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The potluck supper gives way to sophisticated food service ministries

Chefs and directors gather at Prestonwood Church for a conference that teaches ministry as much as it does cooking.

by Ronald E. Keener

The church potluck supper, still a staple in most congregations, is cooking up something bigger in larger churches today. Food service is becoming a department in its own right in not only bringing people together in fellowship, but as a support ministry and outreach tool with other ministries of the congregation.

Furthermore, more congregants see food preparation as a place to serve in the church, in an area where they have honed those cooking skills in the family over the years. In short, food has become ministry.

“The heart of good service is a ministry that touches lives and reaches people through the very practical everyday thing like food,” says Eddy Espinosa, food services director at Prestonwood Baptist Church, Plano, TX.

As more churches grow to a mega level, says Espinosa, and as churches offer more ministry programs on campus, food is becoming more central to the life of the church, he says. In a society where people are seemingly isolated, “it’s not a matter that food reaches people for Christ but that food is continuing to be something that keeps them at the church,” he says.

Conference in June

Since 2002 Espinosa has hosted the Food Service Ministry Conference of food service directors, first at his former church First Baptist Church of Orlando, and since 2006 at Prestonwood. (This year’s event is June 26-28; go to prestonwood.org/foodserviceministry.)

At the 26,000-member Prestonwood church, food certainly holds people on campus. On any given Sunday they choose selections from six food stations at the Main Street Café, where there’s a salad bar with 18 different items and two home made soups, a  Starbucks station, a wood burning pizza oven, a “world station” featuring a different cuisine from a different country each week.

There’s a home cooking station featuring rotisserie chicken as well as a second meat and vegetables from which to choose. Finally there’s the Sizzle Station for the all-American hamburgers and fries, where “a lot of teenagers hit that line,” he says.

But that’s not all. Outside the Café there’s a brunch offered on Sundays in the commons area that, he says, “is second to none” — all for the price of $10.95, where such a spread would be $40 at restaurants in the area. “We want to keep it affordable to our folks,” he says. Many of the Bible fellowship classes of 30 and 40 people come after their meetings, continuing to hang out together. There are four different “action stations” where chefs are carving roast beef and making pasta to order, two more chefs making omelets, while another serves up waffles and French toast. Understandably, Espinosa says, “our membership loves it.”

One of the pastors remarks that “we’re giving people permission to stay at church. It’s not that the service is over and they have to leave; it’s okay to hang out, enjoy a meal, and build relationships.”

Espinosa says, “I would assume that most folks are on the run all week long and so when they’re at church they’re having an opportunity not only to get inspired, trained and discipled, but they’re also having an opportunity to chill out, enjoy a meal, a cup of coffee, and catch up with someone they haven’t seen all week.

“So food service is vital to the community of the church. I’m convinced of that,” he says.

Food is an area of service

Espinosa was on staff for many years at hotels and country clubs, and also with corporate America and chain restaurants. But he came to the Lord at age 28, surrendered his life to Him, he says, and wanted to give his life in service, not realizing at first that he could serve the church in his food service profession. “I had no idea that churches even had food,” he says.

The church he and his wife were attending at the time asked him to “put together some budgets and numbers about how to renovate their kitchen” and determine what was required to make a fledging food service into a food ministry.

That church of 3,000 had mostly a group of volunteers doing potlucks and facilitating cake and punch for receptions. But they wanted a bonafide food service department.

“I felt like it was a wonderful opportunity to volunteer and give back to my church, never thinking that the position was for me,” Espinosa says. Working in a high-end restaurant at the time, Espinosa’s first words were, “I put together a realistic budget — you can’t afford me.” Thought and prayer over the next 30 days brought Espinosa to make the decision to take the position — and he saw his salary drop markedly.

“This idea that God would supply all your needs became very real to me,” he says, having a wife and two young daughters and a mortgage payment. “I’m a work in progress but in the area of finances it’s been tried and true. God has shown Himself to be faithful to us. It’s been a real blessing for us in strengthening our faith about who the God is that we serve.”

He says that the church’s food ministry grew six-fold in six years. Soon he began to feel he had something to share with other churches, and thus was born the food service conference that is an intensive, upper level educational experience open to all sized churches and people of differing levels of experience.

More than just cooking

The breakout sessions are as much about being a better leader, a more prepared business manager, and a better Christian as it is about better cooking. “It’s about understanding that as a director you’re called by God to ministry as any other director or leader of the church,” he says. People leave the conference feeling that “their soul has been filled,” connecting with others who understand the challenges they face back home.

Espinosa stresses the ministry aspect of food. “We are using food as a vehicle to bring people together for fellowship. We have a lot of folks who may not for whatever reason step into a church because of preconceived ideas they have, but would not feel threatened to say, ‘Let’s go grab a bite over at Main Street Café.’” In doing so, he says, they see Christians who love the Lord, they get a good meal, and they meet new friends.

