By: Christa Meland
When two members of Alexandria UMC built a wood-fired pizza oven about six years ago, they couldn’t have predicted the impact it would make in their community of about 14,000.
Initially, they used it to bake bread. Then they turned to pizza—and in recent years, they’ve created a vibrant pizza ministry that reaches well beyond the congregation.
Last summer, every Wednesday from 4:30 to 7 p.m., the community was invited to purchase a pizza to eat outside the church or take home. Recognizing that they needed more help than they had in-house and desiring to use the ministry to do good, organizers invited local nonprofits to apply to work with them and receive a portion of the night’s proceeds.
Forty-four nonprofits applied for 29 spots throughout the summer, and each of the selected organizations sent about six people to assist the church in putting up tents, running pizzas to cars, and anything else that needed doing on their designated night. It was a way for members to build relationships with community leaders, and each nonprofit received $7 per pizza sold. The nonprofits ranged from high school sports teams to a symphony orchestra to an organization that takes veterans on all-expenses paid trips to the memorials in Washington, D.C.
The church made and sold about 250 pizzas every Wednesday evening—ultimately raising $20,000 throughout the summer that was shared with the 29 nonprofits.
“This is really truly discipleship in so many ways because it’s not about getting butts in seats,” said Rev. Amy VanValkenburg. “It’s about how we live our lives in community with one another.”
Consistently, three-fourths of those who came for pizza were from outside of Alexandria UMC. They could choose from six regular pizzas—including tasty options like bacon cheeseburger and chicken, bacon, ranch—and three dessert pizzas, like salted caramel apple and lemon; a special pizza of the month in each category was also offered.
VanValkenburg was appointed to Alexandria UMC over the summer as the ministry was in full swing, and it helped her get to know people in and beyond the church. Each Wednesday, she would deliver gifts of pizza to individuals who were struggling or homebound and spend time visiting with them.
Vicki Johnston, one of three pizza ministry organizers, especially enjoyed opportunities to bless community members through pizza, which occurred in a variety of ways. For example, two boys from a nearby apartment showed up every Wednesday to help out and receive a pizza to take home to their mom. And the church regularly gifted pizza to a man who visited his adult daughter battling Alzheimer’s disease.
“God gives us different talents,” she said. “He points us in different directions to see who is in need.”
Not only has the pizza ministry benefited the community through the nonprofits it supports, but the church has used its portion of the pizza proceeds to bless the community as well. Last year, funds were used to rebuild a well-loved playground and put up all new equipment. The playground is frequented by four nearby daycare centers and a nature preschool within the church. Some funds also went to a program that helps families in need with Christmas gifts and meals.
The pizza ministry has also opened the hearts of the church members involved, VanValkenburg said. “In this divisive time in our world, we tend to focus on how we’re different...The pizza ministry reveals to us what the needs are in our community and reminds us that we all want the same things for our community. We are looking beyond the four walls of the church.”
Next summer, Johnston hopes to put up a large lawn tent on the church grounds that could be used for family reunions, weddings, and various other types of gatherings. And VanValkenburg would love to host events around pizza nights—for example, a karaoke sing-along, a poetry jam, and/or a bean bag tournament.
VanValkenburg is also pondering how the momentum around the pizza ministry can be used to feed and bless people in the community all year long.
“This ministry is a hope-builder,” she said. “This is love unfolding in front of us.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church