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Food, faith & finding connections

For more than 20 years, Annette Spence has told the stories of the Holston Conference of The United Methodist Church, in her role as editor of the The Call, the conference’s weekly newsletter. Many of these stories are about how churches eat together and use food in their ministries.

Today we talk to Annette about the importance of food to share God’s love and connect with our neighbors—a practice Jesus knew well.

Annette Spence

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This episode posted on November 12, 2021.


Prologue to episode 103

Crystal Caviness, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape,’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Crystal Caviness.

For more than 20 years, Annette Spence has told the stories coming out of the Holston Conference of The United Methodist Church in her role as editor of ‘The Call,’ the conference’s weekly newsletter. Many of these stories are about how church members eat together and use food in ministry. Today we talk to Annette about the importance of food to share God’s love and connect with your neighbors, a practice that Jesus understood well.


Crystal:    Annette Spence, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.

Annette Spence:  Thank you, Crystal. It’s an honor to be here.

Crystal:   Well, we’re excited to have you. You are no stranger to those of us at United Methodist Communications. For more than 20 years you’ve been editor for the Holston Conference of The United Methodist Church, telling the stories of United Methodists throughout east Tennessee, southwest Virginia and north Georgia. And you are a wonderful storyteller. I could spend hours chatting with you about all of the different stories that you’ve had a chance to share through the years. But today we want to talk to you really on one aspect of your storytelling and what has become a personal ministry for you. Let’s talk about food.

Annette:          All right.

Crystal:            So, what does food have to do with faith?

Annette:          Well, you know, that’s been a journey for me, is to figure out what it does mean. I’ve cared about food and cooking for a very long time because my first job out of college was working for a food magazine in New York City at Weight Watchers Magazine. And I think then I can remember times as a child loving to cook. But I think that’s when the passion for it really took off, was for recipes and trying new things and learning new things and have always loved cooking for family and friends and with mixed results. But I think it was pretty recently, like within the last 4 or 5 years, that I’ve started to put it together that it could be a calling. And then, of course, I’m not the first person to realize that. So…so a lot has…. I mean, it’s just a…. I had ongoing ministry in communications. But this just added this exciting element to how I live out my faith and how I carry on a ministry. I’m married to Michael Feely. And he is the one who kind of inspired me to take this a step further. So we began a food ministry at a church that’s not even my own, a United Methodist Church that about 30 minutes away from me that seemed to have a community that was very diverse in terms of many folks from other countries and even other faiths, and many food insecure folks. So we started a food ministry there, which is ongoing for us. It started because we wanted to reach out to young adults and I have a couple of young adults in my family. And we cared very much about trying to find a way to reach out to them. We had a successful monthly fellowship meal that did call people from…who don’t go to church, who come from other churches and from other faith traditions. But it was a lot of work, and I’m not sure that we always hit the mark; sometimes felt like we were just kind of doing what…we were just having a fellowship meal for United Methodists, which is not a bad thing. But we really wanted to reach people outside of our own circle. And then the pandemic came. And we began a drive-through ministry about a year ago that started reaching about 30 people. And we just had one last weekend. And we fed 197. So I’ve been busy.

Crystal:            Wow. Yeah, just a few weeks ago it was such a blessing for me to be able to be there with you on that Saturday and see it in action. And it’s a busy day. It’s … You know, it’s kind of a hectic day, but it’s all these friends were just pulling in and chatting, you know. Of course, you guys were keeping it safe in this time of Covid. But it just…it felt really friendly, like a com…it was a community lunch and that’s what it felt like to me.

