Churches serve up fun with pumpkin patches
By Lindsay Peyton
A number of churches across the Texas Annual Conference carve out room on their fall calendars – and space on their campuses – for pumpkin patches. Members volunteer to unload the gourds and serve as cashiers for these fundraisers that benefit both congregations and the community. Pastors find that, among the vines, there are opportunities for fellowship, outreach and a whole lot of fall fun.
Meet your neighbors in the pumpkin patch at Huntsville FUMC
The front lawn of First United Methodist Church, Huntsville is filled to the brim with pumpkins. There’s even a large cross formed on the walkway created from the smallest gourds.
Senior Pastor Rev. Doug Wintermute explained that the sea of orange outside is courtesy of Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers, or Pumpkins USA. The organization started in 1974 when Richard and Janice Hamby grew 3 acres of pumpkins in a partnership with Centenary United Methodist Church. The farmers agreed to let the church sell the pumpkins and then share the proceeds.
Ever since, the crop has expanded, as have the number of partnering churches. Today, there are now more than 1,000 organizations participating, including different denominations, scouts, schools and other groups.
After Hurricane Hugo, the farming operation moved to Farmington, New Mexico in cooperation with the Navajo Nation. More than 700 Native Americans are employed during harvest months. The full-time staff is also entirely Native American.
Joining with the Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers allows the church to support sustainable employment for indigenous people who live on the Navajo Indian Reservation. Pumpkins range from 50 cents to $40, and the church keeps a percentage of the proceeds for youth and children’s ministries.
Wintermute said that shopping for soon-to-be jack-o-lanterns is only part of the attraction. Many families stop by for a photo opp in the Scarecrow Village or out in the patch.
“We’re located on the northwest corner of the Square in downtown Huntsville,” Wintermute said. “It’s outreach, and it’s an opportunity to get people on campus who wouldn’t normally come.”
He explained that one-on-one interaction and relationship-building between neighbors comes naturally in the pumpkin patch. “Christianity is all about being in relationship,” he said. “We need to interact with others and live out the Gospel beyond using words.”
Wintermute added that when the pumpkins are out on the lawn, inviting all to come out and enjoy the fall festivities, it helps overcome the notion that churches are walled-off from the community.
“We want to be a part of the community and a force for a positive impact,” he said. “And that’s what Jesus called us to do.”
Passionate laity at Lanes Chapel United Methodist Church
The pumpkin patch at Lanes Chapel United Methodist Church has been a fixture in the Tyler community for the past decade. Senior Pastor Jeff Gage explained that members from Oklahoma asked to start the tradition, after seeing its success at their former congregation.
“Can we give it a try?” they asked. And Gage, who is a major believer in letting lay people take charge of ministry, gave them the green light.
The first couple of years, the church would get a half a load of pumpkins in the beginning of October, then a quarter load to finish the season. Last year, two 18-wheeler loads arrived the last Saturday in September, two more in mid-October and then a half load at the end of the month.
The church’s best year was in 2020 – with nearly $100,000 in pumpkin sales. Gage explained that the church receives a percentage of the sum, which funds mission and ministry.
Proceeds go to vacation Bible school and sending children to church camp, as well as local organizations including Habitat for Humanity of Smith County, Bethesda Health Clinic and Samaritan Counseling Center of East Texas. The church also contributes to its weekly food pantry and benevolence fund.
“We don’t sell these pumpkins to pay salaries or light bills,” he said. “We just give the money away for a number of things.”
The patch offers plenty of photo opps and games, including ring toss, cornhole and a giant tic-tac-toe. The Pumpkin Patch Express is a main attraction, offering miniature train rides. “We have a bell and a speaker system to call, ‘All aboard,’” Gage said. “It’s amazing. Your kids can just ride, and it’s all free.”
Sometimes, parents and grandparents will hop on too, the pastor added. The patch has plenty of fun for the whole family. “You can buy a pumpkin, but you don’t have to,” he said with a laugh.
The whole experience, Gage added, shows the power of a passionate laity. “It was laity who first came to me, laity who became volunteers,” he said. “And it gets bigger and better every year.”
Fun and fellowship at Palestine Grace UMC
Emily Larsen, Pastor of Christian Community at Palestine Grace UMC, suggested a pumpkin patch when the congregation was looking for a new fundraising opportunity five years ago. She had previously served at Moody UMC in Galveston, which hosts a successful patch each year.
“The thing I love about a pumpkin patch is that it gives a church a way to invite the community into its space that is new and different,” Larsen said.
Now, Palestine Grace UMC is celebrating its fourth annual pumpkin patch, and the event is already a community favorite. Larsen said families return year after year to take photos of their children among the gourds.
The patch is also the setting for the church’s Food Truck Festival on Oct. 8, and Fall Festival on Oct. 31. The Humane Society also partners with the patch on Oct. 15 for Puppies and Pumpkins. “There will be pet treats, games and costumes – and hopefully a lot of pet adoptions,” Larsen said.
More than 2,000 school children come each year for storytime field trips among the pumpkins. “Each leaves with a free book,” Larsen said. “We get to promote literacy through the pumpkin patch.”
Palestine Grace also hosted a National Night Out Block Party for first responders in the patch on Oct. 4. Children enjoyed inflatables, and the grill was fired up for neighbors.
“There’s something different every day,” Larsen said. “But there’s always something fun to do and someone new to invite into our pumpkin patch.”
She added that six generations of church members volunteer in the patch each year – setting it up, reading stories and selling pumpkins. “There are so many ways for our church to serve and get involved,” she said. “It really checks a lot of boxes. It’s fellowship; it’s outreach. It’s service, and it’s building community.”