Few things can instill apprehension in a minister (or this one, at least) as the annual church picnic. A long, venerated tradition in many congregations, the church picnic can either be the highlight of the summer, or one of its lowest points; it is seldom anything in between.
At its best, the picnic is a great event that brings together all ages across the congregation for an afternoon of food, fun, and frolic. Chefs can show off their arts with cold country-fried chicken, old-fashioned and new-fangled salads (did quinoa even exist in the 50s?), and extravagant desserts (offset, thankfully, by simple wedges of watermelon and fresh peaches). The younger ones might toss a football around, play badminton, or simply laze on the grass while cicadas buzz in the trees above. Elders often gather in a shady spot to share the latest news (it’s never gossip) about church, family, and friends (who’s still around and who’s not). It’s the stuff of Norman Rockwell paintings – sentimental, idyllic, even bucolic. And, like a duck on a pond, the apparent calm belies the reality just under the surface.
At their worst, picnics are orchestrated train wrecks. Maybe it’s the pastor in me, or maybe the pessimist, I’m not sure. But, ahead of and during the picnic, I’m all anxiety – even though afterward, I usually look back on the day with pleasure, even satisfaction. I’m not naturally a worrier, but the picnic seems to bring it out in me – all the things that can go wrong. Have the devilled eggs been out in the sun too long? Did the salmon salad sandwiches taste a bit off? Are there enough choices for our resident vegan (yes, singular, not plural), or will I have to assure them (singular, not plural) that looming presence of the ham and pineapple aspic is not as threatening as it looks? And that’s just at the food table!
Like many congregations, the backbone of our parish are the older women – they do all the heavy lifting (literally and figuratively), and are a force to be reckoned with. But, the uneven terrain in the park, the wobbly folding chairs, and the glaring sun all seem to conspire to take one or more of them down for the count – the possibility of salmonella in the deviled eggs is merely a back-up plan to the twisted ankle. The men, apparently, are made of sturdier stuff – or so they would like to think. Having made their way across the lawn weighed down with coolers, they deposit one or two at the buffet table, wipe their brows with a flourish, then drag the remaining coolers to a cluster of chairs under a big oak. Acting like kids with a secret, they take bottles from the coolers, slip them into insulating sleeves, and we all pretend we don’t know what’s going on as the unmistakable pffffft and kchink of beer bottle and cap separating repeats and repeats. Several wink at me, but no one offers me a beer. Yet.
I’m constantly checking things here and there: “Let’s move the table into the shade; ladies, you too!” “No, put those lawn darts away – they were banned in 1978!” “Who will help me with Gladys and her walker?” “Can someone help Fred to the washroom?” “Let’s eat soon before the devilled eggs get sweaty in the heat” I announce we’re going to say grace in a loud voice to draw us to the table. “Oh the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord….” We do it twice, for added effect, while other picnickers stare. And then everyone descends on the table. Everyone but me.
As a courtesy, I usually hold back, letting others go first. I might argue that this is theologically sound: the shepherd ensuring the flock is fed first. Or that as the servant minister, I must ensure the congregants get their choice. There may be other interpretations and metaphors that come to mind. But the truth is much less theological and lofty and simply human – I detest potlucks. I pray, I plead, I bargain with my Lord. “Please let it all be gone and nothing be left for me!” But God has a sense of humour, and the abundance makes the miracle of loaves and fishes look skimpy. The joke is on me as the crowd clears and the table is still groaning.
When I was ordained, friends gave me a list of ‘commandments’ to survive congregational ministry. Part joke, part manifesto, the list included the rule: “Thou shalt try every dish at the pot luck.” Otherwise, it argues, the minister risks hurting someone’s feelings. Ulcers, food poisoning, heartburn, or cramps are a small price to pay for pastoral harmony.
The ham-and-pineapple aspic is hardly touched. I know instinctively who made it, and feel her eyes watching my every move. The baloney-and ketchup-on-white sandwiches are curling in heat. The tuna casserole (with canned mushroom soup sauce and maraschino cherries “for colour”) is visited by a few flies, who turn up their noses and head off in search of better fare. The eggs do look sweaty. I feel my stomach churn and that my every move is being studied. Last year, I filled my plate to over flowing and then managed to stumble, sending the whole thing flying (Providence!). A repeat performance so soon might be seen as too much of a coincidence. I carefully begin loading my plate, dutifully taking a sample of everything, trying to cram it all on, wondering how I will ever eat all this.
“Hey Rev.!” Divine intervention! My prayers are answered! I turn toward the voice, and then carry my plate over to the cool shade and the circle of men. One of them stands, extends his right hand to shake mine. In an unnecessarily loud voice, he says, “I’ve been meaning to ask you …”and then his tone drops like he’s sharing a secret. He points toward an empty seat, in the circle, hands me a beer and points to the bag of Doritos on top of a cooler. I set my plate on top of the largest cooler, take a long pull of the cold beer, and grab a few chips. The conversation goes on, with no indication of what he wanted to ask me about, but I’m content to sit and relax for a moment. Without warning (and in mid-sentence) someone picks up my plate, opens the cooler and quickly dumps the plate inside. The conversation continues unbroken, as if this was the most ordinary thing. He then turns to me, hands me the empty plate, winks, and says, “You’ve done your duty, now you can go back and get ‘seconds’ of the things you like.”
I don’t know which cliché is more true: that God acts in mysterious ways, or that prayer is answered in the unlikeliest of places. Either way, I felt blessed, even as the author of the ham-and-pineapple aspic looked up at me encouragingly, “Back for seconds, Rev.?”
—Dan Benson is minister at St. Paul's United Church in Scarborough, ON.