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Church Dinners: I’ll Have a Side of Botulism with my Chicken

church potluck
The First Church of Poo Potluck Dinner

Having spent fifty years in the Christian church, I can safely say that I have eaten at a lot of church dinners and potlucks. Hundreds of them, I suppose. Churches are notorious for poor food handling practices at church dinners. A botulism outbreak several years ago at Cross Pointe Freewill Baptist Church in Lancaster, Ohio provides a good example of this. According to WCPO: (link no longer active)

Health officials said Wednesday they are working to determine which food from a church potluck might have caused a suspected botulism outbreak that left one person dead and 23 others sick.

Doctors and officials said at a news conference Wednesday that health workers are interviewing those who attended the Sunday potluck at Cross Pointe Free Will Baptist Church in Lancaster to determine what might have caused the outbreak. Lancaster is about two hours east of Cincinnati.

Fairfield Medical Center announced Tuesday that one woman had died of the suspected illness and at least 18 were sickened. The number of ill rose to 23 Wednesday.

Dr. Mark Aebi with Fairfield County Health said health officials are collecting samples from the church’s trash bin for leads. They’re also going into homes to test samples of homemade canned items that were used for some of the dishes at the potluck…

…Doctors are also confident the illness is specific to those who attended the potluck, not a community-wide outbreak.

“Every person that we’ve seen was at this potluck,” Murry said.

About 50 to 60 people attended the potluck. Doctors said those who attended the event but have not displayed symptoms should be watched closely for the next 10 days…

One dead and twenty-three sick. Since God is the giver and taker of life, he must be upset over Sister Maybelle bringing a new casserole instead of God’s favorite green bean, mushroom soup, fake onion rings on the top casserole. I am not making light of this tragedy, but its irony is not lost on me. A sovereign God kills a faithful, church-going woman, using poison as the means of death.

I learned early on, thanks to a background in restaurant management, to avoid most of the food at church dinners. Since I visited in the homes of every church member, I knew how sanitary their homes were. I’ve known some real pigs in my time. I wouldn’t eat food cooked by them even if I hadn’t eaten in a month.

One woman, by far the grossest church member I ever pastored, would bring dishes to church dinners that no one would eat. Finally, she started bringing unopened processed goods like potato chips and cookies. One time, this woman gave a traveling evangelist a 10# bag of potatoes. A few days later, the Evangelist spotted several cockroaches in their pristine travel trailer. When they told me who gave them the potatoes, I laughed, knowing exactly where the roaches came from. This particular family lived in squalor. The house was infested with roaches. You could literally see them crawling on the walls, furniture, and kitchen counter. From stem to stern, the house was littered with unwashed clothing and trash. The wringer washer, which they never used to wash clothing, was filled with dirty dishes. When they needed something to wear, they would just grab something off the floor and put it on.

As a young, naïve pastor, I had a sincere desire to help this family improve their living standard. I talked a group of church women into cleaning up their home. I think seven women “volunteered” to help. In one day, they hauled dozens of large trash bags out of the home, stacking the bags in the back yard. After they were done for the day, they gave me a full report of what they had seen. As bad as I thought the house was, it was even worse. After the women were done for the day, I drove by the house. I was curious to see Mount TrashMore. As I slowly drove by the home, I noticed the couple was going through the bags and carrying stuff back into the house. When one church woman pleaded with me, please preacher, don’t make us go back to that house, I told her that no one had to go back (not that I think I could have successfully made them go back).

In 2005, I was the guest speaker for a Valentine’s Banquet at a pastor friend’s church. Church members had made various dishes and desserts for the meal that followed my sermon. I noticed that the food had sat out for a long time, cooling well below a safe temperature. I carefully chose foods I knew wouldn’t make me sick. A few days later, this pastor called to let me know that many of the people who attended the banquet came down with the “flu.” He wanted to know if I was sick. Of course not. I have enough sense not to eat lukewarm food and room temperatures dishes that should have been refrigerated. The “flu” they were experiencing was actually a visitation from the food poisoning God.