Annette:          I’m really glad to hear you say that ‘cause we worked hard for that. The original idea, to reach out to the young adults, and to be honest with you, the bar crowd, which is where my sons seem to have community and all their friends. That was who we were going for for the fellowship meal. And again, we hit the folks…in in-person fellowship meals. We hit that with some results but not great results. So when we began the drive-through ministry, because of the pandemic a year ago, it was like how can we reach people while they’re in their cars. And ironically…. I mean, obviously it’d be better if we could spend some time with them and pray with them and all that. But a lot of that actually happens. We’ve come up with sort of a plan where the actual…. There’s 2 or 3 church members, including the pastor, who is actually involved in this. This is a very tiny church with about 15 in worship…average worship. Most of ‘em are not joining us. There’s a regular couple that joins us and the pastor and his wife. And so we put the actual church members out front to be like our hospitality people. The pastor directs the traffic. The two church members hand out water bottles and whatever treat of the day. It might be homemade dog treats. Last week we had Girl Scout cookies that were donated to us. At Easter we may give out children’s packets or give out hot chocolate at Christmas. But…. So they’re out on the front and they’re chatting people up. We literally take orders at the car windows. And my husband and my niece, they interact with the folks. And then we have somebody else, like, coming along and delivering the bags of home-cooked food or food that we’ve, you know, we’ve put together. So we feel like they get 5 or 6 or 7 touches. And we also have a very good Facebook page where we literally survey them on what kind of food they like and what kind of condiments to add or what kind of side dishes to have. And some folks actually do engage with us quite a lot with that. So it took a while, but after a year if you can have a community through a drive-through ministry I think we’ve figured it out.

Crystal:            Well, it’s a really beautiful expression of your faith. And I love that you’ve all kind of come together. It’s not a single church’s offering. It’s an outreach that many, you know, several of you have done. It really does show the connection in action.

Annette:          Yeah. And we couldn’t do it without….. There’s a lot of retired pastors who join us. My husband and I…because of my fulltime job we know a lot of people. They all get a big kick out of us. And they come…. We…. As I said, we have folks who don’t go to church. We have a fair amount of young folks who… They’re…. Some of them are relatives. We tap into the UT students. We had 2 college students come that…who’d never been there before, last Saturday, and folks who just know people who know people. The volunteer ministry part of it is actually a little surprising for me ‘cause I spend…. I knew I would care very, very much about the people we’re reaching. But I find myself thinking as much now about ministry with our helpers and how to keep them engaged, and how they interact with each other, and being intentional about setting out food when the meal’s over so that everybody can sit down and enjoy this food together and talk. And they do. You know, after years of writing about stuff where it’s so hard to get people to engage, sometimes, this seems to be a really natural way for people with different backgrounds and from different situations and different genders and ages and sometimes, you know, race. And they’re able to have a conversation.

Crystal:            What do you think it is about food that helps…that enables that?

Annette:          I think…. I mean, what’s interesting about food is that when I …. I remember earlier in my ministry as a United Methodist communicator I was less interested in food stories sometimes because to me that was like, oh, everybody does food ministry. That’s not very interesting. And I was always looking for the trendy things. But as I’ve spent more and more time in this I’ve realized everybody, ideally, eats 3 times a day. You can give somebody a bag of groceries, but they’re gonna need another bag of groceries or another meal or somebody’s gonna have to come up with something pretty soon within, you know, a day or…. So I realized there’s just so many opportunities for sharing food. And it is a common denominator. I mean, like, there are people that we deliver food to. It’s not really a delivery ministry. But we always 3 or 4 or 5 folks who ask for it. And we may even expand that and make that a bigger part of our ministry because we realize that the folks who are literally driving through are probably privileged in some ways because they have transportation. But we have a few places that we deliver. And those folks will reach out to me. And we might not have a lot of other things in common. But we can talk about food. They’ll write me and ask me how we made the potato salad. Or I’ll literally walk out to the car sometimes and talk to folks about what they like or what they didn’t like. Last weekend a lady had written me and says I really don’t like the onions that you put in your potato salad. And I said, All right. I’ll make you potato salad without onions. That’s not a problem. So then I have a chance to interact with her. And I have a chance to learn her name and fix her a thing of potato salad with her name on it. So it’s a common denominator. You cannot have a lot of other things in commons, but you can have a conversation with people about food. And again, it’s something that everybody is concerned with because everybody has got to eat.

Crystal:            Well, tell me about The Call to Cook.

