In Part 1 of Food as a Ministry, I shared: 1) why ministering to our brothers and sisters in Christ with food is a great way to use our passion and gifts to cook tasty food, 2) things that hinder us from doing this type of ministry, and 3) practical reasons why you should start or join a meal ministry in your local body (or homeschool group or other group).
In Part 2 (this post), I’m going to discuss the steps to getting a food ministry up and going, as well as some funny, but realistic, scenarios that can occur when there’s no one like you to take the lead. I’ll also share some of the ins and outs of communicating with the families in need as well as your team to keep things running smoothly.
When we came to our current church when my husband was hired as the worship pastor, one of my first questions was, “Does someone deliver meals to people after an illness, birth, death, move, or other time of need?” Our pastor candidly replied, “I’ll be honest with ya. We don’t have anyone doing that right now. But we really need someone. You interested?”
My response? YES!
Two Easy Steps to Getting Started
Step #1: The first step to starting a meal ministry in your church (or with your friends, homeschool group, or other group) is to recognize the need and have a genuine desire to meet it. Our church had all sorts of people taking care of various things. We already had someone who coordinated life groups and someone who organized gatherings for the senior adults, youth, and ladies. We had someone who took care of mowing the church grass, someone who cleaned the building, ladies who took care of babies and toddlers.
But we didn’t have someone who was keeping an eye and ear open to meet the needs of the body outside the building — except our small staff, who make hospital and home visits, do funerals and weddings, and regularly counsel individuals and couples. If you find your local body of believers in a similar situation, take notice and step up! It could be that God has chosen you and equipped you to start meeting those needs. In my case and with my passion for food, it was pretty logical that I could figure out a way to feed people during hard times or times of need.
Step #2: Seek out like-minded people. In any church body, there are always ladies (and a few gentlemen) who share your passion for cooking. It’s true, they may not be into Traditional or Paleo cooking, and they may think that GAPS are those things between your teeth or that WAPF is the sound your baby makes when he pukes on you, but what matters here is that they love sharing their home-cookin’ with others. Many churches have that one lady who is famous for her pies or another who can draw a crowd with her chicken spaghetti. Find and enlist these people for the cause!
Ask around, send out a church-wide e-mail or newsletter, advertise in the bulletin, or talk with your Sunday school class or small group. Enlist a few to help you get started.
Here’s where things might get harder. Recognizing the need is the first and foremost step. Finding people who recognize it, too — and are willing to help — can be a bit of a challenge. Now we’re going to get into the more “technical” aspect of making a successful meal ministry work. These next steps will cover how to communicate with families in need to discuss likes, dislikes, possible allergies, dates and times to deliver food, and more, communicating with your team to keep it running smoothly, and what to do if someone forgets to take a meal.
Be A Leader
Here’s what I know to be true. If your church or group is different, you are probably the exception and not the rule. If one person isn’t organizing something like this, it’s going to get messy, and I’m not talking green-peas-smeared-all-over-the-walls messy. I’m talking people messy, which is the worst kind of messy there is.
If you know that you know that God is asking you to start an organized something to get meals to people in need and you have people to help but no one else is interested in the organizational part of it, then Susie, take that bull by the horns and lead!
There are a lot more followers in this world than there are leaders. That’s not to insult anyone, it’s just a fact. If you can show strong leadership and commitment, no matter the cause, people will get behind you and do whatever needs to be done. It’s just that so few people are willing to step up and lead.
If you have 10 true servants who desire to meet people’s food needs but no one to tell them who’s in need, where they live, and that their kid is allergic to peanuts, soy, and tomatoes, those needs are going to go unmet.
Or, the opposite might happen. Because no one made a schedule of dates and times for meals to be dropped off and communicated it to the group, Mrs. Jones, who’s just had twins and has her hands quite full, is going to have four hot meals dropped off on the same night and have no clue what she’s supposed to do with all that hot food and leftovers.
Or you have that awkward moment when Ethel shows up with her famous lasagna and Edna shows up with her famous chicken pot pie, and they give each other the stink eye on their way up Mrs. Jones’ porch steps because they know that one of their meals won’t be eaten fresh and will instead be tomorrow’s (or the day after’s) leftovers.
If someone had just taken the time to be the organizer, Mrs. Jones could have instead had four hot meals dropped off with a one-day break between each meal, giving her time to use up the leftovers. And Ethel and Edna can play Bridge next week without wondering whose famous dish was leftovers.
I kid. Sort of. 😉
One Word: Communication
Let’s talk about ways to avoid situations like our hypothetical mess with Mrs. Jones up there. Communication is key. The organizer of the ministry MUST communicate with the people receiving meals and the team cooking those meals. Here’s how the process works for our body:
1. Need Revealed. The church secretary calls or e-mails me to let me know of a need. This can be anything: a death in a family, a home-bound elderly person, someone who’s just had surgery or has been hospitalized, birth of a new baby, a move, or even a person who’s going to be dealing with an illness on a long-term basis from home.
