I’m a purposed kind of guy—my mission statement is “to finish the Reformation”—and I’m a backyard gentleman farmer. So I was honored when I was invited to be part of a group who would promote and execute a plan to have a church garden. I’d read enough end-of-the-world literature to know that locavores will eventually control all significant food production, so I thought it proper for our congregation to get in on the ground floor of this good idea.
I was pleased to be among garden people. They understand how small steps seed world-changing movements. It turned out, too, that they were devotees of futurist Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World (Penguin Books, 2007), which names bazillions of small organizations that are changing the world.
Like all good gardeners, we named the harvest we envisioned. Our list of goals was long, but also modest. It looked like this:
Provide fresh produce for the food pantries in town.
Help congregation members learn how to grow their own food.
Present the refugee families in our congregation with space and resources for growing food to fit their cultures.
Give parents a way to teach their kids important life lessons.
Turn useless lawns into environmentally friendly spaces.
Bring special beauty to an otherwise-normal church landscape.
Grow our own altar flowers.
Encourage other congregations to follow our example.
We would achieve those goals simply enough by turning the entire front lawn—except for the tasteful and easily visible church signage—into a set of raised-bed garden plots. We would terrace a small hillside, repurpose an overgrown weed patch (the former church garden fallen on hard times), and find mini-garden space between hedges, trees, and mystery plants known only to the congregation’s charter members.
How the Idea Developed
All of us were experienced gardeners (and also experienced process people), so we started our crusading work with care and respect for others. (You understand, of course, that gardeners are actually crusaders armed with shovels, and who smell of strong fertilizer.) Here’s what our process looked like:
We talked to called-and-ordained, duly elected, carefully hired, and informally named congregation leaders about our idea.
We consulted with a world-famous landscape architect—a venerable member of the
church for decades—to get his recommendations.
We planned a set of adult forums on the subjects of saving the world with gardens, appreciating nature, and redeeming children’s sorry lack of knowledge about dirt and bugs.
We stealth-marketed our idea among congregation members. (You are aware, of course, how well-purposed leaders can use between-services coffee times for viral marketing!)
We did a quick check of the assets available for this idea. We had enough of them to proceed with the planning.
We Run into Hard Soil
From the start of our well-considered process, though, the idea began to run into problems. Like a shovel digging into clay, our propositions didn’t get very far:
The landscape architect reminded us that in our growing zone, gardens are basically dormant and ugly for about seven months of the year. (The evangelism and hospitality teams don’t like “ugly” next to tasteful church signs.)
The business manager verified that before the 1970s wing was added, part of the lawn had been an asphalt driveway. An old-time member noted that the contractor spread soil and grass seed over the asphalt to make a lawn! (You are aware, of course, that asphalt makes a poor soil for everything except rogue zucchini.)
The landscape architect also recalled that the rest of the seemingly lush lawn was planted on top of soil that had been thoroughly compacted during the many months when large construction equipment ran to and fro like rabbits looking for baby lettuce.
Although attendance at the forums was encouraging, the number of people signing up to be gardeners for the summer was as sparse as flowers on an overwatered tomato plant.
Congregational staff, church council members, and other helpful folks reminded us that the soon-to-be-repurposed weed patch had sunk to its miserable
state because of the lack of volunteer gardeners in the past. (You know, of course, that weeds in a garden are removed by many grubby fingers, not weed-killer sprays!)
We heard murmurs about legal matters. Was it possible that a rumored 1945 ordinance—thanking citizens for replanting their front-yard victory gardens with beautiful lawns—could still be on the books? Would a set of raised beds become an “attractive nuisance,” growing our liability premiums to the height of sweet corn? Would we require extra police patrols in case local zany teens decided to spray paint their joyful pre-Halloween slogans on our pumpkins? Would our theft policy cover the deft removal of various spice plants by unknown spaghetti sauce chefs? (You are aware, of course, that many chefs do not grow their own spices!)
