Studying religion means working Sundays

Gero Menzel, Research Associate, Goethe University Frankfurt

Going into the first field, the Diocese of Limburg, I came prepared to also work Sundays. After deciding to postpone the second case, Islam, because field access turned out to be more complicated than expected, I moved on with our third case study on Hinduism, not expecting Sunday to become the focal point of my research activity again. But that’s how it was My contact person from our cooperation partner invited me to join her to visit the temple on Sunday.

The first thing I want to reflect on, is that researching religion, at least in many contexts, conflicts with the academic work schedule and with how we organize our ‘work-life-balance’. Sundays in Germany are usually regarded as days of non-work, days of leisure. At the same time, they are workdays for religious workers and it is a day of non-work or a day of informal work for visitors of religious services; the second being the role we tend to get assigned and/or accept as researchers.

The second thing I want to dwell on, is that when and on which days we conduct our research is also important. Our impression of the research field might be influenced drastically by when we visit. To generate a contrasting case for my research in the first case study, the Diocese of Limburg, I visited a week day service. It was a Tuesday service and it fit well into my work schedule. I could go there before heading to the office. The experience was completely different from Sundays; I was the youngest by far. Of course, while my schedule allowed me to go to Church on a Weekday morning, everybody else except retirees was not able to attend. So ethnographic research includes adapting our schedule to our research field or deciding why we deviate from our field’s usual schedule, be it for pragmatic or methodological reasons.

By getting to know the rhythm, the schedule of our field, we also learn something about it (Elliott et al., 2016). Which days are important in living religion and for whom? We have to ask, whose schedule or which sub-schedule are we adapting to? How far can we adapt with our personal life, our employment conditions?

Sunday being the day for communal, for religious gathering is linked to how Christianity shaped the work schedules in Germany and other Christian majority countries and still does, together with labor unions and other forces of civil society. By looking at when religious communities gather, we can learn about how they relate to the majority and other religious communities. In how far Sunday becomes the day for religious activities and gathering, might also show how religious communities might relate to European secularity sedimented in temporal orders. It might also show us how established religious communities are, by how far they are able to follow their own temporal orders.

Studying religion means navigating and reflecting the temporal practices.


Elliott, S., McKelvy, J. N., & Bowen, S. (2016). Marking time in ethnography: Uncovering temporal dispositions. Ethnography, 18(4), 556–576.

Image credit: Image provided by the author

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