Recently, I was speaking with a congregation about what we call 'alternate part-time' in the Episcopal Diocese of NC, which means that a priest serves a congregation part-time, but not every Sunday. A half-time priest may serve 2 Sundays a month (and 2 days during the week), and a quarter-time priest 1 Sunday a month (and 1 day a week). One of the major advantages to this is that clergy can serve more than one church part-time without exhaustion.
Congregations, though, inevitably ask, 'What will we do on the other Sundays, when we don't have a priest?' There are a variety of answers to this - some say Morning Prayer once or twice a month, some hire supply priests on the Sundays their priest isn't with them. And increasingly, some are wondering what would happen if they only had church services twice a month.
At first, this seems like heresy! Not having worship every Sunday is unthinkable, and it seems like it would be capitulating to a culture that says church attendance is not important. And we all know, of course, that in general, church attendance is down, and continues to decline. Not only do fewer people go to church at all, but those who do go don't go as often as they used to. 'Regular attendance' used to mean 3 out of 4 Sundays a month; now, it is more like 2 Sundays a month, or maybe even one, for most people in our pews.
It makes me wonder, if most people are only at church twice a month anyway, how much different would it be if church only met twice a month? It could be better for congregations to see all of their membership twice than half their membership every other Sunday. It would definitely help make things more affordable for many communities, in terms of paying for clergy, and maybe sharing their space. It might give clergy and lay leaders more time to rest from the labors of the many things that happen each Sunday, and have more energy for worship and ministry when the congregation did gather.
It might do something else, as well. We talk more and more about getting outside the walls of our churches, learning that we are not isolated communities of faith, but also members of a larger denomination, and a larger faith that expresses itself through many denominations. If our own congregation only met twice a month, we would not necessarily have to stay home and sleep late on the alternate Sundays (although even I have to admit that is a lovely occasional luxury). It might give us the chance to worship in other churches in our community, either our own denomination or another. It might give us the energy to start new worshiping communities. Who knows where the Holy Spirit might lead us if we were not so busy in our own place every Sunday?
One of the interesting tensions in practicing Christianity is on the one hand, following a Lord who had 'no place to rest his head,' and was constantly on the way and bringing others along with him; and on the other, establishing communities of faith where people can come and rest and pray and receive blessings and sacraments and participate in becoming disciples. It seems to me that in the mainline denominations, we are very good at the established, and maybe not so engaged in the going where the Spirit chooses. And it is hard not to think of these things as polar opposites, either/or situations.
But what if they are not? What if some Sundays we were right there in our pews, fostering the relationships with each other and with God that sustain us, and other Sundays, we were out in the world, discovering new neighbors, new relationships, new ways to worship God? How might each of these practices inform the other, especially when practiced by the same group of people? Part-time starts to look different then, I think, in terms of mission and ministry. Not a failure or a capitulation but an opportunity to see ourselves differently as those who follow Jesus n