St. Andrew's Episcopal Church



"A couple times a year, we just cancel church and spend that day doing service projects and meeting our neighbors. We even adopted an elementary school. They call us whenever they need something, and most of the time, we can help them. We've done all kinds of things for them."

— Jim Liberatore, St. Andrew's rector

Pumpkin Church Draws in Local Community

Like any church, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Pearland, Texas, wants to increase its membership. Its website features ambitious goals of growing the congregation and turning more visitors into members. 

But St. Andrew's rector Jim Liberatore isn't just interested in counting how many people come in on Sunday morning. He told TechSoup, "I'm more interested in measuring the people. We do touches."

What's a touch? "A touch means, Did we interact with you during the week? Not just on Sunday." The Reverend Liberatore spends a lot of time thinking about his church's role in the community, and it shows in the church's programs. Liberatore and his fellow church staff members emphasize simply spending time in the community, meeting their neighbors, and looking for ways in which the church can help out.

"A couple times a year, we just cancel church and spend that day doing service projects and meeting our neighbors. We even adopted an elementary school. They call us whenever they need something, and most of the time, we can help them. We've done all kinds of things for them."

"Oh Yeah, That's My Church!"

How Liberatore sees the church's role in the community really shows when he tells the story of how it got its nickname, the Pumpkin Church. "Fourteen years ago, we decided to have a pumpkin sale in October. That first year, we ordered a third of a tractor-trailer of them. A lot of families came out and had a good time, so we decided to do it again the next year. That year, we ordered two-thirds of a trailer. Fourteen years later, we have 20,000 people on the campus in the month of October, and we sell four trailers' worth of pumpkins. 

"When you go around town and talk to people about the church, some of them might not even know the name St. Andrew's. But then you mention the Pumpkin Church, and they'll say, 'Oh yeah, that's my church!'"

Does it bother Liberatore that people who don't even attend services think of St. Andrew's as "their church"? Not at all. "That's okay with us," he says. "We're glad they feel like they have a church home. We want everyone to know that they belong here."

Working with Donated Time and Donated Computers

And people do belong. Like most churches, St. Andrew's relies on a network of volunteers who do everything from teaching Sunday School to maintaining the church's website. 

There's even a volunteer-built Android and iPhone app that updates members with news and inspiration. "The person who does our website is a professional web designer," Liberatore says. "And the guy who runs our AV does AV for NASA. We have a good team." 

But how does St. Andrews deal with so much of its work being on volunteers' computers? Isn't there a danger of important files being lost? What happens when volunteers don't get their work done or just disappear?

According to the reverend, the secret is to save everything on a church computer at least once a week. "If you were helping me, I'd say to you, 'I need this document finished this week,' And then at the end of the week, you'd send it to me. If you quit, all I've got missing is that week's work. Everything else is already on a church computer." And those are all backed up nightly on Carbonite.

Another essential safeguard is that all volunteers protect their computers from viruses. "We don't let anybody work with us who doesn't have some kind of virus protection."

There are 12 computers in the church — most of them donated. On working with donated machines, Liberatore jokes, "People take the things that they're about to throw away, and then they drive over and give them to us instead. The donated computers we get are the dregs of the dregs." When a new computer comes in, the first thing Liberatore does is reformat it and install antivirus software.

Different versions of software have been an issue as well. Liberatore remembers one issue with volunteers putting together presentations on Microsoft PowerPoint. "They were using three different versions of PowerPoint. So when we put a volunteer's slides on the screen, they were completely re-edited. The words were all there, but the fonts and spacing were all wrong."

Thanks to the donated copies of Microsoft Office available through TechSoup, the volunteers were able to start working on current, compatible versions of PowerPoint.

Just like the annual pumpkin sale, the Pumpkin Church grows a little bit every year. And as it's grown, it's had to put more trust each year in its members to carry out its day-to-day work. Trusting volunteers can be scary at times, but with some simple guidelines and parameters in place, that trust can pay off in a big way.

This story originally appeared on the TechSoup Blog. It was written by Elliot Harmon, a writer and open web activist living in San Francisco.