My Spectacular Failure in Food Pantries

And what I learned from it...

Lexi 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.  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.  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!

A Sudden Change

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 the 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:

By the way, Bread of Life Pantry (our current food pantry) has served over 2,000,000 pounds of food over the last few years.  In the last 12 months, we served nearly 20,000 people.

Bread of Life Logo - Edited


I’ll say it again:

Try.  Fail.  Learn.  Repeat.

Answer this in the comments, or on Facebook: What would you try if you gave yourself permission to fail, learn & repeat?

*names have been changed

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “My Spectacular Failure in Food Pantries

  1. Great article and right on point. Our church started doing a monthly men’s fellowship breakfast in September of 2002 and has not missed a month since one time during the first year. The board was hesitant to start but finally agreed to try it on a temporary basis. We have now done it for 181 months with an average attendance of between 30- 40 men. Some men are from other churches and some are unchurched. We have some who attend our church because they first came to breakfast. Some of those men attend special services at our church when we have them.
    By the way, we don’t take an offering or charge. There is no mention of cost in spite of the number of eggs it takes to feed 35 men 181 times.
    We should not let fear of failure keep us from faithful service.

  2. My simple statement for this blog is this: that was very powerful and thought provoking!!! So many times we get scared of failing so we do not try at all. The fact of the matter is; you cannot learn of you do not fail.

  3. This was good! Thank you for posting. Would love to see your insight on getting people “from the Pantry to the Pew”! 🙂
    Right now our church food ministry consists of myself (pastor’s wife) going to the store and delivering the groceries if someone calls in need of food; and more recently the church has donated items and had a box or two ready for delivery. I feel like we are missing some opportunities in follow-up to these calls, but I just cannot seem to find the words (“we recently provided for your physical need by delivering some groceries, could I talk to you about your spiritual needs?”…or “no more groceries till you come to church!” , just kidding!) I often think of Jesus feeding the multitudes and I understand that the physical needs must be met and I enjoy helping meet those needs, but unless I point them to Jesus, I am not sure I have really helped. It just does not always feel like an easy jump in the conversation…Have you found that your pantry as been a door to helping lead people to Christ?