Faith, food and fellowship still top the menu after 2,000 years

By Ronald E. Keener

First Baptist Orlando served 225,000 meals last year on a $1.5 million budget.

Church and food have a way of going together that hasn’t diminished in more than 2,000 years. Most larger and megachurches have food services that are seen as a part of ministry and outreach, staff have been hired to give professional supervision to food preparation and events in the life of the congregation where food is an indispensable part of fellowship, and for many churches the function breaks even or it might even be a small profit center.

“Jesus himself ministered at the wedding celebration, on the shores of Galilee where he and 12 volunteers and one boy fed several thousand on at least a couple of occasions,” says Marcus White, director of food service ministry at First Baptist Orlando.  “He witnessed around a table with sinners and with friends and family. Not the least of which was in the upper room for the Lord’s final supper.”

Over the centuries, White says food service in ministry was done pretty much the same way: pot lucks, soup kitchens, volunteers in home-style kitchens preparing meatloaf and fried chicken. “In the last 50 years and with the birth of megachurches in the last 20 years, churches became larger and food service ministries have as well,” says White. “In order to meet the needs of growing memberships and growing outreach, churches have been forced to keep up with the growth and the times.”

Large program
First Baptist Church of Orlando, FL, a congregation of 15,000 members, has one of the largest such ministries in the country. “Last year we served more than 225,000 meals from our kitchen with an annual budget of $1.5 million just for the food service ministry alone. We host a variety of events, including banquets, wedding receptions, conventions, funeral receptions, conferences, café service at our Café on the Rock – featuring Starbucks coffees – and cafeteria service for the 1,000 student Christian school, The First Academy, and our two college annexes for New Orleans Seminary and Baptist College of Florida,” says White.

His staff is the largest on the church campus with seven managers, 26 full and part-time staff, 60 on-call staff, and 150 volunteers who regularly serve at events.

The meals are served all over the 130-acre campus in different types of space; the majority of the meals are served in Faith Hall – a 13,000-square-foot kitchen and serving area, two large dining areas of 15,000-square-feet and 7,000-square-feet. There are 20 more rooms for breakout sessions and smaller meetings.

The kitchen is a full commercial kitchen with four walk-in coolers, eight reach-in coolers, six convection ovens, five fryers, an eight-feet grill and 12-feet smoker. White has a full china service for 1,200.

Everyone is trained
“All of our staff and volunteers are involved in preparations and serving at every level. Every staff and volunteer team member is required to have basic training in food safety and handling and each of managers are ServSafe certified,” White says.

“About 60 percent of our catering is outside groups that consist of other churches and parachurch organizations such as YMCA, FCA, Christian Chamber of Commerce, YMCA, Ligonier’s, National Exponential Conference and others. Other groups we host are community service organizations like Orange County Public Schools and RSVP, just to name a couple. We believe strongly that offering our services to our community will be one more path that a non-believer might find their way into our church. We have had many success stories along those lines,” White says.

Orlando offers a tremendous number of options for guests to choose to host their events but more and more “they are finding out about our exceptional guest service known as ‘ONE Guest Service’ – where we serve every guest as if we are serving Jesus himself according to Col 3:23 – as well as excellent food and facilities at a fraction of the cost of a local hotel or banquet hall,” White says. “Our desire is to be as excellent, if not better, as the food and service at the Gaylord Palms Orlando or Walt Disney World. If they can be excellent in pursuit of the almighty dollar, how much more excellent should we be as we represent our Almighty God.”

OK, so much for the mega events. Can he still provide a Maxwell House cup of coffee for a Sunday School class to study with?

“Yes, of course you can.” Will providing “third place” environments where Life Group members can grab their favorite Starbucks latte and open God’s word and “hang out” as they explore it over a scone or breakfast sandwich thereby drawing more people in?

“I believe the answer is a resounding yes,” he says.

Staple of church life
Food Service has long been a staple of church life at First Orlando, but it wasn’t until 1995 when Faith Hall was built that the ministry really became what it is today.

The most obvious way food service is an outreach ministry is that it provides a place for volunteers to serve using their time as a gift to the Lord. “In addition, our ministry seeks to use employment as evangelism in that we have led several staff to faith in Christ,” White says. “In addition to them, several vendors and other guests that have come along our path have also made their own professions of faith.