Annette:          Okay. I’d love to talk about The Call to Cook. I wish I could work on The Call to Cook 24/7. And it really does go hand-in-hand with this food ministry, although I didn’t see that coming. The Call to Cook is what I call a food and faith blog. It started….I think it’s two and half years ago. I literally had a new boss. And I’ve said this before, I was kind of trying to impress him. And I had no idea that this…. This just like popped out of my head or my mouth that day. And we were talking about new ideas and I said, Well, what about a food and faith blog. And the newspaper that I worked on for Holston Conference, the name of this publication is ‘The Call.’ And in some ways I’ve become synonymous with ‘The Call.’ And it just occurred to me that we could call it ‘The Call to Cook.’ So I set up, through Word Press, a little food and faith blog. Then the pandemic came and all these opportunities for writing about food and churches and the way people show their love through food emerged. I mean, I could write about it 24/7 and it is a labor of love. And so many churches are involved in cooking for people that they want to love. And so many individuals, especially during the pandemic, came across ideas that, oh, I love people and I’ve got this extra time. I’ll make lasagna for people. So that’s what it’s become. I’ve focused mostly on Holston Conference. But lately I’ve really been intrigued with actually writing about food and faith in other parts of, you know, the denomination. And it’s a matter of time, but I have some ideas and a list of places that I want to visit and places that I want to call and learn more about their food ministries and their cooking ministries.

Crystal:            Annette, I’ve heard you refer to preparing food and feeding people as very Jesus like, as a very Jesus-like thing to do.

Annette:          It’s like such a no-brainer. And I can’t believe that I didn’t see all…kind of all my life that that’s been a way of showing love. It’s so obvious. We all do it with our families and with our communities. But, you know, so much of Jesus’s time was spent around the table with folks. And of course there’s Holy Communion and over and over and over you see…you see how food and time at the table and just sharing that is so central to our faith. It’s almost overwhelming for me ‘cause there’s just so many examples of how it manifests itself in the Bible and in the stories and through time. And all this is kind of somewhat new for me. But it’s not new. It’s not new in our faith, and our faith tradition, or for Christianity. I’ve done a lot of reading lately and listening to podcasts a lot about how, you know, how we treat the earth and how, you know, what we eat is a theology. And so we actually tried to share some of that food to food that we share at Norwood United Methodist Church where our food ministry is. And I’ve said to you and to others that we try to hit that sweet spot with…. I mean, I care about nutrition. And in fact my first job at Weight Watchers Magazine, of course, was a lot about nutrition. And I’ve written a lot about that over the years. And I care a lot about sharing local foods and supporting the farmers. But then I also really, really care about what people like and how they experience love. So…. In the same way that I really care about how my children get the food they really love. Today is one my son’s birthday. He is 28. And earlier this week I drove him country fried steak, mashed potatoes and all his other favorite foods down to his place, and left it in his apartment. Well, that’s the same thing that we try to do with…with our food ministry. We say, what do you love, what do you miss, what do you like? And so we try to hit the sweet spot between working some nutrition in there, getting some fresh fruit in there, getting some local vegetables into the pasta salad or whatever. But also, what do you love? And it might not be healthy. Hamburgers or potato salad or baked beans. Or, my gosh, ham, you know, mashed potato casserole. We did a fish fry. That’s when you joined us. It might not be healthy, but we share that love with them that way, in the same way that we would share it with our[P1]  children. And I’ll add this. We even care about their dogs because they love their dogs. So we realized there’s a lot of dogs that come through our line. And we started making whole wheat peanut butter treats. And they love that stuff. So who knows what other food ministry we’ll be doing for pets in the future.

Crystal:            That meal you described that you made for your son, yeah, that is definitely love wrapped up in a plate of food for sure. That sounds delicious. And speaking of food that makes people maybe smile or have warm and fuzzy feelings, how about green fluff or strawberry fluff. Or in our family we call it pink fluff. You’ve actually been interviewed about green and strawberry fluff. What does that dish have to do with church?

