Soil and Sacrament: Ministry as a Garden

WPU Community Garden

WPU Community Garden

Have you ever heard the saying, “When everyone’s responsible, no one’s responsible?” There is something about intentionality here, a bit of truth that can be illustrated in the community garden some of us are helping out with at William Penn University. At times, people assume they are not really needed or are too busy, and only a few people show up to do the work. Good intentions only go so far in gardening. What is needed is sustained intentionality if a garden is truly going to thrive.

Most people spend the lion’s share of their time working to earn their daily bread. This is just how the world works. This does not mean people give only their “leftovers” to the work of the community garden, though having lives perpetually crowded out with busyness is perhaps the greatest blight of our age. Neither am I trying to foster guilt. It just is a simple reality that humans are finite creatures, and somewhere, beneath all our good intentions we all find ourselves running the red line and needing to say no to things, if even for a night.

In the garden, we have the wonderful blessing of a paid intern named Holly. If everyone else is busy, Holly will still show up and give her best for an allotted amount of time. Holly simply cannot do all the work of the garden, but her meager amount of financial freedom and dedicated efforts provide for–in some small way–a sustained effort. Her pay does not make it Holly’s garden, it is still a community garden. When we show up and work alongside Holly, there is no pecking order at play. She knows things I don’t because she is there more often always gaining experience, she is a little more up to speed.  But the fact that she is paid, makes absolutely no difference as we work alongside one another doing the mundane and earthy work of the garden, and so it is with Quaker ministry.

Like a garden, ministry requires a sustained effort. Whether plants’ lives or human spiritual lives, a sustained effort–over a long haul–can make all the difference between a good harvest and a bad one. And like the work of the garden, the fact that I–as released minister here at College Avenue–am paid, should make no difference as we work alongside one another doing the work of the gospel here in Oskaloosa and beyond. There is no pecking order in Quaker ministry: we are all called to ministry, whether that means preaching, working on a committee, or milking a dairy cow. I am just a “minister among ministers,” just like Holly in the garden. The work is profoundly simple. What is needed is not always seminary trained “expertise” (though that helps), but intentionality, presence, and willing hands. As Jesus reminds us, ministry has its own Spirit led, agricultural cycle: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Mt. 9:37-38). There are spiritual times and seasons. During the busiest seasons it is crucial to have all the help we can get.

This leads us to the last of our CAF Covenant Statements, “We will recognize the challenge of Quaker pastoral leadership and will create an atmosphere where pastoral and individual ministries flourish.” It is easy to look at money, or seminary training, as creating a hierarchy. Quakers began as a non-pastoral movement for just this reason. Titles, power, and money are easily abused. Let me just tell you that being paid to serve a pastoral role here at College Avenue far from makes me feel like I am some elite “priestly class.” Being paid from tithe money is incredibly humbling and takes a lot of getting used to. Money that has been given as an offering to God’s work in the world, is no longer just money. It represents seeds sown in faith, not merely just “compensation” for my time. It is both an awesome responsibility and an enormous privilege to be serving in full time ministry, but money can complicate things in unexpected ways.

The dark side of being released financially for ministry is not necessarily that I will lose touch with reality, have an inflated ego, and feel superior to others–as much as that can play out in the churches at  times. What is often ignored is the opposite truth, that when people are paying you they can lose touch with the real purpose of the money they give and begin to believe that they are each your boss. It is easy to reason our way into thinking that if our money is empowering a minister to serve, that we should have a say in what that serving might look like. In theory, economics should have no affect on the actions of a church, or a pastor, outside of what can be done (as opposed to what should be done). But, in some sick and broken churches, money can be used as a weapon to control the actions of a pastoral leader.  Imagine for one second what it would be like to have 66 bosses (our average attendance on a Sunday). Imagine if 33 of your bosses loved one action of yours, and 33 others hated that very same action and kept reminding you how terrible they thought it was. Imagine if 15 of those bosses decided they were not going to pay you any more… and it began to seriously impact the ongoing ministries of the church. While nightmarish,  this position of weakness speaks to the challenge of pastoral ministry and to why so many ministers burn out or fade away.

The Quaker understanding of the Priesthood of All Believers should serve as a buffer to the previous scenario. In a non-hierarchical church structure there is no place for a power struggle. No place to “Lord it over” others. Jesus has all of the power and we are all simple stewards of the little bit that flows through us.

A garden, is a space that is set apart for transformation. When you look at a well kept garden, you know immediately it was no accident: it is quite apparent that a loving, intentional force has shaped it and called it into being in a creative act. Ministry is like a garden, a community garden of inclusive laborers, sustained effort, and shared power. We each have a hand in creating the atmosphere, and bringing health and vitality from what might otherwise just have been weeds. Ministry should not be seen through the metaphor of modern farming, whereby one person (or pastor) with specialized skills and equipment do the majority of the work alone. It is through the inclusive lens of a community garden that we can see ministry as something we all have a hand in; where the fruits are not counted as the score points of individuals, but as the sustained, loving efforts of a spiritual community rooted in a sense of place.

To create an atmosphere where pastoral and individual ministries truly flourish will require us to have a clear vision for what God is calling us to do, and what He is calling us not to do. It requires us to set aside some time to be together, and get our own hands dirty alongside one another as we dig through the “loam,” pull out the “weeds,” and gather the “fruits” of ministry to share. Being present and being available are most of what is required, coupled with willing hands available to serve. The work of ministry is not easy, but it is generally quite simple. What is needed to bear spiritual fruits is the same as that needed to bear physical fruits: a sustained effort done together in community. There are no shortcuts to be had in this, no fast forward to the finish line. As we plant seeds we do so in faith. As we wait impatiently for the harvest to come, we trust that Jesus is there in the process preparing the soil, going before us and guiding our hands. We trust that, in the end, the sweat and love poured into the dust will eventually bear the fruits of transformation, and make a real difference in the lives of real people.

The biggest obstacle to a successful spiritual “harvest” is often our own reluctance to contribute. As the adage I began with reminds us, “when everyone’s responsible, no one’s responsible.” Too quickly we fill our hands with other things and they become too full to grab a shovel and get down to business. It is not easy to prune our lives, but it is necessary if we hope to reap eternal fruit. If we want pastoral and individual ministries to flourish at College Avenue Friends, there are no shortcuts. There is no substitute for a sustained effort in a common direction, chasing after Jesus together in our own ways. Thomas Kelly reminds us that one can say “no,” just as faithfully as say “yes” when it comes to time commitments and gathering responsibilities. What must we say “no” to, or what must we say “yes” to, in order to say “yes” to the right things for the long haul? “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” What must we lay down so that we might be more available to work with God in a more sustained, and sustainable way?





About jtower11

Hi there! I am James Tower: A husband, father, dreamer, visionary, thinker, poet, mystic, metal-worker, and scholar. I have served College Avenue Friends since 2013. I like to describe the way God has been at work in my life by saying that "He has been creating in me the heart of a pastor, the mind of a scholar, and the zeal of a missionary." I have an extremely nontraditional background as Jesus has given me freedom from the slavery of addiction to drugs, and my journey to faith came later in life after an overdose in 2000. I graduated with a M. Div with an emphasis in biblical studies from George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland Oregon in 2016. I have a love for teaching and revealing the historical and doctrinal context from which the biblical text arises, and connecting its redemptive message to life today. Other interests include teaching a leadership class based on the Friends Testimonies at William Penn University, writing, and metalwork such as blacksmithing, a passion which I enjoy teaching others as a way of discipleship. View all posts by jtower11

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