By Eddie Pipkin

I’m not much of a gardener.  I love growing things—love my yard—love green things in general.  But I’m not disciplined enough to grow a formal garden.  Our yard has a lightly loved, slightly overgrown-around-the-edges vibe (which is why we don’t live in a neighborhood with a homeowner’s association).  Such spasmodic attentiveness can lead to interesting surprises.  I recently removed some window box flowers that had outgrown their home, but rather than just tossing them, I placed them in a larger, empty planter in another part of the yard, and lo, and behold, there they flourished!  It was a great ministry reminder: people, too, can grow beautifully in unexpected places, if we give them a chance.

I had some impatiens in a ‘windowsill box’ hanging from the deck rail, and they had been there for a few months and were now looking leggy, faded and past their prime.  I heaved them out of there and planted some healthier looking new blooms in their place for the fall.  But the old stems still had some blooms, and while they looked sort gangly and ridiculous in the squat rail-hanging planters from which I removed them, I tossed them into a washtub planter with much deeper sides and dumped a little water on them just to see what would happen. I sort of pushed them down into the loose dirt by hand—not a lot of precision gardening involved.  To my surprise and delight, within a couple of days though, they were looking great, revived and full of blooms, and proportionally perfect in their new washtub home.  Maybe it was a change in the light they were receiving, maybe there was more room for their roots to roam—who knows—as we’ve established, I’m no master gardener.  But they are still prospering in their new home, doing their thing with grace and beauty, and blessing all who walk by.  What had at one time seemed like a has-been, past-its-prime planting, discovered new life and new purpose in a different setting.

It’s not absurd to think of ministry folk as blooms (early bloomers, late bloomers, showy bloomers, quiet bloomers).  It’s certainly appropriate to think of those we lead in ministry as precious living resources that we hopefully nurture so that they may grow and flourish.  I have long argued that because we are program-oriented, we default to filling cubbyholes as ministry resource management—you may be more familiar with the phrase ‘find a warm body’ to fill that ministry slot.  This makes for less than awesome ministry.  It leads to people serving in positions where they are not gifted, not passionate, occasionally not even competent.  The result is ministry that is not done with excellence and burnout on the part of the misplaced person.  When we treat people like expendable resources, we treat them like a pack of annuals we buy at the local big box garden center, tasked with serving our needs for a season and then discarded to the compost pile.

We should treat people as the unique, wonderful, God-created gifts that they are and help them find their place to serve accordingly.  In gardening terms, we should . . .

  • Rightplant.
  • Replant.
  • Transplant.

RIGHTPLANTING means that we plant a person in the right spot to begin with:

  • Maximize the possibility of successful growth for that person by matching them with the right location in which to grow. It’s time to move well beyond the old “Spiritual Gifts Inventory” and towards a more comprehensive understanding of what a person’s gifts, talents, passions, and experience bring to the table.  We may have a highly visible empty pot right at the front door (we’ll call that the infamous “hospitality” pot), but that doesn’t mean just anyone can thrive in that location.  Let’s match their best chance to grow joyfully with our best option to enhance ministry.
  • Thereby, also maximize the benefit to the overall ministry. Ministry—any ministry—will flourish when the right people are matched with the right job.  And since ministry is not a zero-sum game, if we have tasks that require doing and no one to do them, it means we either are not expanding the pool of possibilities sufficiently or we’re not having fruitful conversations with people to help them understand the valuable contribution they might be making.
  • Provide the person with the resources needed to flourish. Once they are matched with the right ministry, people need clear communication, training, support, and regular affirmation and feedback.  Otherwise, it’s like planting your peonies and depriving them of water, sunlight, and regular fertilizer.  We too frequently plant ministry partners, neglect them, then express surprise when they struggle and wither away.
  • Tend the garden with diligence and love. In addition to the nurturing mentioned above, it’s important to keep the weeds out of the way.  In a ministry setting, protect your team members from unnecessary distractions and damaging negativity.  Put a safety fence around them if necessary to protect them from garden predators.  Don’t forget to talk to your plants on a regular basis!
  • Prune when necessary, but always with a careful eye towards future growth. Sometimes a beautiful planting can get out of control (just like people can get overextended), and sometimes a branch dies for one reason or another (just like people can have a branch of their ministry journey that comes to a potentially damaging dead end).  An attentive gardener prunes away what detracts from the health of the planting.

REPLANTING means that even when a person is going to stay in the same container (ministry), they sometimes need a complete refresh to be ready for their new season of service:

  • It’s good to change out the soil. The local gardening columnist had a recent piece on the ticking time bomb of putting new plants in used potting soil.  Such soil, even though it may appear healthy, can be loaded with parasites or weed seeds that can damage the newbie.  It’s best to swap out for new soil.  In ministry, don’t saddle a new person with the last person’s problems.
  • It’s good to try out containers in different locations. New plantings like a little variety—mix up planting sites for variety, and delightfully unexpected surprises can grow.  In a ministry sense, when you have new people coming on board or familiar people who are primed for a change, try shifting ministry responsibilities, flow charts, locations, or goals, and unexpected connections and inspirations will follow.
  • It’s good to mix and match who’s hanging out in those containers. Creatively speaking, you can dramatically change the floral vibe by swapping out planting container partners.  Likewise, you can really shake things up creatively and relationally by moving around who’s working with whom.
  • Don’t forget that there is sometimes a dormant season, and that’s just normal. People need time off, and we should encourage people to regularly take time off without making them feel guilty about it.  Also, people have times when, due to circumstances, they are just not as effective.  We should help them through those times, giving them extra attention as needed, and not being judgmental while we do it.

TRANSPLANTING is sometimes required to give a person a new environment in which to be reborn or flourish anew:

  • A change in scenery can make all the difference. Rather than just moving their container to a sunnier location, sometimes people need to be uprooted and re-oriented to a completely different spot.  This is a dramatic change, not a subtle adjustment of responsibilities, and it can be a risky move.  But it also can be the difference between life and death (if death means the kind of burnout that drives people to abandon ministry and church altogether).
  • Being the most serious of gardening actions, transplanting requires careful thought, good planning, attention to detail, and close care after it’s done. People and plants need a tender touch in this scenario.
  • Often a transplant is necessary because a prized bloomer has outgrown its current territory. A sapling may clearly need to move to a place where it can spread its limbs more fully towards the sky.  People in ministry sometimes outgrow their assignments and are ready to take on more.  Rather than just adding tasks to their to-do list, this can sometimes best be accomplished by re-thinking what they should oversee.

As I was writing this, I keep returning to thoughts of my green-thumbed meemaw.  Her modest ranch house had a carport that was always teeming with various plants in various pots, none of which ever came from a store.  They were cuttings and gifts and shoots harvested from the wild.  It seems to me that is also a great metaphor for ministry.  We very rarely have a professionally trained and practically experienced ministry volunteer drop into our laps.  The best kind of organic ministry comes from working with people who are learning how to become disciples as they figure out their sacred assignments and how to do them.  Ours is usually not a formal garden—it is more often a slightly wild, but surprise-filled oasis.

What do you make of all this gardening talk?  Is this extended metaphor just a clump of weeds in your brain, or can you add your own colorful representations of ministry management described in floral terms?  Don’t forget to contribute to our ever-expanding bouquet in the comments section.