Planning for some of the area's Easter sunrise services is not for the faint of heart.
One church begins preparing right after New Year's Day. The members of another congregation arrive at the worship site at 4:30 a.m. to start setting up hundreds of chairs. For another church, it means buying mountains of sausages and pounds of pancake mix to feed those who remain for breakfast.
The Easter sunrise service tradition is based on the belief that Jesus rose early in the morning. The Bible says that when the women went to the tomb at sunrise, Jesus was not there, said the Rev. Wayne A. Robinson of Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ in St. Petersburg.
"But the question becomes, when did he rise? Did he rise before 6? All we know was that when they came to the tomb, it was empty,'' Robinson said.
This Easter will mark 68 years since Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church began offering its sunrise service. The service, which begins at 6:30 a.m. on Pass-A-Grille Pointe, will be held against the backdrop of a 16-foot cross and sunrise over Boca Ciega Bay.
Church historian and longtime member Barbara Baker Smith said volunteers arrive long before dawn to set up about 1,000 chairs.
"Now we also put out a Porta-Potty, because some people arrive very early to get a good seat,'' she said.
As many as 1,500 people show up. Afterwards, about 120 to 150 return to the St. Pete Beach church for breakfast.
The Rev. Mike Wetzel of Island Chapel on Tierra Verde said his church began holding Easter sunrise services in 1993. They are held at the east end of Fort De Soto. This year, worship starts at 6:45 a.m.
"The first year, we probably had about 150 people and now we have about 1,500 to 2,000,'' Wetzel said.
The numbers could be even higher this year. The church sent out about 16,000 fliers advertising the 45-minute service to St. Pete Beach and Tierra Verde residents.
"We start the preparation for this on Jan. 2. It takes time for everything to be printed and mailed out,'' Wetzel explained.
A crew of volunteers will arrive at Fort De Soto at 5 a.m. to start setting up the sound equipment.
"We will have groups out there to help direct the cars for parking, all kinds of representatives from the church to welcome people,'' he said.
Nancy and Skip Ertz won't be at their church's sunrise service because they'll be too busy preparing sausages and pancakes for the dozens of people who will drop by for breakfast later.
The couple has been cooking Easter sunrise breakfasts at Church of the Isles United Church of Christ on Indian Rocks Beach for years. The service begins at 7 a.m. on the beach near 25th Avenue.
"I never go to sunrise service because I'm in the kitchen,'' Nancy Ertz said. "We look forward to doing this every year.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.