In recent years, I’ve been giving a good deal of thought to metaphors that communicate clearly what a healthy church or minister is like. There are many, but the one I keep returning to is the garden.
As a gardener who finds personal renewal and energy in the rhythm and mystery of gardening and landscaping, I am drawn to this mindset as I engage congregations and clergy. I come from a long line of gardeners and ministers, and I find the overlap more than coincidence.
The garden is a powerful biblical theme that resonates deeply with me and with the way I approach ministry.
From beginning—“The Lord planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he formed” (Genesis 2:8)—to end—On either side of the river is the tree of life with its 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2)—the Bible speaks of gardens, gardeners and growing things.
Jesus taught many lessons involving plants, growth, agriculture and gardening. He invoked images of fig trees, soils, sowers, seeds, fruit, mustard seeds and vineyards to drive home his teachings.
The world of gardens, gardeners and plants offers profound implications for us as we seek to bring hope, help and healing to churches and clergy in the spirit of Christ.
The power of the seasons is never far from the mind of the gardener. At the heart of any issue or project in the garden lies a central question: What season is it? No season is unimportant, and each season is indispensible for a healthy garden.
We currently are enjoying the new life of spring after an especially intense winter. The wise gardener knows spring soon will fade into summer and prepares accordingly. Understanding the life cycle of a garden is critical to creating and sustaining a healthy growing environment.
In churches, our failure to understand life cycles may blind us to deeper causes than what prevailing symptoms suggest. Congregational life cycles are undeniable. Proactive renewal and re-imagining take place when leadership recognize the need for innovation and a fresh vision for ministry.
Just as a gardener knows the symptoms of decline, decay, renewal and new growth in the garden, so the congregation leader keeps one eye on today and one eye on tomorrow. Healthy churches know to anticipate and plan for what is coming, not simply to live in the moment.
Healthy soil is a prerequisite to healthy plants. Gardeners spend much energy and expense amending and improving the soil of their gardens. Doing so creates an environment conducive to vibrant growth.
Plants and gardens need food to survive. Light, water, nourishment and nutrients combine to provide the building blocks of growth for a plant or garden. Churches that thrive constantly seek ways to feed spiritual truth and insight to people. Using a wide array of learning vehicles, combined with sensitivity to learning styles, they constantly innovate and create rich learning and growth opportunities for their communities.
Healthy churches know sustainable Christians and congregations require deep, rich soil. The parable of the sower reminds us of the folly of expecting rocky or shallow soil to produce mature believers. Many churches need to consider what it would look like to think about going “deeper” and not simply “wider” in their approach to ministry.
Context matters. Plants that may thrive in a rain forest die quickly in the desert, and vice versa. Each plant adapts to its environment and finds a way to survive and thrive, or it must be moved to a setting more aligned with its DNA. The wise gardener knows to pay attention to climate zones, sun and shade tolerance, water requirements, etc.
While some aspects of gardening are transferable to any setting, most gardens must be custom-designed to their context.
Healthy churches are students of their setting and context. They understand their unique location and culture are defining components of their ministry. Ignoring them is inviting disaster.
Ministry has common components, no matter where it takes place. However, methods and approaches are germane to your city, county, neighborhood or region that differentiate you from all other congregations. Learning those distinctives and deliberately building a congregation that is congruent with them is essential for long-term health.
Bill Wilson is director of The Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C. His column is distributed by ABPnews/Herald.