Annette:          Well, there’s an example of something …. I often say the foods that we prepare, some of them are what I like. But sometimes they are not even what I would choose. I certainly make a potato salad that I wouldn’t choose. But we literally did a survey…. I keep bringing it up because it’s one of our most popular things. We literally did a survey with what kind of ingredients they like. The strawberry fluff or the pink fluff, or the green goop… (I’ve heard all these names.) I think it was Eastertime and we were coming up with all our, you know, favorite foods of the holiday. And I remembered as a child and pretty recently making a concoction of Cool Whip, cottage cheese, in our case crushed pineapple and Jello and sometimes nuts. And we decided to do it with strawberry Jello and put strawberry topping on it so at least we could say we added some fresh fruit. And it turned out to be a huge hit. It shocked us. We had all these other things like ham and this fancy potato casserole. And we did deviled eggs which I didn’t want to do because it seemed like too huge of a feat. But then we had like 5…or, 3 or 4 volunteers rush in and go, I’ll make you deviled eggs. We have deviled eggs everywhere. I thought, Oh, that’s what they’re gonna love. No. What people came back to us and said, Oh, my gosh, my grandmother made this. My mother made this. This is so good. And it’s like the simplest, cheapest, unhealthy thing. And they loved it. So we got a big kick out that. I put a recipe for that on The Call to Cook. And moved on to the next meal. And so then we hear from Religion News Service. It was also popular some other places. It kept getting picked up on Pinterest and there was a local place called Knoxville Eats, a social media site. And they got very popular. And I kept getting hits on The Call to Cook. And then we hear from Religion News Service, and the beat reporter, Emily McFarland Miller…. She’s…I guess her beat is United Methodist Church had just reached out to say, What food do you connect with church? And all these folks had written to her and said, This green fluff or whatever they call it, green goop, or pink stuff or whatever. And she ended up doing a story on it. She did a fantastic job. I would have never thought of it as being as connected to the church that it is. But it was…apparently a staple of potlucks, church potlucks as well. And it says home and family and all those things that we talk about at the take out meal at Norwood United Methodist Church. So that was fun and probably one of the most popular things on The Call to Cook, at least right now.

Crystal:            So that recipe is still out there, Annette, that people can go and find it.

Annette:          It’s still out there. It’s being picked up. Yeah. The address for the Call to Cook is There’s a numeral in there instead of ‘to’ it’s numeral 2. and it’s still being picked up. It’s in every southern Junior League church potluck, whatever. You know, all those fund raiser… It’s everywhere, but it’s still popular on our page as well. And I’m really glad that we did that. And we’ll probably do it again, come Christmas or something ‘cause our folks love it.

Crystal:            We’ll share that link on our…on the episode page, too, so folks can go to get that recipe if they need it. If they don’t have it memorized already they can get that. So I have a couple more questions, Annette. What’s your favorite food ministry story, a story that you just love the way United Methodists were using food in ministry.

Annette:          You know, I’m not sure if they do this anymore, and there are so many examples. I mean, there are so many cool things and I’ve written about a lot of them for Holston Conference. But… I’m thinking of a time that a food ministry…. And this is long before The Call to Cook or a lot of other things came along. It was probably 15 years ago. And a church that still exists, First United Methodist Church of Independence, Virginia…. If I had to pick 10 stories this would be my favorite. This very small area, not a lot of restaurants, nice restaurants nearby, and every spring they would do this fancy, nice dinner for the senior prom students. I mean, they had shrimp. They had steak. They had fancy glasses. You know, to this day I actually want to pull the pictures out because to me it was just like…. It was beautiful and it was fun to be at. These folks…these young folks all showed up all dressed up. And this church which was kind of a small church, they busted it. Rented a limousine, I think. That has got to be one of my favorite food ministries. And I really need to find out if they’re still doing that. I’ve seen so many other things that people do. There’s a church that I recently wrote about at Rocky Top United Methodist Church, an area that really, you know, has been underserved and forgotten. And they have a tiny little congregation. And they literally have homeless folks. I mean, I will write them and say I’ve got this many sausage biscuits leftover from our food ministry. Would you like to have them? And it’ll be Sunday morning and they’ll go, Yes, the homeless folks are literally waiting outside by the door. So that’s one of the most recent places that inspire me and bless me and bless so many other people. And I’m just impressed by how every church…. I do mine a certain way. Not everybody would necessarily do things. Like, I get a lot of pushback sometimes because I want to peel those potatoes instead of using potato flakes. And I want to go buy local fresh corn rather than buying it frozen from Wal-Mart. That’s the way I want to do it. But what I’m impressed by all these local churches and food ministries, the Wesley Foundations is how they find the best way to either cook or prepare…you know, prepare or can foods or whatever. I do think they see their people and they figure out the best way to do it with the resources that they have on hand. I could spend a lot of time writing about that and just traveling around and seeing how that happens. I would love that.

