#livesummeroutside is my personal hashtag for this summer. Summer is my favorite season, and my plan is to not miss it! I have a goal to have an adventure every week—to explore somewhere beautiful I haven’t been before. Last week was the Eloise Butler Wildlife Garden in Minneapolis. The week before was tea with family at Maudie MacBride's in St. Paul. Next week: Who knows? What I do know is how much joy I find in these small moments, whether walking in the woods or eating dinner on my deck. And more than that, my soul is nourished. I find the words of Mary Oliver’s poem coming to mind: When I am among the trees…they give off such hints of gladness, I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I happened to be in a conversation that pastors can find themselves in at this time year: sighing over cabin season and what that does to worship attendance. Summer is a hard season for preachers! You work, and plan, and pour your heart into your sermon, and then you look out to a sea of empty pews. It is frustrating. And at the same time, you get it. Because honestly, you would love to be at the cabin too! So we make the best of it, dial back the programming, and wait until fall to do much of anything because we know everyone is gone in the summer.
But that conversation got me to thinking: If church is not a place but a people, and our goal is not simply to have a certain number of people show up at an activity but to help people grow in their faith, love, and hope, how might that reframe ministry and how we respond to the summer season?
Here is an analogy, albeit an imperfect one: I have not been to the gym in over a month. I am still a member, and I will be back in the fall, but remember my hashtag? I am not going to run on a treadmill or spin on a stationary bike when I can be outside. I happen to have a trainer to help me reach my personal goals around health. She doesn’t ask me if I went to the gym this week. She asks me what I did to move, to eat well, and to care for myself. The gym is a tool, a resource, but it is not the goal. Just because I have not been to the gym doesn’t mean I am not exercising.
Here is a crazy idea. What if we ask our church folk: What would be life-giving to you this summer—help you grow in mind, body and spirit—and how can we support you in that? Summer is often a time of recreation, Sabbath, and family. What if each person chose one or two commitments that were meaningful for them, and then found a way to make them public—perhaps through a blog or sharing about them or posting pictures of what they are doing?
I just wonder if we would feel more connected as a community even as we are out exploring summer and if we would be helping people experience grace and space and joy, which seem to be hungers right now. If what mattered most was that folks experienced a true Sabbath—one where we truly stop and smell the roses and get reconnected to the God who made the heavens and earth, where we spend long and leisurely time with the important people in our life, and where we stop and listen to our souls—and we saw our role as pastors and leaders as supporting people in that quest, would that help us all have a guilt-free summer?
Now, in case you think I am advocating for no-worship summers, I am not! But I do think we need to change it up. I know some churches take it outside in the summer. Or they offer mid-week worship because they know the golf course beckons. Some have a fun sermon series like “God goes to the movies.” Other churches mix it up by having their small groups be backyard barbecues in the summer, or by having hiking, biking, golfing, kayaking, or running groups. It is of course a great time for camps and retreats, movies in the park, and picnics and block parties.
How can we bring the spirit of summer to what we do, giving people more options to connect, but in different ways? If my gym had an outdoor yoga class, I would be there! It is time, church, to #livesummeroutside. Let’s take it to the streets, the parks, the lakes, and the patios and decks…wherever the people are.
Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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