Start a Food Pantry: Finding Courage To Start
Updated: May 11
Lexi (not her real name) was an enthusiastic new attender of our church. She was about 35. She, her husband & several kids all lined up and nearly filled a pew — back when a full pew was a rarity in our church. She invited others. She seemed hungry for the Word of God. She even seemed eager to put the Word into practice. I still remember when she called me one Sunday afternoon after I preached on reconciliation, and told me she’d called her dad and asked his forgiveness. They had not spoken in years.
She had enthusiasm and ideas. One Sunday, she came up to me and asked if she could start a food pantry ministry.
How We Started a Food Pantry
I was all for it! We live in an economically poor area where 34% of households are under $20k/yr income. People called the church all the time asking for food or other help.
She started working. She named the ministry “Love Thy Neighbor Food Pantry.” She set up a simple, free website. She called grocery stores and got managers to donate food. (This was before we partnered with the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.) She called furniture manufacturers and got a lumber donation to build shelves. We hauled the wood to the church.
I was flying high. This was the kind of people-helping, city-blessing ministry I’d dreamed about starting when I was a pastoral student in college!
How our first Pantry crashed and burned
About 3 weeks of this kind of work, one Sunday she didn’t show up for worship. I called, and she said she wasn’t feeling well. The next week, she was gone again, and this time she didn’t answer my calls. I checked with a mutual friend, and what I found out floored me.
In the past 7 days, she had left her husband, completed divorce proceedings (which she had started and left uncompleted months earlier), and moved out. I literally never saw her again from that day forward. I discovered from a friend that Lexi was manic-depressive. I had met her when she was “up.” Now she was down. Way, way down.
The next few weeks were discouraging:
the pantry emptied out.
there were awkward conversations
awkward prayer requests
and even more awkward board meetings
the donated wood sat in our storage room for 2 years
Just to put the finishing touch on the situation, I got a letter from another ministry instructing me to “cease and desist” using the name “Love Thy Neighbor.” They were claiming copyright infringement, and said they would take legal action if I didn’t shut down our website and stop using that name.
By this time, I was so low could sit on a curb and dangle my feet.
And THAT was my first experience with food pantry ministry.
Here’s my point.
You might think the point of this post is one of these:
Don’t do what I did.
Vet your people more carefully.
Give people more time before they get into ministry.
Only give significant ministry to spiritually mature people.
At all costs, avoid failure — it makes it hard to sell new ministries.
But none of those are the lesson.
The point of this post is: Do exactly what I did.
Try. Fail. Learn. Repeat.
Many times, we are so afraid of failure, because we think it will:
Make us look bad.
Cost us respect.
Make people less likely to trust us.
You know, that might be true. But failure in the middle of a great effort will not cost you respect with most people. It will GAIN respect. You have to be willing to give it a shot. So if you’re scared — then do it afraid!
Try. Fail. Learn. Repeat.
Train your church culture for the inevitability of failure with this, my favorite statement on failure:
Failure is not an option. It is essential.
By the way, Bread of Life Pantry (our current food pantry in OKC) has served over 3,000,000 pounds of food over the last few years. In the last 12 months, we served over 25,000 people.
Finding the Courage to Start a Food Pantry Ministry
Don't come in saying, "I need to do something that is so perfect, I can't fail!"
I’ll say it again: Try. Fail. Learn. Repeat.
What would you try if you gave yourself permission to fail, learn & repeat?
*names have been changed