They go by various names—circle suppers, dinner for eight, second Friday suppers. When they work well they bring friends, newcomers, and members of the congregation together monthly to share food and get acquainted. They can be a powerful tool for creating community in any sized congregation.
But organizing them can be challenging. Trying to make sure that diners eat with different people each month can be the most difficult part, say organizers. Kathleen Walker is a former coordinator of circle suppers at the First Unitarian Church, Worcester, MA (435 members). In early September she would put slips of paper with names of the 60 or so participants in a hat, then draw them out one by one, create guest lists for September through May dinners, and make final adjustments. “It’s never perfect,” she says, “but it worked pretty well.”
There aren’t many rules at Worcester. Hosts call their guests early in the month to decide who brings what. The host provides the main dish. Others bring appetizers, bread, side dishes, and dessert. Hints: Ask those who can’t come to call their hosts early. Leave extra places so that people new to the church can be added midyear. Have a list of alternates. Include singles. Some congregations call theirs “Dinner for Seven” to emphasize inclusiveness.
Don’t stand on formality, says Walker. “We’ve had elegant suppers around big tables, and sometimes we’ve divided into several rooms to eat. These dinners are a good way to bring people closer. We get to know people in ways that we cannot on Sunday morning. And it’s especially good for new people.”
Invite people to sign up in late summer through the newsletter and e-mail. Personally invite new people. Fixing one day each month for all the dinners can simplify planning. Participants learn to keep that date open. A host who wants a different date is always free to arrange it with guests.
At the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Fresno, CA (330), each fall Pat Looney-Burman uses the circle supper participant list from the previous year. Those who want off the list—or on—are asked to contact her. A spreadsheet includes name, address, phone, email, and columns for whether they will host and when.
At the start of each month she picks hosts, draws guest names from a bag and assigns them to hosts, then emails hosts with the guest lists. She overbooks, since it’s rare everyone can attend. Participants need not all be hosts.
Some congregations avoid congregational business at dinners, focusing on getting acquainted. At the UU Community Church, Sacramento, Calif. (88), topics are suggested. The dinners have observers who ensure everyone has a chance to talk, says coordinator Laura Osborne.
At the First UU Society, Marietta, OH (94), there’s also a “no church talk” rule at dinner, but it gets broken, says coordinator Jim Rapp. The dinner host is asked to guide the conversation when it strays into awkward areas.
At Unity Church-Unitarian, St. Paul, MN (818), circle supper folks dine with the same people four months running, then change. Some dinner groups there are based on age: young adults, families with teens, etc. There’s also an elders lunch group.
Have fun with dinners. Some congregations have sold cookbooks with circle supper recipes. The UU Fellowship of Athens, GA (204), livened its Round Robin dinners one year with The Year of the Male Cook. “We’d noticed that women were doing most of the real cooking,” said Dru Riley Evarts. “We required that the men, whether married or single, had to actually cook. We got some great new dishes—some unidentifiable—and the guys got a charge out of it.”