I have a love/hate relationship with church potlucks.
I love the fellowship that comes with a good potluck. Forget the mounds of mashed potatoes and hash brown casseroles, in my opinion, a good potluck is about having time to fellowship. There is joy in hearing the church gather to talk about life, share good stories, and spend time with one another. A good potluck lasts for a long time; there is ample food, everyone leaves full, and the church grows closer because of the time spent around the table.
Yet, as much as I love the church potluck, I struggle with them. Potlucks are an overwhelming experience for my autism spectrum family. This is because of food sensitivity issues. My son eats the same things every day, and most foods he eats do not often get brought to a church potluck. When was the last time someone brought plain Italian bread to a potluck?
This experience is typical for many individuals on the autism spectrum. Routines are important. There is a need for food to taste and feel the same. An autistic individual who loves mashed potatoes might struggle with the smallest difference (chives or butter on top instead of being plain). It’s still mashed potatoes, but the texture is now different, and the person may not eat them now.
We are not a family who wants to stay away from the church potluck. Again, I love a good potluck. As a pastor, I know it is vital for my family needs to be present at the potluck. So, what do we do when the potluck does not have food he will eat?
We improvise and create a plan that works and allows us to enjoy the fellowship.
First, we plan. The first part of the plan is about making sure he knows the day will be longer than his expectations. He expects to leave as soon as possible after the benediction, so we work with him for a few days ahead of time to prepare him for that we will be staying after. We will also bring his tablet, which gives him comfort, Bluetooth headphones, and other items that can help keep him calm in a crowded room.
More importantly, though, we will pack food that he will eat so there is at least something for him to enjoy. This is not an uncommon practice for us. On a typical day, we make two-to-three different meals per meal based on our needs, our autistic son’s needs, and the needs of our youngest toddler. That is daily life. So, we come prepared with a lunch bag of finger foods that he can enjoy while we eat what is available.
For the longest time, I used to struggle with the potential judgment that may come with the pastor’s family not eating from the gathered food. I never want to offend anyone because, in my experience, the church easily gets offended when the pastor does not eat what is available. I understand that for the most part. Eventually, I realized that what is more important is the shared time with one another. The food is not as important as the fellowship. Is it more important that we are together or that my family eats that plate of cold chicken?
Finally, we are willing to leave earlier than others to care for our son’s anxiety in crowds. We typically do not hang around potlucks for long because it can be overwhelming for our son. Before the potluck begins, he has experienced anxiety-inducing noise, crowds, and sensory inputs that are only enhanced by more time together with a potluck. My family stays as long as they can and then leaves when he is ready to leave. This often means my family only stays for 10 minutes at a time. We do not worry about the length of time at a potluck, but the quality of the experience.
Potlucks can be amazing times of fellowship, but also ones that can provide a lot of stress for a spectrum family. By planning and being willing to adapt, a spectrum family can find ways to enjoy the moment of fellowship in their way.
While most of this has focused on the needs of the spectrum family, the church can practice acts of full inclusion during a potluck. A loving and resourceful person might ask a spectrum family what specific food item would be good to make available so that the family does not need to stress about making an extra meal.