April 23, 2014

Doing Brunch at Church

I'm not at all certain that church is competing with soccer, as I’ve heard it argued, or any number of Sunday activities (where, once upon a time, nothing was open or scheduled). Church, especially Sunday morning Christian worship, especially for young adults, I believe, is competing with the relationships in which people find meaning and their honest quest for peace. 

Exhibit A: Sunday brunch.

Sometimes breakfast isn’t just breakfast. It’s about who we want to be sitting down at table with. It’s about those relationships that matter and the ways people find peace and meaning, especially if both members of a couple are working and the week that looms ahead is way too stressful. I suspect the reason so many people and, especially, young adults are “doing brunch” every Sunday morning – and not “doing church” – is because they’ve found, at those tables, a community, a family, a source of refreshment which is not merely bodily.

At St. George’s, Valley Lee we offer breakfast on at least one Sunday each month. Obviously, it’s not such a new idea (people do tend to eat in the mornings), although the fact that a lot of us aren’t doing it may be one of the reasons people have such a hard time coming to worship on Sunday mornings. I’m not talking about coffee hour or nice people; that kind of goes without saying at churches (hopefully). I’m talking about a breakfast café, not just putting out food, a place with the same level of excellence and attention to people’s relational and spiritual needs as is found in those frequented brunch hot-spots. Yes, on a Sunday morning. Yes, in a church.

A few years ago, a local chef approached us about running her newly established catering business out of our parish hall kitchen. We said “yes” and, instead of charging her rent, we worked out a Memorandum of Understanding in which she became the kitchen manager – maintaining cleanliness (which is in her self interest, too), helping to order supplies, and coordinate calendars.

Before acting, however, we let the idea trickle for a while among the congregation; they’d never had to share their kitchen before and this was going to be a new thing. One idea I floated was a monthly Sunday morning parish breakfast. It’d be neat, I suggested, if we could work with this chef and create an opportunity not only for the 8 o’clockers to get to know the 10:30ers but also encourage other members – and perhaps some new ones – to come and eat. Maybe if they came and ate, they’d also stay and worship. Maybe if they came to worship, they’d also eat. Maybe if they were on the fence, debating among spending a quiet morning at home or running around doing chores or coming to church, maybe the additional and substantial offering would be an added incentive.

It was good that we took so long to wonder about this as a community. For one, it helped us say “yes” much more organically, and to help make this change really stick. For another, several people from the congregation took the breakfast idea and, truly, made it theirs – they help sign people up, they help advertise it, they help set up the space and take the money, and they help the chef pull off a pretty successful once-a-month event.

I say all that before talking about the breakfast, itself, because it’s yet one more example of a truism in parish life: it’s not about how good the idea may be but, rather, about how it gets introduced and brought into the common life of the body.

And the breakfast,and our relationship with the chef, have been equally successful and a real gift to my own life and ministry. The breakfast is a fellowship opportunity, not a fundraiser. We set the price at a reasonable amount but so that the chef will make a good-enough profit to continue doing it. Even with a modest price, the ministry brings in more money than it costs and the vestry has wisely set aside those funds on a restricted account so the money can be used to foster continued fellowship opportunities. There’s always a good spirit in the church and parish hall on the breakfast Sunday. It has helped bring in some who are new to the community and those who felt on the margins of the parish. It’s also helped make deeper connections between people who may have been acquaintances outside of church but, because they worship at two separate worship services on Sunday mornings, hardly know one another.

The chef, herself, has also become a beloved member of our community, and it’s not only because of the delicious food she prepares. It’s due in large part to her willingness to help with other functions and give advice or take leadership in other areas of the church’s life. She’s not a member of our congregation and that, too, is intentional; not only are she and her family members of another, local Episcopal parish but we also don’t want to unintentionally cross professional and ecclesial relationships. Also, there are so many ways to be a part of the body without becoming, per se, a “member.”

It would be one thing, simply, to pull off a breakfast every Sunday or one Sunday a month. That has its own positive byproducts. For the most part, that’s all we really do at St. George’s, Valley Lee – a lovely breakfast for our gathered community. But the growth edge, as I see it, is moving beyond the gathered community to those who have not yet appeared or are feeling estranged from God and yet are seeking those same gifts we also treasure, gifts of peace, balance, fellowship, meaning and community.

Making the church the next hip Sunday morning brunch hot-spot might be a great first step.