2. Contact the One in Need. I contact the person or family who is in need and ask them some basic questions such as: when they’ll be getting out of the hospital (if they’re not home already), their address, and best days and times to drop food off. I go a step further and give them the option of having their meals delivered hot and ready to eat or delivered frozen to be re-heated at their convenience. Having that option is something people really appreciate, and believe it or not, almost all of the people to whom we’ve delivered meals choose the frozen and re-heat later option!
3. Document their Choices. While speaking with the person in need, I make notes of their preferences. I have a simple form that prompts me to collect this info: favorite foods, foods they don’t like, if they want their meals hot and ready to eat or frozen, and if there are any known food allergies. I also talk with them to come up with the ideal number of meals that would be helpful for their situation.
4. Contact Helpers and Begin Schedule. I get out my list of helpers and start calling, texting, and/or e-mailing them to begin the process of getting meals scheduled. I rotate through this list so that the same people aren’t being asked to cook and deliver food more than others. Even I don’t actually prepare a meal and deliver it for each and every need that comes my way. If someone is unable to make a meal at that time, I make a note of it, so that I can remember to ask them the next time. I make sure the helpers know of the family’s likes/dislikes, favorite foods, and allergies so they can accommodate these preferences.
5. Follow Up and Finalize Schedule. If my helpers don’t get back to me within 24 hours to let me know what they plan to make and deliver, I contact them again. (We don’t want repeat meals being delivered to the same family.) While a lot of our ladies make the same thing every time and I don’t have to ask them any more, others change things up. I don’t want Mrs. Jones to receive three pans of enchiladas! I also remind the helpers of the date and time they’re supposed to deliver the food. I write who’s taking what meal on my form to make sure there are no repeats.
As you can see, that’s quite a bit of communication! And it works. We’ve yet to have repeat meals delivered or a family whose needs weren’t met. I tell my team over and over again that if they ever have questions about whether or not a certain ingredient is allergenic, to ask me. I make myself available to help in any way, and that helps things run smoothly, too.
You might have questions about this, so I’ll attempt to answer the ones I am anticipating. Please ask additional questions in the comments below. I’ll get back to you as quickly as I can!
What happens if someone forgets to drop off a meal?
This hasn’t happened in our church, thankfully, but I know it’s always a possibility. Since the families have told me in advance what days and times work for them to receive delivered meals, I’m guessing that if someone doesn’t show, they’ll probably call me. In that case, I always keep extra casseroles and marinated meats in my deep freezer. I would pull one of those out, run by the store, grab a bagged salad and probably a loaf of bread from the store’s bakery, and deliver the meal myself. If I didn’t have any extra casseroles or if I was really strapped for time, I would buy a rotisserie chicken from the store, while still picking up the salad and bread.
Do you have regular meetings with your team?
Actually, we’ve never had a “team meeting”. When I first started, I advertised the need for help with the ministry in our church’s media announcements. Five ladies called the church expressing a desire to help, and the church secretary relayed their contact information to me. A few months later, we were in desperate need for even more help, as there were several people at once who were getting out of the hospital and having babies, so I placed a sign-up sheet in our lobby and announced it again. I ended up having another 15 people sign up! I called or e-mailed each of them when it was their turn to make and take a meal. I also sent out a group e-mail with some basic guidelines, how the process works, dealing with food allergies, etc. We have a larger church of about 375 people spread out between two services each week. Getting all 21 meal ministry helpers in the same room on the same day would be challenging, but that’s not to say you can’t meet with your team and come up with your own process! Let me know how it goes if you do!
It sounds like you spend a lot of time doing this. How much time does it take?
That depends on how many needs we have at one time. If there is one family who needs two meals, it’s quick and easy to call up one other person — assuming I’ll be making one of the meals — and get them scheduled to drop off food. Normally, I’m not swamped with this, although there have been a couple of times when there were four families at once needing meals in the same week. Those were crazy weeks! I was on the phone a lot, but it got done and was totally worth it. It can be frustrating when I can’t get in touch with anyone, in which case I end up leaving a lot of messages and waiting for people call back. But I remind myself that these people have lives and jobs, too, and they’ll get to me when they can.
As far as how much time I spend cooking the meals, that varies too. If I’m making a meal for one family, I’ll double or triple the recipe and freeze the extras in disposable pans for the next family. It doesn’t take any extra time and it saves me time later. I make easy casseroles and do a lot of marinated meats with side dishes that are quick.
Why can’t people just take meals without “joining” a ministry?
