Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How to Offer Gluten Free Communion

I often get questions from other pastors asking how to offer gluten free bread for communion. First of all, thank you for asking, pastors! Making the Lord's Supper available to all (or, in my tradition, all the baptized) is incredibly important. Food allergies or intolerances should never bar anyone from the Lord's table. Offering gluten free bread is an incredible way of saying, "Welcome! Come on in!" to a growing population with food intolerances.

There are three basic approaches that can be used when offering gluten free communion: 1. The all gluten free option, 2. The some gluten free option, or 3. The individual gluten free option. Let's investigate these further.

1. All gluten free.
As a pastor, my hands are all over the communion bread. Though our deacons prepare the bread, I hold it up and break it in view of the congregation. The plates of bread sit together on the communion table, within crumb-shedding range of one another. Additionally, I bring communion to peoples' homes in the weeks following the sacrament, and partake with them.

I brainstormed a bit, the deacons brainstormed a bit, and we came up with what seemed to be the easiest solution: all gluten free communion.

In short, if you are the pastor and you have gluten free needs, the easiest thing to do is to use only gluten free bread or wafers for the Lord's Supper. This eliminates having to watch your hands while also celebrating the sacrament. I'd much rather be focused on God, the liturgy, and the congregation with my whole mind and heart than be thinking, "Gosh, did I brush the unsafe bread with my hand? Should I not partake this morning with the congregation? Is that even OKAY with my church polity? Uh oh... WHERE was I in the liturgy, again?"

My congregation has been incredibly wonderful about this transition, and several of the deacons made sure to wash and sterilize the communion supplies so that I wouldn't have to worry about cross-contamination. What wonderful and thoughtful folks!

Not to mention that there's something downright important in sharing a common loaf together with your congregation. There's something kinda wrong about breaking bread for the congregation and then popping a piece of something else into your mouth, in my opinion.

2. Some gluten free.
This is a good option if you know you have several folks with gluten free needs in your church, and if you practice intinction or common cups. Set aside one communion station (bread and cup) as always gluten-free. Make sure that the congregation and the servers know, and that no one grabs bread from another station and dips it in the gf cup.

It's best to keep this station the same (always the far left aisle, or always the center back of the church, etc.). Also, if regular bread or wafers are used for everyone else, the pastor cannot be the one serving the bread at the gf station (his/her hands will likely have gluten on them from breaking the bread earlier).

3. Individual gluten free.
In this option, the pastor or priest can keep a tiny amount of the gf sacrament in his/her robe or pocket in a closed container. Advertise that this gf communion is available, and where to get it. People can go forward to the officiant and request the gf communion. The officiant can then produce the gf sacrament and allow the gluten free congregants to grab their own bread/wafer out of the container. Again, this avoids the possibility cross contamination. This is a good option when there are no known gf needs in the congregation, but occasional visitors may have them. It's also a good option for churches with large tourist populations, like Princeton's University Chapel (pictured below) or Oxford's Christ Church Cathedral (which offers this gf option).

When this option is used a separate cup will have to be readily available as well, if intinction or a common cup is used. At a church I used to attend in Nashville, I would take the gf wafer from the priest but not dip it in the common cup. One element of the sacrament was far better than nothing, but it would have been great to have the wine as well.

I was stupid once, and dipped my gf wafer in the common cup. Tummy rumblings ensued, and I learned (again) my lesson.

Important things to remember when offering gluten free communion:

1. Advertise. Leave a note in the bulletin, have the pastor mention the option before the words of institution, or post a flyer on a visible bulletin board so that those with gluten free needs who visit will know that there is an option available for them. This makes an incredible difference in welcoming visitors who suffer from gluten intolerance.

If the sacrament you offer is free of other common allergens as well, you may want to list those also.

2. Don't share serving implements/utensils. Gf bread/wafers and regular ones can NEVER be on the same plate (if even a crumb of the regular bread gets in the gf bread, it is no longer gf). They cannot even be on the same plate that regular bread/wafers were on a few moments ago. If bread is prepared by the deacons, gf bread can NEVER be prepared on the same plate or cut with the same knife as the regular bread. Wash plates and utensils thoroughly between uses, if there's a chance regular and gluten free serving items have been switched.

