LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The volunteers dreaded Thursday evenings, when they went to the church to begin filling more than 350 trays for Sunday's Holy Communion. It took seven people up to 30 hours over three days to fill communion cups for the congregation at Southeast Christian Church, which has more than 15,000 members.
No more. Not since inventor Wilfred Greenlee joined the church and came up with a machine that cuts the preparation time to 11/2 hours.
The Greenlee Communion Dispensing Machine is made of a stainless steel bucket with 40 plastic tubes that run through a sheet of Plexiglas into the cups of a communion tray. Pushing a lever on the side allows just enough grape juice to fill each cup half full.
"No overflowing and no spills," said Mr. Greenlee, 78.
A retired engineer from the former International Harvester plant in Louisville, he holds patents for his work on a tractor transmission, a helicopter camera mount and the communion dispenser.
"I've invented things all my life," said Mr. Greenlee, who was raised on a farm in southeast Missouri. "I left school when I was 14, but I kept learning new things. I just taught myself.".
His stainless steel communion dispenser is about 25 inches high and holds 24 quarts. According to Mr. Greenlee's calculations, it can fill trays for 14,000 people in 90 minutes.
"It's cut our volunteers down to two or three instead of five to seven, and we only need one room to fill the trays," said David McConnell, communion volunteer at Southeast Christian. "We're working smarter, not harder."
Mr. Greenlee's product, which he has sold to churches in nine states, is one of several being marketed to so-called mega-churches, those with congregations that number several thousand.
Sarasota, Fla.-based ChurchPlaza Inc. caters exclusively to the multibillion-dollar church market. It offers such products as carpet that can double as a sports floor, movable partitions, theater seating and stackable chairs.
Experts say that almost 10 percent of the nearly 400,000 congregations in the United States average 1,000 or more members.
"The idea of a larger congregation is different for all of us in the beginning because people on average don't like to change," said Mr. McConnell, one of the communion volunteers. "Will's machine sat on the counter for weeks before anyone used it. Everyone was happy with the old way."
Mr. Greenlee's communion machine, which he makes by hand in a workshop at his house, sells for $2,995.
"I'm not going to make a huge profit on the invention," Mr. Greenlee said. "But as long as I satisfy the church, then that satisfies me."
Mr. Greenlee is also working on a machine that would put the cups in each communion tray before using the dispenser.
If Mr. Greenlee keeps inventing, Mr. McConnell says, the volunteers may not be needed anymore: "He's going to make our jobs obsolete."