Bread Baking Guild

contributed by Colleen Holt, Conway First UMC communicator

Out of a Communion quandary has come a tasty new ministry at Conway First United Methodist Church: a Bread Baking Guild.

When the church’s traditional Communion bread — a large loaf of Hawaiian bread — became unavailable during the Covid pandemic, things became more labor intensive for the Altar Guild members, who began cutting individual Hawaiian rolls into cubes to use during intinction. Another issue was the absence of a great alternative for the celebrant loaf to be broken during Communion.

Once the church primarily opened up after the pandemic, staff and laity began looking for alternate bread sources. Sourdough loaves were too crumbly and too hard. Pastors had difficulty breaking pieces of bread, such as large French loaves, which would break off into pieces that were too difficult to handle by those receiving the meal.

Left with this big Communion question mark, the church’s director of music and worship ministries, Jason Saugey, began an epic search for the perfect bread. He started his search close to home — at his member church of St. Margaret’s Episcopal in Little Rock.

During a call with Rev. Mary Vano, rector at St. Margaret’s, Jason learned that the parish had also been on a search for the best Communion bread and how to deliver the elements, especially considering Covid restrictions. Communion is served each Sunday in the Episcopal church, and bread is in very high demand. Their solution? Bake Communion bread each Friday using a specific recipe that can create a loaf easily usable by the celebrants, that holds up well to the liquid part of the Communion offering, and also provides enough bread for all to partake.

Jason was able to get a copy of this well-thought-out recipe and began doing some dry runs at home. Each loaf is about six inches in diameter. “The recipe makes three hot cross buns that are ready to break. Each loaf breaks naturally into four quadrants. With the first loaf, we sampled it at home. We broke it, we scored it in a cross on top,” he said.

The recipe includes whole wheat and white bread flour, along with sweeteners of honey and molasses. “The honey and molasses seem to make the bread more dense,” said Jason. “With this type of dense bread, you can better control portion size.”

The next part of Jason’s testing included the pastors at Conway First UMC — pastor couple Revs. Michael and Dede Roberts. “I gave them the second loaf I made. I told them to do with it all they would do at church. Break it. Dip it. Notice that there are practically no crumbs with it.”

The third loaf was put to the test to determine how much in advance the bread could be prepared. What Jason found is that the loaf does not stand up to being placed in a cool refrigerator or freezing. “The honey and molasses become really, really dense when frozen. It’s not as pliable.” Since the bread can stay fresh for quite awhile without refrigeration, he has recommended that the bakers prepare the bread on Friday or Saturday, put it in foil and a storage bag, and bring it to the church on Sunday morning.

Each Communion Sunday, three bakers make one batch — three loaves — of bread. On Sunday morning, they arrive at church around 8 a.m. and take two loaves to the Sanctuary for the two services held in that venue and one loaf to the Great Hall for the Good News Celebration. In addition to having a great loaf of bread, Jason sees this ministry as being a unifier that sees all three very different worship services sharing a common meal. “This plan has worked really well,” he says.

During the search for the perfect loaf of bread, some of the “mathematical, scientific minds” in the Conway FUMC Altar Guilds were skeptical of how many people each loaf could serve. The goal was for each loaf to serve about 100 people.

In September, Jason gathered these “skeptics” for a training session. “I brought all the baking supplies and my mixer to the church. The members helped devise the procedures. And, we kept all of this amongst ourselves as we put this together.”

Once the dough was put together, it was about the size of a pomelo, which is a large citrus fruit considered to be an ancestor of the grapefruit. After rising for an hour, the dough had about doubled. It was then divided into three balls and set to rise for 10 more minutes. It did rise a bit more and was then baked and cooled.

Now the testing came to a crucial point: breaking the bread. Jason said the loaves easily broke into quarters, and each quarter was broken into pieces, getting 25 pieces out of each quarter. The control group included six or seven Altar Guild members who closely watched the breaking to make sure the piece sizes were consistent.

“This bread is exactly the right bread for the way we do Communion with intinction,” Jason said. “We were all bolstered with that outcome.”

The last three months of 2022 were assigned to teams for baking. Jason manages the ingredients, preparing a kit that includes the dry ingredients of both flours, instant yeast, and salt. This reduces their measuring to just the liquids. The bakers can come to the church at the end of each week to get their baking kit, and he has also passed along some of the liquid ingredients such as olive oil and molasses. 

The first real test was Communion on October 2. The loaves were delivered by the bakers, prepared for serving, and used at worship. “It was a complete success,” Jason said. The only batches of bread not used? The two that Jason made “just to have in case,” he said, laughingly.

The Bread Baking Guild has now been opened to bakers throughout the church community, and another training will be held soon. Jason encourages people of all baking experiences to contribute to this ministry, which he calls “a special parish-wide ministerial endeavor.”

“We are furthering that unity we feel at Conway First UMC. Ministries such as this strengthen the entire parish as a whole. We want to include everybody in such unifying elements.”

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