52. Food Ministry: what do other Churches do?

As I introduced in Post #51, I set about to interview several churches to determine some common denominators of typical church food ministry, and if any of them “fit” the definition of the Christian practice of a shared meal. It was revealing to study the people involved in the food ministries, most easily categorized as lay/volunteer vs. professionalized. These factors regarding who is planning and implementing each program, who is serving and sharing meals, how the programming is funded, the number of person-hours required, and the ownership and sustainability of such endeavors are complex and all overlap, as the following diagram illustrates.

Screen Shot 2017-04-04 at 11.34.58 AM

As you can see, Christians engage in a multitude of food-related programs that are all motivated by a sincere desire to help others and their community. Let me emphasize that these are all good things born out of our love and compassion for our neighbors. Each type of food program has a common set of characteristics that include type of program, its ownership, delivery, general acceptance and sustainability within the congregation, and its basic organization, either as specifically Christian, a plurality of faiths, or a partnership with secular organizations in which Christianity is not the primary driving motive of the service.

According to the interviews, food-related ministries can be codified into one of four basic types: served (SV), shared (SH), a combination of served and shared (S&S), or other (O). The following table illustrates what I found.

                                                                                                                                   

     SH

       SV

    S&S

       O

Food Pantry, Food Truck, Freezer Ministry– food is distributed on site to take home           x    
Meal Ministry-a hot meal on site         x         x        x  
Food Delivery– a meal, sack lunch, or grocery bag is delivered               x    
Gift Cards for Food           x    
On Site Garden or Urban Farm or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)              x
On Site Farmers’ Market              x
After School and Summer Child Nutrition           x    
On Site Food-related Education/Job Training              x
Small Group Meals Ministry         x      

Many churches I visited had multiple food ministry activities going on. An in-church potluck or picnic, and meals amongst the small groups formed out of the membership (e.g. a small group or Bible study) were common. But, it was rare to find a church in which members and strangers actually sat down and shared a meal on a regular and frequent basis.       

Most of the programs I studied began with one person’s vision. As programming is wont to do, a visionary sees a need and has an idea, then seeks support, both in human and capital resources, and, before you know it, a program is born! After initial growth and success, sustainability is threatened if the original stakeholder fails to organize and nurture reliable and committed human resources (i.e., if there is insufficient buy-in and ownership amongst a majority of the church’s members), if the vision becomes stagnant, if the need declines, if the original visionary burns out or leaves, or if the financial means of the originating church body declines.

At this juncture, I observed two different paths most churches take. In the more successfully sustained programs, there was a natural evolution from volunteer visionary, to paid part-time oversight, to the creation of a full time paid director, a difference I labeled as lay-volunteer vs. professional-paid oversight. We have all witnessed the other path in which the visionary leaves or burns out, and the program is left withering on the vine without a champion.

In Post #53, I will begin to describe some of the churches I interviewed along the way. Stay tuned!

~ Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

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