By Joe LaGuardia
There is an old joke that if you want to get pastors together, just offer free lunch.
Every joke is based, of course, on some truth: When there is a conference, association or convention meeting, revival, or non-profit fundraiser hoping to raise awareness and clergy support, a free meal is not only helpful in turning out numbers, it is also expected.
For the Reverend Mark O’Reilly of Discover the Point Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri, free lunches are a regular part of ministry and networking. He participates in various organizations and non-profits that insist on providing free lunches: from his local Baptist Association meeting to state conventions, local non-profits, and other parachurch organizations with which he participates.
A glance at Reverend O’Reilly’s calendar paints a picture of someone who does participate, but seems to bank on free food at such events: “It is true, I plan my calendar around free lunches locally and, at times, state-wide as well,” he said as if free lunches are but a perk of being a pastor.
Close scrutiny finds that Reverend O’Reilly attends an average of three free lunches a week over the entire year, saving him and his household thousands of dollars in grocery and lunch bills. He does not see this as an issue, but a way to raise visibility in the community, enrich the missional footprint that is a foundation of his church, and insure that he is networking with the best minds in the business.
“Discover the Point Church is built on values related to collaboration in God’s Kingdom with other believers, and with partnerships in our neighborhood. We like to reach out in as many ways as possible because we are Good News in the world today,” he states.
One of Reverend O’Reilly’s parishioners, Riba Neery, agrees. “Our pastor is successful because he is ‘out there.’ He does not hide in his office or preach an isolated or insular faith; he puts feet to faith–and challenges our own faith–by reaching beyond the church for the sake of the Gospel. It is part of the Great Commission, after all,” Neery says, quoting Jesus’ commission as recorded in Matthew 28.
Others are not as sympathetic to O’Reilly’s schedule. “I know that he is well-liked and known for being proactive in getting out in the community, but when does he find time to do pastoral care, write sermons, and run his church?”, said the Reverend Diana Lee of nearby St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.
Reverend O’Reilly has a simple defense to these (and other) charges. He reminds his critics that being available to the community, organizations, and his denomination is a part of what it means to be a pastor.
“Part of shepherding is to be in community and hear the needs of the people, be available to offer a helping hand with our missions and community partners, and build on friendships to further the cause of the local church. So what if I receive a free lunch while I am being the best pastor I can be?”
O’Reilly’s wife, Allena, understands the significance of his schedule and will defend his philosophy of ministry if pressed. She sees the benefit of saving money on the grocery bill (she is a stay-at-home mother of five).
But she also asks what it might cost to his health.
“I like the idea of not having to spend money on all that bread and lunch meat, but why can’t Mark order salads and water when he is out with his friends? Whenever he comes home, he tells me about how wonderful the pizza, pasta, Rubens, or fried chicken he had that day. I just think its a lot of calories and fat, and I’m worried about his weight,” she opines.
Her concerns are valid. Just last year, a Baylor Study stated that over a third of pastors are obese as recorded in Christianity Today.
“I know that there is a cost to all of this free food,” Reverend O’Reilly admits, “But you need to understand that when I attend all of these meetings, especially if held at a convention hall, I am also getting exercise walking from venue to venue. Even if I am having lunch with a colleague or pastor in town, you have to walk from the parking lot to the restaurant.”
This raises another point of interest for Reverend O’Reilly. He admits that in order to get a free lunch, you also need to buy lunch as well. He sees picking up the bill not so much as a social gesture, but an investment.
“There is some sweat equity in this game aside from having to walk to the restuarant. Sometimes you have to buy lunch for a new pastor or colleague, but there are always strings attached. If I pick up the bill and my colleague says something about paying, I’ll respond, ‘Oh, its on me, but the next time I’ll let you pay.’
“And there is always a next time. I make a note in my calendar and usually call that colleague about six weeks and ask to go to a pricier restaurant. I try to get the best return on my buck,” O’Reilly said.
Reverend Lee caught on to Reverend O’Reilly’s strategies soon after she arrived at St. Mark’s as its new rector. “Oh, yes, he offered to take me to lunch since I was new, said he wanted to talk to me about ministry in the neighborhood. And, yes, he did pick up the bill, which was generous since he invited me,” she said.
But things turned south. Lee continued, “He called me about four or five weeks later and asked to go to lunch again. I thought that a great idea, and I intended to pick up the bill — I mean, that’s what ministers do, it is something we are taught at seminary — but when he suggested Le Chef de Leon over on Sixth Avenue, I knew something was fishy. The plates there are about $15.00 or more–much more than the previous restaurant, and I thought that was not right. I declined.”
Asked if she would go to lunch with him again, maybe in a group, Reverend Lee responded: “I don’t feel the need to ask Mark. I’ll see him next Tuesday for lunch. The local United Way is sponsoring a lunch for pastors and chaplains in the community. I’m confident he will be there.”