The Pot Roast Principle and Change

by | Aug 15, 2018 | Formation, Reflections, Systemic change | 3 comments

The Pot Roast Principle and Change

There are many versions of the “Pot Roast Principle.” It is a story I have often used to explain how many things we do without understanding the reasons even when conditions have changed.

One day after school a young girl noticed that her mom was cutting off the ends of a pot roast before putting it in the oven to cook for dinner. She had seen her mom do this many times before. When asked why her mom answered “I don’t know. it’s what my mom always did. Why don’t you ask your Grandma? ” Her grandmother, in turn, replied, I don’t know. That’s just the way my mom always cooked it. Why don’t you ask her?

So, undeterred, she called her great-grandmother, who was living in a nursing home and at last got an answer. Great Grandma explained. “When I was first married we had a very small oven, and the pot roast didn’t fit in the oven unless I cut the ends off.

Generations had done the same thing in spite of the fact there was no longer any necessity for doing it that way. It was just “the way I have always done it.”

The Pot Roast Principle in Ministry

I remember a few years ago being present at a “listening session” held by a group offering quite a few important services in their neighborhood. Their food bank, in particular, was underutilized. Someone finally realized it might be good to ask the people they served what they could do better. To make a long story short, when they listened to the people they were amazed to learn that their food bank was not open at times when those who needed their services could come.

No one had thought to ask if there was a better time to be open.

Now suppose Vincent had never asked himself any questions when he observed the crowd of people rushing to serve the same sick family on the outskirts of the village. Intuitively he asked “Is there a better way? Let’s organize the response to their need.” Thus was born the Confraternities of Charity and later the AIC and the volunteers who work in every continent!

Questioning ministry

What are the questions we should be asking about our ministry today?

  • Why are we doing things the ways we do them?
  • Is there a better way to do them today?

These are basic questions that must be asked in every ministry.


  • When was the last time I asked why are we doing things this way and is there a better way of doing it?
  • When, and with whom, will I ask these questions today?


  1. Ross

    Thank you, John.

    As you know, Pope Francis associates “the pot roast principle” with complacency. Evangelii Gaudium 33 reads:

    “Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: “We have always done it this way”. I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities. A proposal of goals without an adequate communal search for the means of achieving them will inevitably prove illusory. I encourage everyone to apply the guidelines found in this document generously and courageously, without inhibitions or fear. The important thing is to not walk alone, but to rely on each other as brothers and sisters, and especially under the leadership of the bishops, in a wise and realistic pastoral discernment.”

    I like his point, too, about not walking alone.

    • John Freund, CM

      Thanks, Ross, for making the connection with Evangelii Gaudium.

  2. Sr. Marjory Ann Baez

    Thank you very much!