At his last parish in Ridgewood, the Rev. Daniel Gunn would oversee several services on Ash Wednesday where the faithful would line up to receive the traditional ashes on their foreheads.
But the Episcopal priest spent much of his time between services administering ashes to parishioners popping into his office because they couldn't make the services.
After about 25 or 30 people stopped by one Ash Wednesday, Gunn had an idea: Why not make receiving ashes easy -- like McDonald's easy?
So, the following year, he put up signs offering "drive-thru ashes" in the parking lot of Christ Church in Ridgewood. To his shock, more than 150 people pulled up in their cars.
"Several people would stop and say, 'Is this for real?'" Gunn said.
Both Christ Church in Ridgewood and Gunn's new parish, St. Andrew's Church in New Providence, will be among the New Jersey parishes offering "drive-thru ashes" this Wednesday. Other New Jersey churches offering similar drive-thru Ash Wednesday events, including Trinity Episcopal Church in Moorestown and Church of the Holy Spirit in Verona.
The "drive-thru" idea is an offshoot of the "Ashes to Go" movement that has been spreading across the country in recent years. It is designed to make it easier for people in an increasingly busy world to stay connected to their religion on one of Christianity's holiest days.
Churches that would traditionally require parishioners to attend Ash Wednesday Masses and services before receiving their ashes have instead been allowing anyone, no matter what their faith, to get ashes in parking lots, train stations, at bus stops and coffee shops.
In some cases, ministers and priests stationed on street corners have administered ashes to people in cars waiting for a light to change.
This year's calendar has Ash Wednesday falling on Valentine's Day -- meaning even fewer people may be willing to make the time to get to church.
Though "Ashes to Go" has been popularized by Episcopal parishes, some Protestant, Methodist and Catholic churches have adopted the idea. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark only offers ashes in church and in services on college campuses.
In New Jersey, area Episcopal congregations will be bringing ashes to local train stations, bus stops, supermarkets, some Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts locations on Wednesday as part of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark's "Ashes to Go" program.
Episcopal priests are scheduled to offer commuters ashes at train stations in Newark, Allendale, Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Boonton, Harrison, Hillsdale, Lincoln Park, Little Falls, Madison, Maplewood, Millburn, Montvale, Rutherford, Summit, Towaco and more.
Ashes will also be offered outside the QuickChek in Belvidere, the Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks in Chester, the Dunkin' Donuts in Ledgewood and the Shop Rite in Nutley, according to the Episcopal Diocese of Newark.
The idea is also spreading to other countries. This year, a Catholic parish in Ireland made headlines when it introduced a "drive-thru ashes" program.
However, the idea has been criticized by some Christians in the U.S. and abroad who say "drive-thru ashes" and similar outreach movements are letting people off easy by allowing them to skip traditional Lenten services and the prayer and reflection that go with them.
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark said area Catholic churches are unlikely to be administering ashes to people in parking lots or at Starbucks.
"We offer ashes as part of Mass or a prayer service on Ash Wednesday, inside the churches or, in the case of our college chaplaincies, in a location on campus," said Jim Goodness, the Archdiocese of Newark spokesman.
Ash Wednesday is one of the most important holy days on the Christian calendar. It marks the first day of Lent, the season leading up to Easter that is traditionally observed with fasting and prayer.
Christians receive ashes, usually placed on the forehead in the symbol of the cross, with the reminder that "you are dust, and to dust you shall return." The ashes are often made from the remains of blessed palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday services.
Gunn, the pastor at St. Andrew's Church in New Providence, said he isn't concerned his church's "drive-thru ashes" event is making light of a holy day and allowing people to skip a traditional church service.
"I would rather see them find some way of observing Ash Wednesday instead of ignoring it altogether," Gunn said.
And no, you can't get a side of fries with your ashes at the drive-thru, he said. Instead, the priest will offer you some prayers and handouts about Lenten readings.
St. Andrew's Church's drive-thru will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 7:15 p.m. on Wednesday at 419 South Street in New Providence. Gunn said he expects to be administering ashes to people in cars from morning until night, warming up in a nearby church entrance when needed.
"We welcome everyone," Gunn said.Kelly Heyboer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KellyHeyboer. Find her at KellyHeyboerReporter on Facebook.