Crystal:            Well, I’ve heard you say that you always have a long list of foods that you want to cook and also eat. So what’s at the top of your list?

Annette:          Oh, that’s a good question. When I travel…. I’m on the road a lot for both work and family, you know, people who need me or need help in different ways. And I listen to all these podcasts and oh my gosh, I’d have to think about it. I mean, some of it…. Even though I love all the fancy…. This is crazy. Like, baked beans. I crave baked beans. And there’s greens. There’s so many different kinds of greens that you just want to learn how to cook in like the way that they should be cooked. I’m having a hard time coming up with it. And I do have…I do have a stack of cookbooks right now next to my bed, of things that I just want to try. And sometimes when it comes down to it it’s just like I look in the refrigerator and say, We’ve got a lot of that. I guess we’d better…I guess we’d better cook that today. So….

Crystal:            Whatever’s on hand?

Annette:          Yeah. My husband likes to go to farmers market and he brings in all kinds of things that I’m first like, we don’t have space in the refrigerator for that. But it does inspire you how to learn…how to cook things that you might not ever have cooked before.

Crystal:            Well, Annette, before we go there’s one question that we ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape. How do you keep your spirit in shape?

Annette:          Well, and I’ve thought about that, you know, because I’m so fortunate my work (and I’m sure you can identify with this.) …I’m in the middle of listening to other people’s faith journeys all day long and working with wonderful leaders who model, you know, how to keep your spirit in shape, who literally pray, you know, staff prayer or you just have so many examples. I feel like I pray all day long. But I sometimes have to get back and be more intentional about taking that quiet time early in the morning. And it’s not fancy, but just sitting with the 2 or 3 books that I like. One is the Common Prayer with, you know…. Shane Claiborne was one of the authors of that. And Bishop Ruben Job, his guide to prayer. I really try to get back to that. Don’t do it faithfully because I need that quiet time. But really, also, with so much clutter in the day and so many competing needs, even if there’s something pressing is just walking away from it all and taking a walk and breathing deep and just knowing, you know, being still and knowing that God is there and listening to what’s going on around and clearing the clutter. Because there’s so many competing needs and so many things to do, I literally have to stop and pause and be quiet sometimes to know what I need to do next. And I would have laughed if anybody had told me that I was doing…going to be that kind of person 20 years ago. But now I don’t know how to get through the day without it. So…

Crystal:            Good words, Annette. Thank you. And thank you for serving the church in the way that you do and for your ministry. It’s really important. And I’ve so enjoyed talking to you today, having you a guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape. And thank you again for being here.

Annette:          You’re very welcome. I’m so glad to have been with you all. I appreciate the work that you do as well. And just so happy to be part of the United Methodist Church.


Crystal:            That was Annette Spence, editor of The Call, the weekly newsletter of the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church. To learn more about Annette and the various food ministries she talked about today, go to and look for this episode. In addition to the helpful links and the transcript of our conversation, you’ll find a link to my email address. So you can talk with me about Get Your Spirit in Shape. Thank you so much for joining us for today’s episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. I look forward to the next time that we’re together. I’m Crystal Caviness.

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