Just How Bad Is the Summer Slump? Six Discoveries

“I hate summer attendance!”

That sentence came from a pastor whose church is consistently down in attendance in the summer. Indeed, his sentiments were echoed in many conversations I had with pastors. The conversation began at the consulting and coaching hub at Church Answers . I expanded it with some inquiries via emails, calls, and texts.

The insights these pastors shared were invaluable. Perhaps you can identify with many of them.

  1. A typical average decline is 20 percent. We used average worship attendance as our metric. The 20 percent number was the response from two of three pastors in this survey. So, for a church with an average worship attendance of 200 during the non-summer months, attendance drops to 160 in the summer.
  2. Snowbird churches tend to have greater fluctuations. For example, churches in southwest Florida and south Florida tend to have an exodus of attendees in the summer, usually greater than 20 percent. On the other hand, a pastor in Minnesota told us his church’s summer attendance was unchanged. Vacationers were offset by returning snowbirds.
  3. Churches in towns dominated by colleges have declines greater than 20 percent. Of course, this issue is often a reflection of the robustness of the church’s college ministry. A pastor in a town where the college makes up a major part of the population told us his church’s summer decline was around 50 percent!
  4. Year-round school is impacting the summer slump. A year-round school system could have a six-week summer break instead of the usual full summer break. Those six weeks of attendance could be down dramatically, well above the 20 percent norm noted by the majority of pastors.
  5. Churches that give a summer break to their small groups typically have a decline greater than 20 percent. It is absolutely amazing how involvement in groups like community groups, small groups, life groups, and Sunday school classes affect ministry involvement, giving, and attendance frequency positively. When churches keep their groups active in the summer, attendance slumps are not as pronounced.
  6. Many churches have become intentional about battling the summer slump. Instead of ramping down they, at the very least, keep their regularly-scheduled ministries on the same schedule. But a number of the churches actually introduce new ministries and opportunities in the summer. For example, the tried- and-true Vacation Bible School tends to impact attendance positively for at least two weeks of the summer.

We are now full into the summer season. I am thankful for these insights on the summer slump from many pastors.

Let us hear from you. How bad (or not) is the summer slump in your church?

Posted on June 19, 2019

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • I don’t have much experience with a summer slump.

    The two main county-seat town churches I pastored for 17.5 years experienced a “summer hump.”

    VBS, week-long camps, day camps, music camps, etc., seemed to fill the calendar.

    VBS always produced salvations and baptisms. And, in most instances, we got a list of prospective families to follow up.

    Keeping children and youth in front of the congregation performing or reporting from their camp experiences always seemed to help.

    Neither of my pastorates were in college towns, so that did not affect us.

    We always saw a summer “hump”, not a summer “slump”.

    And speaking of the pastor being gone on vacation. Announcing you are going to be on vacation is a good way to get your house broken into.

    It is a good idea to “get quality speakers” when a pastor is gone. People will come to hear someone “special” when the pastor is gone. The pastor doesn’t have to announce he is going to be gone; just announcing a special speaker will suffice.

    County seat town churches are usually populated with professional people who speak English well. Getting someone to supply who speaks good English will help.

    Getting a “good ole boy” just to fill the pulpit who says, “Them boys is the ones who done it; we seen’em; they done it all right,” is a good way to get people to stop coming to church.

    Or worse, getting some “cool guy” who wears jeans so tight they look painted on him or worse, and goes to the pulpit barefoot (I actually had a youth director who did about that) will offend people with dignity.

    Nor is it a good way to honor the sacredness of the pulpit in the pastor’s absence. Or build the church.

  • July is the month that really hits us hard. We have a lot of school teachers in our church. They often can’t get away in June because of summer school (and to their credit, many of them also stay around to help with VBS, which is usually in June). They have to start back in early August, so guess when most of them take their vacations? I certainly don’t begrudge them their vacation time, so I just try to work around it. I generally use July as a planning month, and then try to come back strong in August.

  • Robin G. Jordan says on

    At the church where I was a licensed minister for 15 years we kept our regular Sunday morning schedule during the summer and had a “summer choir” at the main service. A “summer choir” is a choir made up of members of the regular choir not on vacation and people interested in singing in the choir. We did not give the choir the whole summer off like some churches did. We also offered a nursery for infants and toddlers and summer program for pre-k, kindergarten, and elementary school age children as well as Vacation Bible School. We discovered that churchgoing families often relocated over the summer since it was less disruptive to the children and went church shopping as soon as they moved to a new community. Our Sunday attendance actually picked up rather than dropping. We also picked up new choir members.

