Nearer God’s Heart: Church Gardening as a Christian Practice

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Dolan, Pamela
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School of Theology Thesis 2016 , Religious gardening , Shepherd Farm , Hunger ministry , Community shaping
In March of 2014, my parish broke ground for a church garden we called Shepherd Farm. We chose a 30’ x 90’ plot on the far side of the church building, visible from the road but not taking too much out of our five-acre property, surrounded it with a deer fence, and got to work. Eight to ten core volunteers gardened regularly throughout the spring, summer, and fall. It was not a big group, but was significant percentage of the parish: our average Sunday attendance that year was 65. According to the volunteer log book we kept on hand, another 40 or so people spent at least one hour each in the garden at some point during the season. By the end of October we had harvested 2,083 pounds of food, almost all of which was delivered to various hunger ministries. In our second season, in spite of more challenging weather conditions, we harvested slightly more: another 2,107 pounds of produce, also for the benefit of those in our community who are in need. This project is made up of two parts. The creation and implementation of the garden itself is the first part; the three months spent planning and the following 14 months implementing the first vegetable garden in our parish history took up a sizeable portion of my time and energy as rector of Good Shepherd and taught me a great deal about parish dynamics and my own strengths and weaknesses as a parish priest. The second part is this thesis itself, a written record and analysis of what has been learned and what still merits further consideration. In this thesis I will outline the story of the garden and analyze the impact of the garden on our parish through the lens of Christian practices. The first two years of Shepherd Farm were a resounding success, although it was not without its challenges, conflicts, and disappointments; documenting this process from concept to completion provides the skeleton of this thesis. Additionally I include some analysis of the process, including insights and questions that arise only in retrospect and with the added benefit of extensive reading done in the academic areas of agrarianism, religion and the environment, and spiritual practices. My research also includes the results of a parish survey and follow-up interviews conducted after the second season of the garden was complete. The principal claim arising from this research and analysis is that caring for Shepherd Farm, our church garden, became a central practice of our congregation’s faith, forming and defining our community in positive and life-giving ways. This practice brought to the forefront of our common life several other important practices, especially discernment, hospitality, and what can broadly be called “community shaping.” Our experience suggests that other churches could have similar results: by approaching church gardening as a Christian practice, a congregation can find in the garden a place of formation and a catalyst for transformation, as well as experiencing growth in other practices in their common life. Given that we live in a context of great anxiety about the shrinking size of the church, of our denomination, and of individual congregations, our experience is also significant for other congregations because it shows that even a small parish can participate meaningfully in what is a growing and important movement, that is, the development of church-based farms and gardens. It will be clear from the chapters that follow that in the implementation and analysis of the garden I utilized the “action-reflection-response” model, as opposed to working from the assumption that shared beliefs were necessary before any action could be taken. This approach is not unconcerned with issues of justice and sustainability, nor is it anti-intellectual or anti-theological. Rather, it is pragmatic in nature and is consistent with the meaning and purpose of Christian practices as defined by Craig Dystkra and Dorothy C. Bass: “Christian practices are the human activities in and through which people cooperate with God in addressing the needs of one another and creation.” In this approach I have also attended to the distinction between a “cosmological strategy” and a “pragmatic strategy” as defined by Willis Jenkins. I am especially persuaded by his distinctive understanding of the problem of Christianity and culture. He argues that Christian social ethics arises from missional projects that bear and respond to the world’s problems as their own. Doing so, Christian ethics does not sanction industrial powers or submit to market relations; it rather opens those powers and relations to different uses by inventing ways to live faithfully within them. By bearing responsibility for emerging problems of human power, the church learns to sustain the practices that carry its faith […]. In other words, the church sustains its unique sociality precisely by taking seriously the world’s problems. By no stretch of the imagination do I qualify as an ethicist, but I see in Jenkins’ argument strong support for the seriousness of this project and justification for our pragmatic approach. The garden at Good Shepherd is a clear example of a local church community choosing to “bear and respond” to the problem of hunger and food insecurity as our own (elsewhere Jenkins uses the term “wounds” for “problems,” which strikes me as especially apt). I believe this project will show that by “bearing responsibility” for this problem we have indeed learned “to sustain the practices that carry our faith.” And of course there is a circularity or complementarity to this dynamic: our church is learning to sustain these practices, in the face of our own incompetence and insufficiencies, while at the same time we are learning how profoundly the practices sustain us. From the ground of lived experience and theological reflection, some preliminary claims about the spiritual benefits of church gardening will grow. I note that these claims can only be modest and contingent, which I believe is appropriate for the scope of this project and also inherent to the nature of parish ministry, where the story is always unfolding and rarely provides a straightforward trajectory. The foundational concern at all times will be to explore how our congregation has been formed and transformed by gardening, with a secondary focus on what this might suggest for other congregations interested in undertaking a similar journey. Spiritual growth is not easily tracked or quantified; it can, however, be glimpsed in stories and reflections. These stories and reflections are gleaned from my own experience and observation as well as from the surveys and interviews completed by parishioners. What follows this brief introduction are four chapters and a conclusion. The first chapter explores the overall concept of Christian practices in much more depth than I attempt here in the introduction. The next three chapters each focus on a single practice; perhaps in an unconscious homage to the famed three-legged stool of Anglicanism, these chapters all begin with Scripture, move on to the realm of tradition (in the sense of how discernment, hospitality, and “community shaping” can be understood as spiritual practices within the Christian tradition), and then consider our own congregation’s experience with each practice. The project’s overall structure has a linear and chronological shape to it, as it follows the course of the Shepherd Farm garden from idea to implementation to growth and impact. This helps explain the focus on these three particular practices, when of course any number of practices could be shown to relate to church gardening in interesting and even important ways. Additionally, these practices—and therefore, to some degree, the chapters—are intertwined and overlapping. This gets to the very nature of practices—they are interrelated, each one supporting and influencing the other. As Dykstra and Bass put it, “In real life, it is very hard to separate the practices. They flow into one another, each one making a space for God’s active presence that then ripples out into other parts of life. […] Thus focusing on even a single practice can lead you into a new way of life.” It makes sense, therefore, that a process of discernment led our community to embrace gardening as a means of practicing hospitality, which in turn helped us to discern how much our community already valued and was practicing hospitality. Gardening then strengthened our hospitality “muscle” even more, which in turn led us to new opportunities to expand and shape our community. And so it goes, as the following chapters will illustrate.