This article by Mark Oppenheimer originally appeared the August 17, 2012 edition of the New York Times. – Ed.
“If you phone a Unitarian Church between the middle of June and Labor Day in September, the most you are apt to get is a recorded message,” Charles S. Slap said in his sermon at the First Unitarian Society of Schenectady, N.Y., on Sept. 8, 1985. “Our more orthodox friends never cease to be astounded by the contents of the message: ‘This church is closed for the summer. If you are one of those people who actually need a church during the summer, try the Presbyterians.’ ”
Was he joking? Well, in part — Mr. Slap surely did not wish Presbyterianism on potential followers. But in the matter of his own church being closed for the summer, he was serious. “Indeed,” he added, “85 percent of Unitarian societies go into their strange ecclesiastical hibernation” in the summer months.
Although Mr. Slap did not give a source for his figure — the sermon text can be found in his book “Two Black Cats,” published in 1993, a year after his death — Unitarians of a certain age will acknowledge the truth in what he said. After the school year ended, God took a break, and Unitarians took to Cape Cod, in Massachusetts.
But over the last 10 years or so, the leisurely Unitarian summer has mostly become a thing of the past. Ministers are working throughout the year, and congregational buildings offer services year-round. This leaves two questions: where did the Unitarian summer off come from, and where has it gone?
The Unitarian Universalist Association was formed in 1961 by the merger of two liberal Christian organizations, the Unitarians (who historically had taught that Jesus was a man, not divine) and the Universalists (who believed in universal salvation; everyone got saved). The Unitarian tradition, in particular, had long appealed to freethinkers and intellectuals, including many college professors.
Hence, one theory about the summers off: thank Harvard. Unitarianism in the United States took off after 1805, when Harvard caused a scandal by appointing a Unitarian professor of theology. In the years after, many Congregational churches took a Unitarian direction in their teaching. “Since then,” Mr. Slap opined, “our fate has been tied to Harvard University,” whose calendar has provided for summers off since the early 1800s.
And since Unitarianism was a religion of the educated and professional class, the vacationing class, “the Unitarian churches in New England would all close down in June, and everyone headed for the Cape,” he said.
Kenneth Hurto, who served congregations in Des Moines and in Alexandria, Va., is now the denomination’s district executive in Florida. He said the culture of summers off “is long since gone,” but he remembers a different age.
“When I came into the ministry 40 years ago, I heard about colleagues who had the trunk of the car packed on Memorial Day,” he said. “They would disappear after the service and not be back until the first of October.”
The Unitarian summer off was so well known that there were jokes about it. “You know the joke about why the practice went on so long?” Mr. Hurto asked. “Because God trusts us.”
Rachel Walden, a spokeswoman for the association, agreed that far more congregations go year-round than used to be the case. “But that is regionally specific,” Ms. Walden said. “In the Maine and upper New England areas, where people might go away to summer homes, there are congregations that close during the year.” There are other congregations, in summer beach communities, that “might be open only during the summer,” she said.
Several ministers said the real shift occurred in the past decade, citing reasons as mundane as recruitment and as profound as the changing nature of ministry.
“Part of that is a recognition that people move during the summer and they are church shopping right now,” said Kenneth Brown, who was ordained in 1974. His first church, in Exeter, N.H., “closed after Father’s Day,” but ministers have given up that luxury. “Quite frankly,” he said, “it behooves us to have strong services and a minister available” in the summer months.
Susan Ritchie, a minister in Lewis Center, Ohio, and a professor at Starr King School for the Ministry, in Berkeley, Calif., said: “I think part of the reason it’s changing has to do with different expectations for ministers. It has been moving away from being just the public intellectual and more toward the helping profession. And that has to do with the feminization of the ministry.”
According to Ms. Walden, a majority of Unitarian ministers are women. And male ministers of an earlier generation, Dr. Ritchie believes, may have felt more comfortable leaving their flock for months at a time. And their congregants did not expect any different.
“When they left for the summer, they really left for the summer,” she said. “They’d get a place on the Cape and not even leave a forwarding address.”