The End of a Good Idea
It was soon apparent that our ability to save the world with a church garden was heading south, losing steam, sucking air, rotting in the ground, or running on fumes. Sadly, none of those options matched our imagined outcomes. The optimum time for planting in our hardiness zone came and went. We decided to put the idea on hold. No church garden this year. Some smaller outcomes are emerging, though:
Participants in the refugee women’s sewing club are exploring the weed patch to see what they might make of it.
A few members, parents included, got excited enough to start or restart their home gardens.
The highly respected landscape architect inspired some young adult members to recall the long and continuing history of Earth care among Christians. In doing so, he transferred yet another part of his legacy to yet another generation.
Consciences were pricked, deep motivations stirred, hopes rekindled, warnings heard, Scripture and prayer deployed into members’ lives.
Why I Tell This Story
I tell this cautionary tale for another reason besides warning other highly purposed individuals like you about the perils of church gardening. There’s a lesson here about matters important to almost every congregation. (You are aware, of course, that we storytellers always turn our experiences into metaphors that we can foist on unsuspecting readers who thought they were reading an article about how to start a church garden.) Because of this experience, here’s what I’m thinking about congregations:
The entire Christian church on Earth is crammed full of good ideas. We have more of them than W. Atlee Burpee’s company has seeds. But good
ideas are worthless—even tyrannical—unless they turn into good deeds.
Even with a surfeit of plausible, actionable ideas, more and more congregations are hunkering down or spending much of their time fighting, fleeing, and freezing on account of fearsome stress or danger in the world around them.
The vitality of many of our congregations seems to center on the good people we hope will act on our good ideas. (You are aware, of course, that purposed leaders like you and me are the source of many of those good ideas.) We may forget, though, that many or most congregation members fulfill their life purpose outside of the purview of congregational life. They see themselves as workers, parents, spouses, friends, coaches, volunteers, and other civic-minded leaders—world changers in their own settings and their own ways.
The people of God have only so much attention—the first and foremost asset in any decision making—and only so much time and so much energy. They have to make choices about how best to steward these precious gifts from God’s Spirit. They’re trying to cover too many good intentions with too few assets.
Because of the times we’re living in, congregation members are living under enormous stress. That means that they’re also hunkering down—in their homes, friendships, tattered careers, or fearful communities—and stressed to the breaking point. When it comes to saving the world, they’re thinking about tilling their own gardens on their own front lawns.
To say this another way: It may be time for us to reexamine the notion that the Church as institution is the likely place where this and coming generations will want to plant their bulbs, spread their mulch, stake their tomatoes, or hoe their weeds. The venue for their sense of purpose may not be congregations with large front lawns and many good ideas.
Another Way of Thinking
So, what would a purposed reexamination of congregational purpose look like? Shifting the focus of congregational life back onto its members’ lives! In Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy (FT Press, 2009), author and consultant Dev Patnaik details many examples of companies who have successfully shifted their philosophies to truly customer-oriented ways of thinking. They think of customers as people like themselves in many ways—customers behaving not according to economic theories but in predictably irrational ways, customers wanting to be understood deeply.
How would I approach world-saving gardening in that frame of mind? I think I’d act in these ways:
I’d disconnect world-saving outcomes from their dependence on the congregation’s property, structure, and ways of getting things done.
I’d work harder at listening to the deeper capabilities and yearnings of congregation members—about their lifework, their life purpose, their own sense of saving the world one life at a time.
I’d redirect the ideals for any good idea toward equipping people—refugees, parents, people with beginning interests—for their own gardening, their own acts of kindness, their own bringing of justice, their own plowing of evil into its garbage dump.
I’d measure success by the number of children with dirt under their fingernails, the people who started container gardens on the balcony of their apartment, the amount of home-grown produce congregation members delivered to the food pantries, the smiles on the faces of our refugee families, and the number of articles similar to this that are submitted to the editors of other storied journals. (You are aware, of course, that God wants all of us to be world-saving writers.)
Thanks for Reading
This tale has ended, but not our shared thinking about how to keep our congregations thriving, growing, and yielding good results for God’s purposes. I hope hat you have found a good harvest here for your own highly purposed life.
And if you’re running out of good ideas, I have another one: Let’s finish the Reformation together!
Books by Bob Sitze
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