Before long, Espinosa says, “God is doing something in their heart and if their experience is positive, they’ll be thinking of our church.”

Espinosa has about 100 part-time, full-time, and per diem staff members working with the Main Street Café, open seven days a week, a private Christian school of 1,500 students, and a catering division doing some 1,500 events a year on the campus.

With two satellite kitchens for the school, his operation serves some 400,000 meals a year on a budget of $2 million, which almost covers the cost of the department. Outside groups like high schools may use the facilities, and the church can accommodate a sit-down dinner of nearly 1,500.

Watching the budget

Espinosa took business administration in college, but there’s still the challenge of watching payroll, one of his
largest expenses, and being a good steward of the budget he has. There’s a large management component too, with upwards of 15 large and small food service events going on at the same time on a Sunday — they’re organizing, coordinating, providing the linens, getting things done on time. In any given week his department is purchasing $25,000 of raw food products. When the delivery truck returns to the church it may carry some 400 cases that go into the coolers.

There’s even an events manager and if the event has a theme, the staff may purchase or rent materials and build a set around the theme of the function.

For churches looking at moving from punch and cookies to a fuller food service ministry, Espinosa suggests the director go to the different program areas and ask how food service can better partner with them. “A lot of food service directors are waiting for others to initiate to them what they need to do,” he says. Don’t let the position outgrow you, he counsels.

Espinosa says there are 30 restaurants between where the church is on Midway Road and the tollway, one mile away. But he doesn’t see them as competitive with the church.

What’s clear, however, is that people are very sophisticated in what they seek in food and meals. “The days of punch and cookies are over, because church members are more knowledgeable about food. The average family eats 3.5 times a week out of the home where 20 years ago you came to your first church midweek supper and they were just glad to get a meal,” he says.

“Today your average member is better educated, cuisines are very much mainline, and people have come to expect more in quality and in service.”

Espinosa has his own food ministry services consulting firm that helps churches with systems and controls, kitchen design and renovations.

Jesus used food in a practical way to meet people’s needs, Espinosa says, while reaching them in a spiritual way too. “Food service is a vital bonafide ministry of the church,” he says. While Prestonwood has seen the contribution of what Espinosa and his staff makes to ministry, he’s still concerned that the leadership of other churches “may not see food services as a ministry that it really is.” Sharing that ministry vision with others is a task that Eddy Espinosa gladly takes on.

Sampling of chefs and directors

  • First Baptist Church, Orlando, FL  |  Marcus White, food service director
  • Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, IL  |  Eric Emling, director of Harvest
  • Calvary Chapel, Ft. Lauderdale, FL |  William Talbert, chef Stephanie Butts, executive sous chef
  • First Baptist Church, Houston, TX  |  Paul Soska, culinary director
  • Christ’s Church of the Valley, Peoria, AZ  |  Pat Julian, director of food service  |   Jack Webb, executive chef

Food service Association

The National Association of Church Food Service (NACFS) was founded to promote the advancement of the science of church food service and to provide opportunities for members to meet and exchange ideas in both technology and ministry. The nearly 200 members represent churches of different sizes and denominations from all over the United States. NACFS members share the belief that food service is a ministry of the church that touches the congregation in a way that no other department can. They also share a commitment to themselves and to the church they serve to provide the opportunity for fellowship in a loving atmosphere.

A highlight of each year for NACFS members is the annual conference in July.  Interesting classes and numerous opportunities for informal sharing of ideas and techniques make the conference a valuable experience. For information on National Association of Church Food Service membership contact Barbara Wilson, membership chair, at (361) 888-8228. [Nacfs.org]   — Linda Crews, president

Recharge: Power lunches fill stomachs and spirits

There’s a power corridor in Dallas that draws the business community and church members weekly and monthly.

That power corridor takes the form of a “Power Lunch” at First Baptist Church of Dallas, and 20 miles east, at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano. It is coincidental that both churches use the same name for the luncheons.

The luncheon began at First Baptist in February and the first meeting drew more than 600 people to their downtown location. Senior Pastor Robert Jeffress, new to the church, speaks on the first Tuesday of each month in the Criswell Center. His theme in coming months is “The Solomon Secrets: 10 Keys to Success from Proverbs.”

The Power Lunch at Prestonwood is weekly and led by teaching pastor David McKinley. The church attracts some 400 people from the business community.

The meal at Prestonwood is $7.00 and at First Baptist $8.00.

At both churches the approach is to deliver messages relevant to the business community and personal living, keeping the some 90-minute events punctual and organized, and encouraging first-time guests who have a chance of being introduced to the church through the luncheon ministry.

Both lunch events recognize that the business community needs to be fed both physically and spiritually, while looking for an uplifting break from a sometimes stress-filled work day.  — Ron Keener

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