Most of our nation has endured an extremely harsh winter. As a result, this spring has been met with a sigh of relief and a sense of welcome that seems stronger than in some years. Facebook is filled with images of dogwoods, bluebonnets, azaleas, iris and columbine in full bloom. It is a perfect time to talk about gardens!
Last week I suggested that the metaphor of gardening is a worthy way of thinking about healthy congregational life in the 21st century. In considering the garden, I noted that healthy gardens live in a dynamic tension with the seasons, they are marked by good soil, and their context plays a key role in their design and composition. The parallels to congregational life are numerous and profound.
This week, we turn our attention to the Gardener, for gardens only flourish under the watchful care of a gardener.
Who is the gardener for the church? For the purposes of this analogy, let’s assume that Christ is the landlord owner of the garden/church, and has designated its care to those who inhabit the church. For the sake of this analogy, I will assume that the role of the gardener or caretaker is one that is shared by all who love the church: laity and clergy alike. It is a labor of love and calling. Hopefully, our stewardship will end on a more positive note than those who cared for the vineyard in the parable of Matthew 21.
The gardener cares for the garden out of love and respect for what it is and can become. He/she gives time and energy out of sacrificial devotion to the potential they see in the garden. It is in the garden that the gardener finds fulfillment and meaning. It is not unusual to hear serious gardeners speak of their love of gardening as a passion and a spiritual exercise.
It is in the garden that the gardener discovers what matters most and finds peace. The garden is a reminder to the gardener that the most beautiful and meaningful parts of life cannot be purchased, rushed or manipulated.
A beautiful garden emerges from someone’s dream translated into a plan, followed by an implementation process. Beautiful gardens, like all things, are created twice. First, they are created in the sanctified imagination of the gardener. The second creation takes place in the hard work of cultivating and building the garden.
So it is with churches. A healthy congregation is one that can articulate its vision and is relentless in pursuing that dream. Clarity about the defining dream and design of the church is essential if it is to be healthy. Competing dreams and designs must be negotiated, or a congregation will find itself attempting the impossible task of being all things to all people.
Every garden designer must make choices, as a single garden cannot satisfy the expectations of everyone. Neither can a single church. Both achieve their highest potential when they focus their resources upon a specific manifestation that honors the landlord’s intent and is coherent and appropriate.
Vibrant and productive gardens emerge when well cared for. The gardener knows that their role is that of caretaker, and that role is pivotal for the long-term health of the garden. Excellent gardeners pay attention to the details. They don’t cut corners. They are vigilant in their care for the garden, even when it is not convenient. Worthy clergy and church leaders put aside personal agendas and care deeply for their parishioners and those in their field of service.
Disease, pests and predators are part of life for every gardener. Life in a healthy garden is often about identifying unhealthy plants or pests and dealing proactively with them. In churches, the ability to spot and diagnose unhealthy spiritual practices and/or dysfunctional habits and dynamics is at the heart of ensuring a healthy future for the congregation. Caring for the congregation means identifying threats and responding appropriately.
Gardens require patience, and gardeners must learn to trust the plants and environment to produce the growth, fruit and beauty they so desire. Gardens have a rhythm and timetable that we must adapt to. Some things in a garden cannot be rushed, and to attempt to do so courts failure.
Mature discipleship and effective ministry is a time-consuming, long-lasting process. Quick and easy answers to hard questions seldom hold up. Rather, it is the Christ-follower who waits patiently and wrestles with doubts and fears who finds a faith big enough for life.
I love Bob Dale’s emphasis upon congregations who encourage deeper faith and sustainability in his book Cultivating Perennial Churches. Gardeners and congregational leaders know that time can be our friend, and that the reality of growth means the best days of our work may well be ahead of us. Such dreams keep us coming back to garden, and the church, again and again.
Next week: The Plants