  • I would speak in agreement with Mr. Rainer on this. Please don’t close up shop in the summer. Please don’t put the home group on a break. It’s a punishment to those of us who try to be faithful. If a home group will be canceled/put on break at the whim of the host, why should I join it with a mindset of faithfulness? Even if only two or three people show up, you never know when that group might be a lonely person’s favorite social outing. They may not mind if there are only two other people. If a host isn’t willing to do it all summer, find a better place to hold the meetings.

  • You could add Arizona to this list. In addition to the summer slump we’re in a community in which ownership of second homes is higher than the national average. However, I feel that any ground gained in the summer with year round residents is a huge win. The return of the snowbirds in the Fall is icing on the cake, but I dont want to bank on their return. Rather than flying the white flag of surrender I’ve found that having a comedy or movie night is a low maintenance way of keeping some momentum going during the summer and I try to focus on meeting with key leaders.

  • Minnesota Dave says on

    I think there is also a danger of churches themselves feeding into this. We’ve already been challenged by Thom Rainer, himself, and other commenters not to discontinue regular ministries, which many churches are prone to do, which further feeds into this pattern.

    I’ve seen another way that churches/pastors contribute to this is using summers for vacations and sabbaticals. Part of why people attend a given church is to sit under the teaching of “their” pastor. When they know he will not be in the pulpit ,especially when other regular ministries have been discontinued, they are more likely to do something else, go someplace else. I know because I confess to doing that on occasion in my past. Because of young families some pastors are not able to take vacations at other times of the year, but it might be worth consideration if they can.

    I’d be really interested in knowing from pastors if you see this thought as having any validity.

    • Here is my perspective as a PK with many adult years in the trenches.

      It depends on how the pastor handles it. The faithful summer few should not be made to feel like even the pastor has forfeited summer attendance. Does he vacation in summer because it really is his only chance, or because he figures nothing will happen over the summer? If the pastor cancels all the programs, locks the doors, and disappears for two weeks, it does give a sense that he’s avoiding low attendance.

      If he truly does need to vacation in summer, he should set up good quality preaching in his place as if he’s still expecting high attendance. Don’t toss the pulpit to the assistant youth pastor for his first real sermon because you figure only 20 people will be there. Even if there are only 20 people, it’s an insult to those 20 people. You never know when any given Sunday might the day that an enthusiastic young couple decides to visit. Treat every Sunday like the Superbowl regardless of attendance. Make the summer dropouts hear through the grapevine that they missed a barnburner of a worship service. Reward the people who show up when others don’t. And make sure there’s someone to turn to for visits or counsel in the pastor’s absence.

      Thirdly, I would suggest that pastors need to handle this graciously on social media. If you cancel a home group for the summer, and then I see that home group leader rubbing elbows with the pastor on vacation together, it’s really bad optics.

      • Yes Kylin, often because of having a young family, children in school, pastor’s do not have a choice as to when they vacation. But you have good counsel in suggesting pulpit supply must then be intentionally selected.

  • Tony Papadakis says on

    In our neck of the woods, summer has numerous established community events (e.g., fairs and festivals) that also draw down attendance during the summer. And since this is not a vacation destination, summer Sundays are hit-and-miss. Not to be too statistical, but we would need to look at both the mean and the median because of the fluctuations.

  • Year around school calendars have concentrated our down weeks. We’ve worked hard in the last couple of years to offer summer activities (like VBS) and service projects to keep the momentum going. By promoting these well in advance, our attendance remains stable. However, on the weekends where we don’t have specific programming, our attendance can often plummet to extreme lows, dropping by as much as 40%. What we’ve noticed, though, is that summer attendance over the whole summer averages out to about a 10% decline. By being strategic and accepting that 4 weekends in the summer will be dramatically lower, we’ve developed our ministry into a routine that is predictable and manageable.

  • Ken Kroohs says on

    A tiny sample (2 churches) and a few comments from other pastors makes me ask the second part of the question: How are your guest numbers during the summer? That tiny ‘research’ says there is a noticeable uptick, especially in August.
    If so, it is even more important to keep some activities going. Telling a guest that if you come back in two months they can see what we do, is not very helpful! 🙂

  • We don’t have snow birds, we have summer birds. They have cabins, cottages, etc. and spend most of the summer elsewhere. We can be as much as 40% decline in the summer. Our fiscal year ends in June and starts in July so it can impact how close out the year and how we begin the new year. It can be discouraging.

  • The church I attend drops off substantially in the summer months. Most of that is due to the snowbirds leaving SW Florida. Some is attributed to full time residents who leave for a few weeks of cooler weather in N. Carolina.

    An interesting observation I’ve made is that many of our snowbirds watch our service live on Facebook. So it would seem that despite the distance they still try to stay connected.

    Food for thought?