They can; unfortunately, many don’t. When I delivered a meal to a lady after she had had neck surgery, I happened to show up at her house at the same time as another church member, Miss Shirley, was also delivering a meal. Miss Shirley was not part of the meal ministry, but I was so delighted that someone was doing this ministry on their own! I talked with her to make sure she didn’t already have something going like this, and she said she was the only one that she knew of who took meals to people and that she was so glad I had started the meal ministry. She e-mailed me the next week, asking me to put her on my list of helpers!
But there aren’t a lot of Miss Shirleys in the world. This is why I talked at length about having a leader. This isn’t necessarily a “boss”, but someone who takes care of communicating with others to make sure needs are met. I took what Miss Shirley was already doing on her own and went a couple of steps further by taking the time to arrange multiple food deliveries that also went along with a family’s specific food likes, dislikes, and allergies.
I’d love to be a part of something like this, but I’m not sure I can afford it. What should I do?
As I mentioned in Part 1, praying for someone is always the best thing you can do.
However, you can still make a hearty meal on a budget. Meat is typically the most expensive component of any meal, so serving a meatless dish or a casserole where meat isn’t the focus is an easy way to cut the cost. Soups are another way to stretch food, and a comforting soup might actually be better for some people than a cheesy casserole or other heavy dish. Also, don’t feel pressured to take only the highest quality, organic, pastured, local foods. Your heart is what matters, not whether or not the roast is grass-fed. Most of the time I don’t take all organic dishes to people. I’d like to, but it isn’t always feasible with our food budget.
If you still can’t swing it, there are lots of ways you can serve your brothers and sisters in Christ without spending anything at all, like offering to help out with their young children, cleaning their home or helping out with some laundry, running some errands, or just stopping by their house to share hot tea and prayer.
What are some things I could do to make a ministry like this really happen?
First of all, don’t wait for someone else to do it. If God has placed it on your heart, go for it! If you need to ask a pastor or someone in authority first, do so. Both to get permission, but also to make sure something like this isn’t already going on. Once you get the green light, find like-minded people who want to help, make sure you’re always communicating between the families you’re serving and your helpers, and it should run pretty smoothly.
What about online calendars that keep up with this? Can’t you just use those?
Sure, we could! The problem with that is that I live in a very small, rural community in Texas, and you may not believe this when I tell you, but there are still people in our community who don’t have the Internet. Yes, it’s true. There are even more who have the Internet but who do not have e-mail addresses, but they still want to serve. For this reason, I find it much more efficient to call them when there is a need. (This gives me a chance to communicate with and get to know some of the older women I might not normally find in my usual circle of friends — a side benefit.)
If you think your group might function better with an online program with a calendar to keep your meal ministry more organized, Meal Train and Take Them A Meal can get you started, and they’re free!
Does your meal ministry only serve the people in your church?
No! I don’t believe the body of Christ is simply those people who happen to attend the same church as I do; I believe the body of Christ is everyone in a town/city/community who professes Jesus as their Lord and Savior. So if there’s someone at the First Presbapticostal Church who has just gotten out of the hospital and someone in my own church lets me know they need a hot meal delivered to their home, I’m all over it! Likewise, and maybe even more importantly, I want to know if there are any un-churched or unbelievers in our community who have a need like this. Who knows that they may not come to know Christ because someone cared enough to meet their needs with food?
Well, there you have it! Starting a successful meal ministry in your church or group can be easy and it’s definitely fun! If God has placed a desire in your heart to do something like this, I hope my experience has helped you see the possibilities and how to make it happen.
There’s not a soul on this planet who doesn’t have to eat and who wouldn’t be blessed by a meal or two, especially when they may not be able to cook for themselves. It’s a great way to meet people in your church and community and to use the God-given gift of cooking that you have. And while you’re delivering your meal, don’t forget to pray for healing and blessings for the home in need.
Does your church or group have a meal ministry? How are you involved? Is this something you think you’d like to lead or be part of? Let me know if I can help!
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It IS so important to reach out to people this way. One of the reasons we are at our current church is because the people showed us they cared in a similar way (for us, it was throwing an extravagant baby shower for our firstborn, then sending food and sunshine basket after the baby was born…and we didn’t even go to the church. My parents did.) We had been seriously disillusioned by the lack of care and compassion in the couple churches we had attended and were disatisfied with our current church. This genuine love and care drew us into the church, and we’re still there 7 years later–and now I’m part of the food ministry!
However, I have one question. Why don’t you take advantage of a free site like Mealtrain.com? For a long time, our church did the whole call/email/call/email thing, but last year, I set up a meal train, and sent the link out, and the church members AND recipients absolutely loved it. It made it so much more organized and easier for everyone. It does require the initial contact person to find out about food allergies, likes/dislikes, times for delivery, restaurants for out of town people to send gift cards, etc, but everyone else, including the recipient, could just look at the menu online and there are no repeats and no calling. That’s all we use now. It might be worth looking into…saves a lot of time.
