By Eddie Pipkin
It’s pumpkin patch season for lots of churches! Ah, those acres of orange glory, picked over by delirious kids (who insist on only the plumpest pumpkins) and their perfect-photo-seeking parents (who keep asking, “Is this pumpkin really THIS much?). I worked my first church pumpkin patch in 1987 and have volunteered at a couple dozen others in the intervening years. Since all patches are, in many ways, indistinguishable, and yet unique in distinct ways to their contexts, they turn out to be a great tool for analyzing the different approaches local churches take to everything from community engagement to volunteer recruitment. They can provide evidence for church health and insights into churchwide enthusiasm and attitudes. They can be inspiration or cautionary tale. In short, they are a useful object lesson in ministry possibilities.
For all you Methodist readers out there, take pride in knowing that the symbiotic link between pumpkins and local Methodist churches is an interesting tale that stretches back half a century. The world has changed much in the intervening decades, but the pumpkin patch has a timeless quality that is part of its charm. As an event, it’s a template for ministry attitudes and approaches.
Different approaches to community engagement
Some churches treat the pumpkin patch solely as a fundraiser, a way to generate funds for ministry. Granted the pumpkin patch venue itself is a cute community resource as a place to take photos and let kids wander through a charming agricultural setting. But beyond that, the patch functions solely as a retail outlet. Even then, churches run the gamut as to how much information they are supplying as to where and how the pumpkin revenues will be utilized by the local church:
- Some churches don’t specify at all how the money will be used.
- Some specify which ministries the funds will support (most often youth or children’s ministries, sometimes dedicated to resourcing a one-time event, such as a youth summer mission trip).
- Some specify special efforts the funds will support (a special outreach effort or an ongoing effort of the local church, such as a food pantry).
Even if your church is taking the fundraising-for-our-ministry approach, it’s a great idea to communicate the value and purpose of that ministry through displayers, flyers, and videos. This gives people the chance to enthusiastically support a cause that’s important to you, and it allows them to get to know you and your ministry better.
Designating the funds raised in support of community partners is a different approach that can build community rapport, support vital community-led initiatives, and build trust with the community:
- Some churches designate funds raised to be spent on a special community-coordinated initiative (as opposed to something spearheaded by the church itself), like a local park beautification effort or a project to install bus stop benches, etc.
- Some churches designate funds to be given to a designated community group or split among multiple community groups (from the local homeless shelter to anti-poverty groups, a local feeding program, after-school program, counseling services, or LGBTQ youth support services, etc.).
- Even if it is a church-controlled initiative/program, the pumpkin patch can be designated as a fund raiser for community-facing initiatives, as opposed to “internal” ministries. The difference here would be funds raised to support scholarships to the church daycare or a social justice initiative or beautification project at a nearby school or a tutoring program. These would be very different strategies than a fund raiser for, for instance, a church campus beautification project.
Community partnerships can also move well beyond designating where the resulting pumpkin sales funds will go. There are numerous opportunities to enter into full partnerships with community organizations:
- Churches can name community organizations as co-sponsors. This means moving beyond naming the community organization as a beneficiary of the pumpkin sales and entering a full partnership with shared responsibilities for marketing and manning the patch. In this scenario the church folk and the community organization work directly with each other. This approach can build strong and lasting relationships.
- Churches can offer the pumpkin patch opportunity exclusively to community partners to organize and administer. In this scenario the church hosts the pumpkin patch on its campus, but the bulk of the work is handled by the community organization, and the community organization retains the bulk (or all) of the proceeds. This is an inventive solution for churches that are struggling to recruit volunteers for such projects.
- Churches can involve worthy community partners to distribute information. You’re not limited to one community partner either! You can have a whole coalition of partners working together, and the more partners that are involved with a pumpkin patch, the more groups you have distributing information about the patch and about your church.
- Churches can extend hospitality by inviting in community groups to feature their own services at the patch. Combine a pumpkin patch evening with a blood drive, a pet adoption event, a community health screening, a food drive, etc. You could have a different community partner featured every night!
- Churches can partner with local businesses. You could have a featured local business night in which the business partners offered samples, services, or sold food. Also, businesses can actually help sponsor the event itself. They can offer discount coupons, sponsor or provide entertainment, bounce houses, etc.
- Churches can partner with local arts groups. What if your pumpkin patch also provides a venue for local artists, performers, or musicians? You can host a mini-arts-fest. You can host a “paint the pumpkin contest” for teams, professional artists, or graffiti artists, and add a friendly family competition. You can host a photo contest with prizes for best photos taken at your patch. You can host musicians or bands.
