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You Give Them Something to Eat: Reflections on Collaborative Ministry

loaves and fishes

Photo Credit: Loaves and Fishes by John and Helen Mary Skelton

“And all ate and were filled.” –Mark 6:42

(blog post written by Rev. Brenna Nickel)

About a year after arriving at the pastoral charge I serve in Estevan, Saskatchewan, I noticed a common refrain from our leaders: “This big building sits empty all day. What can we do to have it used?” Many ideas were tossed around, but what kept emerging was a concern for the growing number of people in our city who were housing insecure due to low vacancies and rising rental costs. We proposed opening our church building for a winter shelter program.

From the beginning,  those of us involved with creating what became known as the Warm Welcome shelter knew our pastoral charge could not do it alone. While we had the space, we certainly didn’t have enough volunteers to keep something like that going. We approached the Salvation Army in town and were pleased and surprised to learn they had already been thinking about such a program. “Great! Praise God,” we thought. “Let’s get rolling.”

An information session with the congregation soon followed. I don’t think, as a pastor, I will ever forget that meeting. The loving church folks were empathetic to the difficulties faced by those moving to the area for the growing energy and oil work yet, they could not conceive of how we would pull this off. I remember several people saying something like, “I can’t be here every night to volunteer. As it is, we barely have enough people to cover normal church things.” “Who will do laundry?” “Are we feeding people too?” “What if there’s a security issue?”

We had answers to some of these questions,  others we didn’t. Along with those planning this ministry, I trusted that people outside of our church would respond to some of these needs. Two years later, in the midst of our third season, I am grateful to report this has been the case. Many of our volunteers are from our United Church, the Salvation Army or other churches, but many are non-believers who see this as a community endeavor. A wonderful hotel in town takes care of our laundry,  a grocery store supplies fresh produce, and the local Tim Horton’s provides treats for the volunteers and guests every night. Churches in our presbytery send handmade scarves and toques with caring notes for the guests. Like the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, we have been filled and then some.

Still, in the Warm Welcome journey, and in speaking about it to other churches, it’s been clear to me that we are too often mentally and spiritually stuck in a time when churches did their ministry and mission independently. The wider church often supports this way of being. Having completed several grant applications to raise money for our shelter, I always have to send an additional email that says, “I’m not sure where this fits. Our program is both a ministry of our church and a program of the wider community. We operate it, but so does the Salvation Army. We are religious, and we’re not.” In the past, each church had its own outreach, its own children’s programming, its own Bible study, and each church had the resources to support that.  This is no longer the case. Now we are like the disciples who are worried for the hunger of the crowds listening to Jesus, but want to send them away to eat because we think we have nothing to give them. Yet, Jesus says to us as he said to them, “You give them something to eat.”

When I first really thought about this story told in all four gospels, I was in confirmation class. I remember my pastor suggesting that maybe the true miracle of this story is that the disciples’ sharing of the bread and fish encouraged others to share the little they had as well. Generosity bred generosity. In the case of Warm Welcome, I believe this is true. It is easier to share and give what you have when you see others doing it as well.

But I also wonder if food, or maybe at least the amount of food, is not the point. At Warm Welcome we’ve learned that yes, our guests need meals—they appreciate a warm bowl of soup in the evening and some toast in the morning–but more than that, they appreciate eating with someone. Many of our guests spend the day alone without talking to another person. Giving them money to buy a meal would not achieve the fellowship around the table that they and our volunteers experience every night. It would not raise the awareness of affordable housing in our city, which we’ve done through our collaborative mission. In other words: it’s not just about feeding the body, it’s also about feeding the soul– our souls as well as those we’re serving.

Collaboration can be really difficult. It requires more phone calls, and awkward conversations. It requires sacrifice. It means that your church or pastor may not always get all the credit. Taking some liberties with this biblical story, I can imagine the disciples were really tired as many of us in declining churches are. Maybe they didn’t feel like having uncomfortable conversations with people in the crowd, people who thought differently than they did. Maybe they found the offerings of the others in the crowd strange and would have preferred to eat the same, familiar, comforting meal. I wonder if they got a bit irritated that Jesus was getting all the attention again after all of their hard work.

The troubling news of this time in the church’s ministry is that we can’t be independent of one another anymore, but actually, the amazing, life-giving news is that we can’t be independent of one another anymore. Like a small band of disciples facing a hungry crowd of thousands, we are the minority in our communities. The number of people who need to know about God’s love and grace may greatly exceed the number of people who are formally sending that message. Yet Christ persists, “You give them something to eat,” and through his grace our meager offerings are multiplied into a bountiful feast for the body and for the soul. All can eat and be filled, including us. Thanks be to God.


I wonder…

-How is your pastoral charge or ministry currently collaborating with other churches or community agencies? What have been the gifts of this collaboration and what have been the difficulties?

-What are some needs in your community (i.e. what are people hungry for?) that multiple groups could address?

-Are there any ministries of various churches in your community that are overlapping? Could you work together?

Rev. Brenna Nickel is a United Church/Presbyterian Church (USA) minister serving St. Paul’s International Charge, Estevan, SK.

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