September 2017

Rummage Ministry

When Christ Church, Winnetka, gears up for one of its twice-yearly rummage sales, it’s all hands on deck. It takes a coordinator and the help of 400-plus volunteers, but as a result of their work, the church raises more than $300,000 every year for local charities.

We’re not talking trash here. This is a serious—but oh-so-fun—ministry.

“It’s one of the biggest rummage sales in the country,” says Charlotte McGee, who for 10 years has served as rummage sale coordinator for the parish which is just steps away from Lake Michigan in one of Chicago’s North Shore suburbs.

Rummage as outreach

“Rummage is our biggest outreach, and it is just up my alley,” says McGee, who has given herself the title of Queen of Rummage and wears a tiara on sales days. She moved to Winnetka from Boston 23 years ago and was the volunteer head of the rummage sales’ boys department for 13 years before being hired as a part-time coordinator, the only paid position associated with the ministry. “I thought I’d work in the boys department so I could clothe my two boys,” McGee says. “My motto in life is never pay retail. Plus, I’m super green, and this keeps all these perfectly good items out of the landfill.”

With the first sale dating back to 1925, rummage sales are the oldest and largest mission outreach at Christ Church, which collects donations year-round. The sales—a smaller one on a Saturday in June and the larger one on a Thursday in October—attract more than 4,000 customers from the greater Chicago area, as well as nearby states and Canada.

Why a Thursday?

“When the rummage sale first started, Thursday was the maids’ day off,” McGee says. “When I first became coordinator we thought about switching it to a Saturday because people work full-time, but with the way that families operate, with kids signed up for 25 different things on weekends, we would not be able to staff it on a Saturday.”

Plus, McGee says, the busiest time at the sale is between 7 and 8 am, so people can come shop before they go to work.

The Saturday summer sale started about 30 years ago.

“The idea was to have a mini-sale to clear out storage space and move out the shorts and t-shirts and swimsuits. This year we made $64,000. That’s hardly a mini-sale, but it is compared to our fall sale.”

The fall rummage sale has 30 different departments that fill three buildings and five outdoor tents. Shoppers can find everything from clothes to furniture, stereos, jewelry and sterling silver. People often line up the night before to be first for early bargains.

The departments are run by 73 chairs who set prices and determine displays. About a third of the chairs and a third of the volunteers come from the community.

Making the most of space

Why are the rummage sales at Christ Church, Winnetka so big and successful? Lots of factors come into play—years of experience, organization, parish buy-in, ATM on-site—but the not-so-secret secret is storage space.

“We own another building across the parking lot, and we use most of the main floor and all of the basement for collecting and storing,” McGee says. “We collect year round. Most places can only collect for two weeks. The only thing we store off-site is furniture. We rent a truck, I hire two guys and we pick up once a month. It goes right to a storage unit.”

At sale time, she says, “Basically, things just stop for 10 days. There’s an event, we call it flyover, which means we have all generations from the parish gather on a Saturday and things fly over the parking lot from the storage space to the parish house. It’s a day when everybody in the parish participates.”

5 Tips on running a successful rummage sale

  1. Don’t accept everything that’s donated. “Even if it is a small rummage sale, you have to be savvy about what you accept,” McGee says. “We’ve really learned what sells and what doesn’t. We presort what we receive. About 40 percent goes to the dumpster or Salvation Army or Goodwill, or a cloth recycling place. I put as little in my dumpster as we can. But you have to know what to take and what not to take.”
    Click here for a complete list of items Christ Church doesn’t accept.
  2. Share information with other rummage sales. Christ Church is a member of the North Shore Chicago Rummage consortium, a group of about 20 different churches that share information and produce a list of rummage sales in the area.
    McGee says there is no feeling of competition among the church rummage sales.
    What we found is that people who like rummage sales, like all rummage sales. Since being part of the consortium we’ve increased our customer base. They’re savvy about online advertising, and you can advertise on their website for free.”
  3. Reward your volunteers. At Christ Church, if you work for 10 hours for the rummage sale you can attend a presale. Prices are 25 percent more, but you get first dibs on merchandise.
    “The presale agreement is a real enticement for volunteers,” McGee says. “And my chairs get an hour and a half before qualified volunteers when it is just other chairs shopping. That’s great incentive to be chairs. Furniture and the French room sections are the most popular.”
  4. Don’t expect to always have your best year ever. “There are two factors you cannot control, and that’s the weather and the quality of your donations. I start watching my weather app about two weeks before the sale because if it rains, it really affects the bottom line.”
    That being said, McGee does believe “there’s a separate god just for rummage because since I’ve been doing it, it has only rained once.”
  5. Success is about more than money. “My definition of a successful rummage sale is happy volunteers and happy customers, and both of them coming back next year. I don’t want it to be only about making money. And we give away a lot of stuff during the year. Because we collect year-round we are able to give furniture and items to people in need.”

For more information about Christ Church’s rummage sales, go to

Lu Stanton León is an associate at Canticle Communications and has worked more than 30 years as an editor, writer and media relations consultant for a variety of publications and businesses, including public affairs firms, business consultants, newspapers, academic institutions, religious organizations and other nonprofits.


This article is part of the September 2017 Vestry Papers issue on Stewardship