Robert Martin likens church leadership to gardening because it requires knowledge of the climate, vision, and hard work.
I could have kicked myself. There I stood in front of our garden looking at a completely bare-naked area, just dirt and withered remnants of last season’s beauty. Then I looked at my neighbor’s garden, profuse with luscious blooms artfully arranged. Frustrated, I scolded myself: Why didn’t I plant my tulip bulbs last fall? I purchased the most wonderful array of bulbs over the summer and stored them in the basement. But during the fall I forgot all about those bulbs and their Eastertide glory as I scurried from task to task. Busy with daily routines and juggling many tasks, church leaders often forget to plan ahead and prepare for a faithful future.
In at least three respects, church leadership is a lot like gardening. First, gardeners have to know their particular spot of earth well enough to know what can grow and what cannot. Over the six years since we moved to Kansas City, I learned through trial and much error which plants grow in this crazy Midwest weather and impermeable clay soil.
The same is true of our leadership in congregations. No two congregations and no two groups in a congregation are the same. We cannot count on our favorite tricks to work in every situation. Each person, group, and situation is unique and calls for spiritually discerning creativity. Because God is present and active in every context in a unique way, we need to adjust to the special ways that the Holy Spirit is working. To serve faithfully, we need to get to know our contexts of ministry up close and on the inside, so that we come to see the situation as God sees it. To see with God’s eyes — the same eyes that looked down lovingly from the cross on his beloved mother and friends, on the criminals next to him, and also on hate-filled tormentors jeering at him — is the bedrock of leadership in the church.
A second way that leadership is similar to gardening has to do with our imaginative vision of what we will organize and plant. Based on a deep understanding of the particulars of the soil, climate, and plants, we can imagine lots of ways that plants can be arranged that would be beautiful and fruitful. But, of course, the trick is to adjust our vision of what is possible to what is really possible in that particular place.
We have heard it said that leaders should have a vision of a “preferred future.” But that is not theologically sound. Leaders should indeed have a vision. But our vision should be one that reveals not our preference but God’s will for us. A true vision for a church will disclose who we will be and what we will do if we are faithful to God’s work among us. To discern God’s vision is to participate more fully in what God is doing in a particular place and time and people.
Third, both leaders and gardeners need to get their hands dirty, working hard to prepare and nurture the ground for future growth. Discerning God’s future for us means that we need to participate ever more fully in what God is doing here and now.
Just as right bulbs need to be planted at the right time in the right soil, leaders need to discern God’s vision and plan far ahead for spiritual harvest. Cultivating our gardens and our congregations requires visionary and deliberate planning. In my experience, congregational leaders need to plan at least nine months to a year ahead.
In many congregations, summertime provides a more relaxed time to plan and prepare for a future harvest. Plan (yes, put it on your calendar now) to spend a few days and weeks in the important work of prayerful discernment of God’s will. Spend time in holy conversations with a diversity of persons seeking a common vision of and a plan for faithfulness to God’s vision. Prayer and spiritual conversation may not seem to be hard work, but they are the trowel and rake of spiritually attuned and effective ministry.
And then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, give yourselves — even if your numbers are small — to practicing the presence of God. The Kingdom of God is indeed at hand, but we must prepare ourselves for its emergence among us.
This article originally appeared in the Missouri Conference Review, May 5, 2006, and is used by permission.