“Last year our entire management team went through an in-depth study on apologetics and evangelism. We also serve several hundred meals per month to local homeless and other ministries, where the gospel is served along with a meal. Our latest endeavors include a project called ‘Lovin’ From The Oven’ where we got hundreds of volunteers and freshly baked and delivered more than 20,000 cookies to our local hospitals’ nurses, first responders and teachers.”

White is one of several directors on staff, along with 24 pastors, who make up the church’s Ministry Leaders Team. Each week they meet to discuss the strategies and events that they will be serving in the church and community.

White has been at First Orlando eight years. Before that he was a full service restaurant manager in the Orlando area for many years, working for places like TGI Fridays, Damon’s the Place For Ribs, Bay Hill Country Club and Metro West Country Club.

Says White: “I believe that from now until Jesus comes back that wherever you see ministry happening, whether it is in a megachurch, small church, or home church, food will always play a center role in doing ministry together.”

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Starting a food service

This would be different for various areas, sizes and reasons. Some basic advice to begin with would include:
Hire a qualified and experienced Christian hospitality professional.

Build and plan for the future. Don’t build for what you need now; build for what you are going to need in 20 years.

If at all possible, separate your Food Service Ministry budget from your church’s main budget, either completely or in an auxiliary budget. This will create better accountability and manageability for the ministry’s leadership.

Provide support to the ministry leader by helping the other ministry leaders to understand that Food Service is a support to ministry like housekeeping and engineering, but it is also a ministry in and of itself.

Standardize your menus. Create a banquet menu for now and the future. Do not let a ministry leadership relationship dictate the pricing for events, or your ministry will fail financially. Create several cost savings options.

Design, plan and build based on the members’ and guests’ desires and needs, not the senior pastor’s or building committees
Hire a consultant when starting from scratch or going through a massive change.

Look for a balance of committed and trained staff and volunteers. Not all of one or the other works best.
— Marcus White

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Professional group offers conference and a degree program

The Global Association of Christian Hospitality Professionals (GACHP) was launched in June 2008 when our Executive Director Eddy Espinosa from Prestonwood Church in Plano, TX, myself and seven other food service ministry directors from around the country got together to dream about how we could begin encouraging other ministry leaders around the world.

All of us knew something special was going on in that meeting, and on that day a board was formed along with the birth of a new association. I accepted the call to lead the new organization as our first president. Eddy Espinosa had already been leading us in hosting an annual conference since 2002, and we truly felt the spirit telling us what the next step of obedience we were to take.

Our mission is to “Inspire and Equip Christian Hospitality Professionals to the highest level of excellence in their fields and ministries.” We seek to do this through our annual conferences with a tradeshow, dynamic keynote speakers, and experienced breakout teachers. Along with our conferences we have a membership site with numerous resources at www.GACHP.org. We have state and local chapters forming across the country, a monthly newsletter and other membership resources and benefits. Our next conference is June 23 to 25, 2011, at Mount Vernon Baptist Church, Richmond, VA.

In 2010 we formed an advisory council to help us ensure we are staying true to our calling and offering industry and professional advice. Members of that council include Tim Gregson, the president of a nationwide group purchasing company called FMS Purchasing, Dr. Tom Kinchen, the president of Baptist College of Florida, and several others from companies like Walt Disney World and Darden Restaurants.

Last year the GACHP was asked to come alongside the Baptist College of Florida and help design one of the nation’s first fully accredited Christian Hospitality Management Degree Programs in their new business college. That is scheduled to launch in fall 2011.

It is the strong desire of the GACHP to not only encourage and challenge existing hospitality ministry leaders, but also to raise the level of awareness and respect for the position in the eyes and hearts of church leadership across the board. It is important to us that they see this position not only a ministry supporter but ministry leader.

— Marcus White

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Churches with key food programs

Large and megachurches:
•    Prestonwood – Dallas, TX
•    First Baptist Houston – Houston, TX
•    Christ’s Church of the Valley – Peoria, AZ
•    Willow Creek – South Barrington, IL
•    Calvary Chapel – Fort Lauderdale, FL
•    Second Baptist Church of Houston – Houston, TX
•    Grace Church – Eden Prairie, MN

Mid-size churches:
•    Whitesburg Baptist Church – Huntsville, AL
•    Sarasota Baptist Church – Sarasota, FL
•    Savannah Christian Church – Savannah, GA
•    Mount Vernon Baptist Church – Richmond, VA
•    First Baptist Church Arlington – Arlington, TX

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