Haha. Never mind. I missed that part at the end. Kinda hard to sign up for a meal train if you don’t have internet. And I scold my students for not finishing “the whole thing” before they open their mouths. Whoops.
Thank you for posting this! I too am the meal ministry leader in my church. With the average attendance being a mere 40 or so, those involved are used nearly every time but they don’t mind. They’re just glad someone organizes it! I also found that when no ones in charge, no one knows what to do so they do nothing……. Ours works very similar to yours- the landline telephone is still the best way to contact folks around here as well!! We minister to anyone in the community who has a need that we were made aware of- be they members of our church, members of another church, or someone who needs reached for Christ. We do funeral dinners, new baby, hospitalizations – either during for the rest of the family or after depending on the situation, home bound, weddings, etc. We also do special outreach programs: cookie trays n fruit to shut ins and retired folks, Christmas caroling and candy, homemade pizza delivery (youth fund raiser), and our annual hog roast at the local heritage festival (a separate coordinator handles the hog roast).
It’s all good! God is good! Thanks for using your talents to bless the one who gave them to you!!
I really enjoyed this series! I am still new in our community and working at getting involved but this is a ministry that I would be interested in. I really liked your idea of offering frozen meals that can be reheated and served at a later date. Apart from the overlapping meals issue, it is also nice to have that option later on down the road. Lots of people want to help out the week of, but don’t always realize it takes a few weeks to recover. Having something on hand is helpful.
I so agree, Lindsey, reaching out beyond your own church home is very important…not only does it build good will between churches, but as you say, non believers may be led to become believers by just one kind act! Blessings to you and your ministry! When I find a church home, I think I have found my calling!
My question is a great one, undoubtedly… “How do you determine how many meals each individual need requires?”
Matt, great question! 😉 When I speak to the families in need, I ask them how many meals would be most helpful. Often, they are very shy about it, and will say, “Oh, just one is fine.” But I let them know that we have plenty of people who want to bless them and that more than one is no trouble for us. Recently, we had a woman who was recovering from cancer treatments at home. Her parents were taking care of her five children, and they had a tremendous need for meals on a long-term basis. We started with 10–but delivered them frozen in disposable containers so that the family could re-heat them at their convenience. Later, we delivered more since they were still in that situation. Last week, we had a family welcome a new baby. The mother’s delivery went well and was very easy; she was home from the hospital less than 24 hours after delivery. After speaking to her, we determined together that three meals would be plenty for her family. So that’s what was delivered. It’s on a case-by-case basis, and I help families determine the number of meals they need, based on their circumstances. Hope that answers your question!
Amanda Gunthorp says
At our church it is determined by asking questions of the family in need (and/or their close friends/relatives) and based on what the reason for the meals is.
Examples: a family had multiple people injured in an accident over an hour from home. Questions revealed weeks of travel and babysitting of the healthy kids by extended family, etc. So the whole community, not just the church, used http://www.takethemameal.com (I coordinated w non Internet users) to provide meals, gas cards, care packages, etc
When there is a death, we provide meals from the day we hear of the death until the funeral. If we are asked to provide the funeral dinner as well, then we do that too.
A new baby is typically 5-7 days after mom n baby are home. Sometimes we start this a week or two AFTER they get home……. When the excitement wears off and the exhaustion has set in.
Hope that helps
Deb H says
One thing I do is put together a bag of items that will make several easily assembled meals if there is someone who could make them. I have precooked hamburger and chicken and will put all the ingredients needed for spaghetti, tacos, a chicken stuffing casserole, chicken spaghetti….add the recipes if needed. Sometimes it’s nice for them to be able to just pull some meat out of the freezer and throw a hot meal together down the road.
That’s a smart idea!
It’s recently been on my heart to have this type of ministry with our homeschool group. Thank you for giving us the encouragement and ideas!
Makaye Mendez says
Thank you so so much for this wonderful encouragement! I have been a member of my church now for almost 4 years and there wasn’t anything set in stone as far as food ministry goes. I kind of picked it up last year when my friend was pregnant with her third baby, had just moved, and was going through some difficult times financially. We started doing meal trains for babies and have now included them for illnesses, surgeries, deaths and funerals. It has truly been a blessing.
It’s been kind of difficult for me to reach out to some of the older ladies on my church because they are very set in their ways, and I feel as if they do not look at me as someone who could lead. I know this will take a lot of time and prayer. But I feel as if the Lord has really been laying on my heart to use this ministry to bring our younger and older generations of ladies together.