oot5Nbo“What’s a pot luck?”

That question came from a congregation that had never heard of a pot luck dinner. I wondered if I had stumbled upon a truly deprived flock.

“You know, a dinner where everyone brings something and we all eat,” I replied.

“Oh! You mean a ‘carry in’!” Yes, they knew, and they enjoyed.

In other communities, that congregational deliciousness is called a “covered dish.” By whatever name, these kinds of dinners anticipate the heavenly feast and showcase the favorite foods of our church friends. The promise of food can entice people to attend a church business meeting if it happens around the table.

What could go wrong? Read on!

Dear Matriarchs:
I just received a call from a sick parishioner. Church member “Tammy” says she is dealing with food poisoning and claims she was infected through yesterday’s after-church pot luck dinner! I had no idea what to do or say:
Take her seriously: e.g., Find out if she’s been to the doctor to confirm?
Do more research: e.g., Poll other church members to find out if others also got sick?
Downplay it: Employ compassionate active listening and hope that Tammy will feel get over it soon?
Or . . . some other approach?

Tammy is a leader in our church and could very well bring this up at the next board meeting. And, she might decide to freely share her story even before that. When the food prep at church might have made people sick, what’s a pastor to do?

Our Matriarchs have some ideas:

Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath
My guess is that with all the church potlucks over the centuries, someone has gotten food poisoning from a macaroni salad or an under baked chicken leg. I think you need to take Tammy seriously, but don’t panic. It’s fair to ask if she’s gotten medical care. It will give you more information and ensure that she’s being cared for. I’d ask her what she had to eat at the potluck and when her symptoms began. There were probably people at the potluck who you can ask in confidence if they were sick or know of anyone else who got ill. If it is in fact food poisoning, there is no point in shaming the cook publicly. It might be a good time to make sure that food is handled as safely as possible at church events.

Kelley Wehmeyer Shin
This is such a delicate situation but I agree with Heidi that Tammy’s claim of getting food poisoning at church should be taken very seriously. It would be no surprise with so many different dishes which are brought to potlucks, and no control over where and who is preparing the food, that there could be food poisoning. Maybe a general assessment of cleanliness and proper health procedures during potlucks could be looked at without any finger pointing. In the end as long as churches have potlucks, there will always be the risk of such food poisoning. In my thirty years of ministry, I do not remember one incident of food poisoning due to a potluck, so my sense is that this rarely happens. As pastor, I would reassure Tammy that you will bring the concern to your session (or appropriate governing board) and alert them to the situation.

Thank you, Heidi and Kelley!

Your turn, dear reader:

  • Has this ever happened in your congregation? What did you do?
  • Do you have kitchen policies in place that include food safety precautions?
  • What is our pastor role in making sure that congregational dinners are safe?
  • How would you respond to Tammy?

Leave your ideas in the comments below.

What was the last concern/complaint you fielded from a parishioner that left you speechless? Send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com and get some creative responses.


Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.


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3 thoughts on “Ask The Matriarch: The Pitfall in the Pot Luck

  1. someone once mentioned privately to me that she had gotten food poisoning from a church dinner. Her doctor commented to her that it is very common. I have a family who will never eat at pot-luck dinners. Since then I try to remind people to take extra care in food preparation particularly because some of our congregation have compromised immune systems.

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  2. This really resonates with me. Not because of the food poisoning possibility but because of food reactions. I have vegans, vegetarians, scilla csrol and gluten sensitive folk in my congregation who have stopped attending any food related events. How can we be truly inclusive if the commensaliity of the table is compromised?

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  3. Per Paula’s comment, it would be an exercise in hospitality to try to include folks with varying needs by inviting members to fix food that meets those needs. They could bring along a label to be taped to the table or the dish as to what the ingredients are. I used to encourage this in my workplace and many people said they enjoyed trying out new things. Also, when I have had food restrictions I made sure to prepare & bring something I could enjoy.

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