Our family, for a short time, attended a Southern Baptist church in Michigan. This church was quite dysfunctional. The aged pastor refused to make any decision that the church did not first vote to approve. When Polly and I offered to give the church a new refrigerator, the pastor refused to say YES until the church had voted on it. Fortunately, the church accepted our donation, replacing an antiquated, unsafe refrigerator with a newer one.

The church building had a horrific smell in the kitchen. No one seemed to care about the smell, so I decided I would track down the cause. I determined that the smell was emanating from the stove. Every time I turned on the stove the smell got worse. I tore the stove apart and found that a mouse had been electrocuted and was slowly decomposing. Every time someone turned on the stove, they were re-cooking the mouse carcass. I scraped the mouse off the electrical connection and threw away some of the stove’s insulation. Bingo, no more smell.

This was the same church where I saw the pastor’s wife use her homemade grape juice for communion. The first time I took a sip, I realized that her home-canned juice had fermented. I later threw out the grape juice and replaced it with the grape juice approved by Baptists everywhere — Welch’s grape juice. This church had a fellowship dinner once a month. I noticed that the pastor’s wife always brought a ham. She would use a particular knife to carve the ham and, I kid you not, wrap the knife in foil and put it in the fridge for later use. I am not talking later use as in an hour later. She used the same dirty knife month after month.

In one church, we had a woman who loved to “bless” us with home-canned goods. She’d bring us canned goods, including canned deer meat, that had been in her cellar for years. While we always graciously accepted the food, once she left our home we threw the food away. As avid canners, Polly and I know the importance of following strict food safety procedures. We also know that it is a bad idea to eat food that was canned five years ago. Often, when people gave us food from their cellar, it wasn’t so much, hey let’s help out the preacher and his big family as it was getting rid of excess canned goods they didn’t know what to do with. I can’t begin to tell you how many times a church member gave our family food with an expired use-by date. They wouldn’t eat it, but it should be good enough for the preacher’s kids, right?

I have a lot of stories I could tell, but these I have told should go a long way in helping readers understand my aversion to church dinners. I passed this aversion on to my children. Whether it is a church dinner, family dinner, or a community supper, unless the food is hot I won’t touch it. I’ve taken too many food safety classes and know that lukewarm food can be deadly. I also want to know who made the dish. If Polly, my mother in law, or one of my children made the dish, I am comfortable with eating it. Hundreds of church dinners have turned me into a food snob. I don’t outwardly show my snobbery. Usually, I make an excuse for why I can’t eat this or that. This excuse-making (lying) has served me well and kept me out of the bathroom.

I am sure my children will laugh as they read this post. They fondly remember their father walking along the dinner line with their mother and me asking with a whispered voice, who made this? I have one son that will eat anything put in front of him. The rest of my children have, to some degree or the other, their father’s food phobia. My next to oldest son is a great cook, often rivaling his mother’s superb cooking. Years ago, he worked for Burger King. Like me, he has taken food safety classes. He is very picky about what he will eat.

Food that is properly cooked to the correct temperature and served hot will rarely cause food poisoning. The same goes for refrigerated food. Both our freezer and refrigerator have thermometers. I make sure our food is kept at safe temperatures. My kids know that after a family dinner is over Dad is the first one to the kitchen, quickly putting away the food. Call it a phobia or just being cautious, I will not eat food that has not been handled properly. More than once I have called the health department and reported restaurants who were engaging in improper food safety practices.

I could write another post on the gross, sickening things I’ve seen in the restaurants I managed, but I will save that for another day. Well, let me give you one. Bruce asks, Hey Bob, how long has the chicken been sitting in an uncovered pan in the walk-in?  Bob replies, oh about three weeks. Yeah . . . this restaurant in Yuma, Arizona was so dirty that I quit the general manager’s job after one day. Good paying job, but I told the area supervisor that the store would have to be closed down for several days so I could properly clean it. They weren’t going to do that . . . there was money to be made, even if it put customers at risk.


Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    Bruce, as dear matt the unceasing would explain, wherever his fish-hook takes, it is not food you are safe to handle by knowing the real one and true God, it is snakes. People often confuse these substances but for goodness sake, try the snake next time and not the old hams…. follow scripture! Christ made the loaves and fishes fresh as they were required and did not let them sit around… Snakes though, you can handle any old time…..
    Remember, God can do anything but flail, as the hymn says. That is why he invented us, to flail!
    I have fond memories of big feeds at our pastor-family visits when my Baptist preacher dad would take us all to a church member’s farm and we would enjoy the country hospitality which always included a fresh roast or, a good, fat chicken or two….. We ate very well on those visits and then ran to play in the barns and fields while our parents stayed indoors. I don’t recall being poisoned by church food ever but symbolically, I appreciate the heads-up. It makes a lot of sense and will serve me well in future musings.

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    Becky Wiren

    I worked in the deli of one large store 8 years ago (I shall not name but everyone knows who it is) for a week. I can tell you, that keeping things at EXACTLY the right temperature wasn’t happening. I should say instead, temperatures were interpreted loosely. Must be one reason why I don’t want to eat food from their deli. On the other hand, I’m happy to go across the street to Chief and get hot food.

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    I can vouch for the grossness of restaurant kitchens. Back in college, I had a summer job at a buffet restaurant, and I can still remember the roaches and graying steaks.

    I can’t understand how some people live in squalor. Does it really take that much effort to bag up garbage, put dirty clothes in a hamper, or sweep the floor once in a while?

    • Avatar

      That hit a little close to home for me. I understand how things get out of hand because I work a couple of jobs and sell online and buy faster than I can sell. I also learned too late the concept of the economies of broken windows. If you fix the broken windows in bad neighborhoods, crime goes down. If you house is not clean, the members in it will not respect it and take care of it.

      I hired a couple of ladies to help me clean. People who clean, want to wipe down surfaces. They want to do the final and easiest step first. They bagged everything and put the outside just like the church ladies. I had to bring the bags of garbage mixed with non garbage back and go through them. I found uncashed checks and money orders and Pieces to electronic equipment etc.

      If you want a hoarder to increase their death grip on their stuff, then throw everything out indiscriminately. If you find a single shoe, or a part of a small appliance, toss it in a bag. If you really want to castrate them then trick them and do it when they are out of the house. However if you truly want to help an overwhelmed and inadvertent hoarder, then offer to spend a few hours helping and morally supporting them on a specific room or area. Go through stuff together with bins nearby for garbage, recycling, give away, sell and keep.

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    I too remember the many potlucks at church…and like you I knew who kept a clean house and kitchen and who didn’t. I would ask the person whose food I did not want to eat “oh…what did you bring?”…so I could make sure I passed that dish by. I’m still like that at potlucks…and is probably one reason I rarely go to a community dinner…or restaurant buffets.

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    re: “Church members had made various dishes and desserts for the meal that followed my sermon. I noticed that the food had sat out for a long time, cooling well below a safe temperature.”

    surely a sign from god that your sermons were too long. just more proof that you got into ministry for the wrong reasons!! 😉

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    FYI Bruce, green bean casserole, when made with MY recipe, is quite delish! I made it last week for Turkey Day and it was gone in the first go ‘round. I use fresh beans and real fried onions for the topping with a few in the mix. Honestly! I’m so offended you would shit on this southern delicacy!
    Very enjoyable post! Makes me cringe now at all the food I ate at so many church potlucks. Ick.?

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    MJ Lisbeth

    I actually saw this posted outside a church I passed in my travels:

    Prayer Breakfast 9:30 am
    Healing Service 11:00 am.

    I mean, really, why worry about the sanitariness of your food if God will heal you from whatever ails you—unless, of course, he needs another angel in heaven.

    (Note: You can substitute “wearing a mask” for “worry about the cleanliness of your food.” )

  8. Avatar

    I remember eating “ambrosia” at potlucks when I was a kid, a kind of marshmallow salad. I don’t think I’ve encountered it in 40 years. I remember it being my favorite thing at potlucks.

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Bruce Gerencser