Some restaurants, like PF Changs, have begun offering different colored plates for gf meals. This may be a good idea if using the "some gluten free" option. That way congregants can know to go to the tan gf plate rather than the blue regular one.

3. Beware cross contamination. Keep the gf offerings far away from the regular ones. If plates are covered, be sure there is a designated gf cover or linen cloth (crumbs can easily stick to linens and contaminate the gf offerings). Once a piece of regular bread has been dipped into a gf chalice of juice or wine, that liquid is no longer gf. If a plate of gf bread sits right next to a plate of regular bread and there's a slight breeze, the gf bread can be contaminated.

4. Go all out. Offering gf communion is not something that can be done in a halfhearted manner, because for the 1-3% of Americans with Celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or gluten sensitivity (as well the significant percentage with other gluten-related health concerns, including Autism), even a molecule can be enough to set off a reaction.

5. Be brave. If you are new to this whole scene, don't be discouraged. Feel free to email me with questions, or talk to the gluten free folks around you to ask what would be easiest and best. The important thing is to continue offering communion to all - food allergies or intolerances should never, ever be an obstacle to those who want to take the sacrament of communion. Christ's body is broken for them (us!), too.

Tomorrow's post? WHAT to use for gluten free communion! Stay tuned!


  1. Thanks for the post. This way helpful and informative. We offer gluten free wafers in addition to the bread - but we have been doing it wrong. Thanks for the corrective.

    Grace & Peace,

  2. Hey Pat - what were you doing wrong? (It helps folks to hear what others have learned!). Glad the post was helpful!


    Kristen the owner bakes gluten free communion bread for my church. It works out as just over $1 a week and the bread doesn't crumble.


  4. We came up with a way for people to subtly request gluten-free wafers without having to say anything (three members of the church are known celiacs). The note in the bulletin instructs people to extend their hands palms down first to indicate they need gluten-free, and this is the cue to the clergy to go to the altar for the supply of pre-consecrated GF wafers that we always keep handy.

    The one thing we probably need to change is that we've been picking up the GF wafers to serve with the same fingers we've used to serve regular wafers, which is not great. There is something much less personal/incarnational about holding out a dish for people to take the wafer themselves (rather than placing it into their hands), but for the sake of everyone's health and well-being, we probably need to go that route.

    Thanks so much for your helpful article, which I've shared with members of our altar guild to help them understand why we've started doing this!

  5. This is a great idea, Diana! I will mention it in a future post.

    And yes - unfortunately the gf wafer cannot be picked up if you want to ensure 100% safety for your congregation. Picture gluten as poison for those who are gluten intolerant - even a little wheat/poison dust is too much.

    Thanks for spreading the word!

  6. So cool. We just ran into this problem at church yesterday! We started eating GF a week ago and when we saw the communion table with the bread on it we were in a quandary. lol Thanks for addressing the issue!

  7. Thanks so much for this! I felt alone and always just skipped the "bread", but wanted to participate as well. I'm gluten intolerant, but am very allergic to wheat and potato (whose starch is in most GF breads). I'll be sharing this post on my blog! :)

  8. AnonymousJuly 14, 2012

    Thanks for such specific and helpful advice on gf options! I am very sad to say that this has become a divisive issue in our congregation. Our pastor began offering only gluten-free bread a few months ago, and after many complaints about the crumbly nature of the bread, the bread-bakers switched to a mix (I don't know which one.) Personally, I find this bread completely fine -- we're not coming to a restaurant after all, but the Lord's table! However, many folks still complain about the dryness. One woman began to choke a couple of minutes after communion a few weeks ago and had to be given the Heimlich. Has anyone else experienced such an extreme reaction to gf bread? We are still using the gf bread in an attempt to be welcoming, but now we are alienating long-time members. Pastor did not want to offer both, for the added complexity, danger of cross-contamination, and the personal style of our distribution -- but I think we need to reconsider. Any thoughts?

