is best. THEN ask people what they think. (If you make major changes for your second year, even ones the congregation wants and needs, re-stock the candy kisses and get ready for more cranky behavior. It’s the way people are!)
  6. Unless you have two services 52 weeks a year, make a master list of everywhere your service times appear (newsletter, website, Facebook page, Google Maps, outdoor sign, newspaper, phone message, Yellow Pages…). Any that can’t easily be changed should read “call for time of services” and struck from the list. Keep the rest of the list and make sure you actually change your service times in all these places the week before you shift from one service to two or back. And mention it several weeks running in the service, headline it in your email blast, and shout it from the rafters. Change is always hard…. (after you get used to two services, consider just keeping them permanent. Your low season might not be quite so low!)
  7. A congregation which successfully changes to two services in order to better serve its mission and its community is a vibrant congregation. Plan on it!

About the Author

Christine Robinson

Rev. Christine Robinson served Unitarian Universalist congregations in Columbia, South Carolina and Albuquerque, New Mexico over thirty-five years and currently works as a consultant for large congregations. She is a co-author of three books of resources for small group spiritual conversations,...

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