- Churches can partner with schools or even other churches! If your church seems too under-resourced to do the work of hosting a pumpkin patch, consider partnering with one or more other churches. That’s a radical idea, but again, one that can build long and lasting working relationships. You can offer your campus as a pumpkin patch location for the local school, working with their PTA.
Many of these partnership options lead to a solution to the number one problem that local churches face when they are considering whether to host a pumpkin patch. Churches who host patches inevitably struggle to attract sufficient volunteers to support the event over the weeks required to staff them. Note that many of the community partnerships mentioned above not only offer relief (and new excitement) on the volunteer recruitment front, they do it in a way that builds the kind of community partnerships we should be building anyway.
Even if a local church chooses not to go that route, there can be missed opportunities for volunteer recruitment with the local church itself.
- Make it a churchwide initiative, not just the provenance of one sub-group.
- Invite the community to help out. Believe it or not, this can be a fun way to get community members to come try something new at your church. From retirees to families with kids, if you make it easy to get involved and market it with a smile, people will happily pull a shift helping out at a pumpkin patch (especially if you have a clearly designated community facing cause you are supporting).
Think about events your local church has hosted at some time in the past but gave up on because became it felt impossible to recruit volunteers or sustain enthusiasm. This condition results, not because the event itself has ceased to be fun or the community was disinterested, but because in the pattern of local churches doing things the same way every year, including having the same core people designated to do all the work. Those core people inevitably burn out, and the ideas for event execution become stale.
- Combine the patch with other things.
- Use the patch as a way to get the word out and share stories. By all means, please, if you host a pumpkin patch or any other community event on your campus, have excellent resources there which visitors can pick up to learn more about your church and its ministries. But moving beyond the standard flyer or info sheet, look for creative ways to share real stories of who you are and the impact of your ministries.
- Use the patch as an invitation to connect people with help (not just recruit them for our programs). Understand the difference between “Thanks for buying a pumpkin, now come to our worship service on Sunday” and “We’re so glad you came by, tell us more about you and your family – how we can be of service to you?” Make sure some of your key leadership and your best communicators and most outgoing ambassadors are regularly stopping by the patch during peak hours – not to do the retail pumpkin work, but to connect and conversate.
Even the drudgery of cleanup after October 31st can become something fun with the right attitude. I helped run a pre-youth group for 4th and 5th graders that hosted a highly popular Pumpkinpalooza event every year, in which we built a whole evening around a pumpkin-themed devotion – oh, and we let those kids smash leftover pumpkins in a dozen creative ways, including launching them from a trebuchet – then we cleaned up the whole mess together as a team. It was one of their favorite nights of the year!
Of course, even if your church never hosts a pumpkin patch, there are plenty of useful suggestions in this blog that can be applied to virtually any event you hold on your campus – or even more excitingly, how about off your campus at another community location? All of these ideas we’ve been talking about can be applied to fall festivals, Christmas concerts and pageants, Easter egg hunts, 5K’s, community picnics and fireworks displays, even rummage sales.
The point is pivoting away from an insular event to an event that incorporates the surrounding neighborhoods, and in doing so, inviting a fresh wave of energy, creativity, and people forging valuable connections.
If we’re all about moving beyond our own doors and earnestly inviting and engaging the community, whatever we do – every event, every program, every initiative – should feature a component of community engagement. It should be one of the prominent questions we pose to ourselves in the formative stage for any idea on which we move forward.
Yes, doing it this way is more work.
I’m not pretending it isn’t more complicated, more time-consuming, more labor-intensive. But it’s exactly the right kind of work. And in the end, having forged new partnerships and basked in the glow of new energy and engagement, it won’t be as tiring as doing things the old way and feeling burned out at the end by the same-old-run-of-the-mill-nothing-changes same old same old.
GROUP EXERCISE FOR LEADERSHIP AND STAFF
What events have you hosted in bygone years that have gone the way of the dinosaurs? What are the reasons your church moved on from them? Would making any of the adjustments noted in the blog have potentially changed their trajectory?
What are some examples of events that you are hosting now or in the near future that might benefit from some of the community engagement suggestions made in this blog? Which specific examples might apply in your context?
Pick one upcoming or still-being-brainstormed event and fully workshop, imagining the possibilities for applying each of the suggestions made in this blog. Don’t get too caught up in practicality in this free-form exercise. Let your imagination run wild. Later, if the exercise leads in useful directions, you can edit back to plausible ideas.