    1. Pamela's Wheat Free Gluten Free mix makes a good supple loaf that really is not dry. I used to bake it for my church and I used homemade broth for the water and that gave a nice flavor. Hands down it was the best choice we found and it is not expensive. It just has to be baked by someone, preferably who has a gf kitchen. It is the least expensive on Amazon, buy enough to get free shipping and use suscribe and save for an extra discount. Keep a spare loaf in the freezer for the odd time when things go wrong and the regular loaf does not appear.

  9. Anonymous - it sounds like an issue with the type of bread being used, and perhaps the size of the pieces. If it's cut into small pieces the day of, it should be okay. We use Udi's, but Canyon Mountain White is another good one. Both breads are best kept frozen until the day before use - otherwise they will dry out quickly.

    Please don't give up! It may help to encourage your longtime congregants with some of the stories from blogs like mine, and also to remind them that one bite of dry bread, which they may not love, is still edible for them, while one bite of gluten-containing bread can make others very, very ill--sometimes for days on end.

    Keep fighting the good fight! I'm happy to answer any other questions, or even email your pastor to answer his/her questions, too.

  10. We began serving all gf bread at Communion yesterday. We have 2 venues. One used Udi's and another used Great Harvest. At both locations, the floor was covered with drops of grape juice afterwards. We're speculating that the gl bread is not as absorbent as that made with wheat. As congregants walk away from the table, they're dripping juice all the way back to their seats. Anyone else had this problem? Any suggestions?

  11. I always bring my own bread to church on the days I know we are having Communion. Since we use individual cups of juice, that's no problem--they just use grape juice.

  12. AnonymousJune 17, 2013

    What about in a church where a communion tray is passed around--the 'bread' on a small tray in the middle of the larger tray with individual communion cups? I can't trust the individual cups, since people before me may have inadvertently dropped grams of the 'bread' into one or more of the cups. And since we don't have a 'station' to go to for communion, we are having a hard time figuring out a way to make it work without it being quite awkward. Oh, and the cost of gf 'bread' for all is prohibitive at this point.

    1. Pamela's Wheat Free Gluten Free mix is inexpensive and is not dry. Cheapest on Amazon if you buy enough for free shipping and use subscribe and save for an extra discount. One loaf serves a lot of people. We just used a gf loaf for a regional conference and a regular size loaf served over 200 people with plenty of bread left over.

  13. When contemplating switching to some system of gf communion it is wise for a church to think of the future should some balk at the change. Families who tend to be gluten syndrome may have several members who eventually go gf as there is a strong genetic component to susceptibility, not always, but often. The catch is that 83% of the Caucasian population carry gluten syndrome genes, never mind other groups, so expect the numbers of gf communicants to continue to rise. Research is showing that celiac (villi damaged) disease is only one small subset of autoimmune gluten syndrome and other subsets just have the same serious damage in other organs and tissues like the nerves, heart, pancreas, thyroid, joints, etc. Those who carry 2 genes, which is also incredibly common, will pass one of those gluten syndrome genes on to their children. Churches that balk or grumble at accommodation may find that some members may simply drop out, as they look ahead at the prospect of not only missing out on communion themselves for life, but raising children and some grandchildren who cannot participate, ever, in communion, either, at that church. Many folks have shared with me that they felt so badly at being left out that they stopped going to church, or if they were comfortable leaving, changed churches. It is unpleasant to worship in an atmosphere of unChristian disdain, silent disgust or disbelief of food intolerance. The pastor, or more likely the pastor's wife, is wise to keep an eye out for these unspoken but keenly felt, situations, perhaps even question the gf communicants to be sure they feel comfortable and accepted. It can be a little tricky since a few, particularly teens, may be sensitive not only to rejection, but may not wish to discuss it, particularly at first. If there is an undercurrent of angst in the congregation, making articles available explaining the need for strictness may ease discontented members.


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