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Chili cook-off connects to community

Chili cook-off connects to community

Fun is served on both sides of the table. Photo from North Naples Church.

What better way to connect a church with its neighboring community than by serving steaming hot cups of chili? That’s exactly what happened when the North Naples UMC reached out to its neighbors inviting them to enjoy a chili cook-off on Feb. 20.

“We knew as a church we had to have events to connect with the community,” said Stephanie Kulek, North Naples Director of Marketing. “It was not a fundraiser; it was … a connection event.”

Recently the church staff redesigned its discipleship strategy and selected to connect with the people in its surrounding community as a foundation.

“We were going to get them to the church to attend worship services or an event,” Kulek said. “Moving along, the aim was to try to get them involved in a type of study group, then to serve in volunteering for the church or serving in a mission. That was a new discipleship program.”

Needing an event to launch the program during the winter season, Kulek remembered sharing the fun of many chili cook-offs in the northern U.S. where she grew up.

“Our administrator thought it was a good idea and had participated in a few chili cook-offs herself,” Kulek said. She and the administrator sold the idea to church pastor Rev. Ted Sauter and the more than 2,000 members of the congregation, many of whom were not familiar with a chili cook-off.

Steelpan percussionists add a musical flavor to the cook-off's atmosphere. Photo from North Naples Church.

They marketed the event and participants began to register, including members of the community having no connection with the church.

“We had a FaithWorks group cook a pot of chili,” Kulek said. “They are a ministry group and meet on campus the second Saturday of every month.” They “volunteer in the community or work on campus. The United Methodist Men made a pot of chili and offered to get people to join them.”

Each group competing provided a five-gallon pot of chili, served to attendees by the cup. Many participants shared their recipes with attendees.

“The purpose was to let the community know we are here and we are fun,” Kulek said. “The pastor had so much fun and worked the crowd.” She added that the focus was not a “huge church” theme: It was about having fun and making connections.

“We had people visiting here who were looking for a home church, to also see what we were all about and who stayed for the whole event,” she said. “It was just so much energy and everyone was having so much fun.”

Games, Legos and a bounce house enticed younger children, and the church youth were in charge of a dunk tank that every young person wanted to get into, Kulek added.

Trophies included an grand prize overall, traditional chili, most unique chili and a best decorating theme for a chili group. The church board of stewards won the people’s choice award.

Five volunteers easily handled the event. Admission was five dollars per person, with children under age 14 free. The fees covered expenses.

And what about next year? With leftover monies placed in a fund, plans are to make the event even bigger and better with a larger attendance, Kulek said.