Summer is a time to warm to religion

Church: Some people find they can connect to God at the beach or in the mountains.

August 14, 2004|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

It's a message you'd expect to read on a church signboard in the depths of summer: God doesn't take a vacation, even when you do.

These days, though, many places of worship might choose to word it differently: This summer, relax and reconnect with God wherever you are.

For many churches, summer has long been a time to vary their routines: Substitute clergy lead services, vacation Bible schools get under way, retreats and revivals take place. But some are finding more creative ways to serve their stalwarts, while acknowledging that there are those who feel that, for a few weeks, they can talk to God just as well at the beach, in the mountains or on the drive to a lacrosse game.

At St. Bernardine's Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore, parishioners who turn out for Sunday Mass get a reward - an ice cream social after services.

For Reform Jews in Baltimore, summer brings a chance to travel - to one of four area synagogues that take turns playing host to vacation-thinned congregations.

In the summer-swollen resort area of Deep Creek Lake, one parish demonstrates the promise of greener pastures: It holds a Sunday service on the lawn next to a lakeside bar and restaurant.

Overall, Americans are a worshipful group. A majority of citizens surveyed this summer by the Gallup Poll say they attend religious services at least once a month; a third go every week.

Prime vacation months change the pattern. Although there are no hard numbers on church attendance during the summer, many congregations testify to noticeable drop-offs. While that can pose certain practical problems - to avoid big dips in weekly giving, for instance, some churches are trying a system of automatic bank withdrawals - worshipers and ministers say time away from the usual routine can be beneficial.

A less rigid schedule

Take Martie Milliken, a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Annapolis. During the school year, she teaches a women's Bible study group at her church and attends services "fairly faithfully." But in summer, she says, "we are definitely less rigid about attending."

With three children at home - two of whom compete on a lacrosse travel team - Milliken finds herself spending many summer weekends on the road.

"I tend to be a little less focused on my spiritual relationship because of the kids being around," she says. "I don't have that quiet time that I do during the school year."

But Milliken doesn't worry about the temporary disruption of her Sunday schedule.

"My husband and I both realize that attending church, in itself, is not what your relationship with God is," she says.

Some find that the season enhances formal worship. Nan Jarashow, head of Aleph Bet Jewish Day School in Annapolis, attends Congregation Kol Ami, a Conservative synagogue, as regularly in summer as during the rest of the year. In summer, however, she feels more attuned to the services.

"I'm less caught up in the wool-gathering about the week that was and the week that's about to begin," she says. "I'm more able to be in the moment."

Renewing faith

While many consider it mandatory to attend worship services, clergy also acknowledge that the spiritual perspective that can come from vacation. Many look forward to the renewal of their own time-outs.

For the Rev. Mary Glasspool, canon to Maryland's Episcopal bishop and a parish priest for 20 years, summer is a time to recharge spiritually. The word "vacation," she points out, comes from the Latin verb vacuo, to empty, to let go. In her mind, it's a time to "let God be God."

"Relaxation itself is a spiritual gift," says Monsignor Robert Armstrong, pastor of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, anticipating his own chance to be a "beach bum." "It [vacation] doesn't mean you're praying the whole time, but there are opportunities to do more reading and reflection on a daily basis."

The Rev. Christopher Leighton, executive director of Baltimore's nonprofit Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies, says summer frees his family from their routines through reading and travel. His wife and teenage son recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, a trip that taught them about breaking through physical barriers that appeared impassable.

"A sense of adventure is an important characteristic of our spiritual lives during the summer," he says. "It's important to once again discover something unfamiliar within the familiar, or to reconnect to the sense that the world is brimming with possibilities we too often overlook."

Although trips make the family less likely to attend church every week, the Leightons hold Sunday dinner conversations with their three children on topics including biblical stories and how current events reflect their religious viewpoints.

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