Early this week I finished my article for Episcopal Life on community gardens around the church. As I revisted some of the gardens I got photos from last year, and contacted some new ones, I got another look at what makes them go.
The most important factor seems to be seeing the garden as a way of living for others, of being a good neighbor, of giving. I don't mean that all the produce has to go to the food bank. But I do mean that if people think a garden will bring new church members and pledges, they should think again. This is the wrong reason for doing the right thing, and leads to diminishing ownership and support of the garden project by church members. Gardeners become "those people" who don't come to church.
Another factor is that a key church leader needs to be involved with the garden -with genuine encouragement, and preferably with clogs, sun hat and rolled up sleeves. This need not be the rector or vicar, though that's not a bad idea. Deacons can do it. And in family-sized congregations a matriarch or patriarch with good organizing skills. S/he doesn't need to have all the vision - that can emerge from those working on the project - but does need to have energy and commitment.
Which leads me to a third observation. If there is any question about the buy in of the congregation to a community garden project, start small. I've seen a few gardens where folks went gangbusters - building beds, readying lots of plots, doing a y'all come - only to find that they didn't have the volunteers to sustain it, or that some of the gardeners they recruited in haste proved irresponsible, and need to be uninvited next season.
Real gardeners know that there is no such thing as an instant garden. Community gardens evolve, too - and the best ones I've talked with are always learning from experience and leaning into the future, adding on, improving, changing with the neighborhood's needs.
As I look back at these three factors, I wonder if they aren't necessary ingredients for any successful congregation-based community ministry:
do it for others, without ulterior institution-serving motives
enlist authentic support from key leaders
start small and evolve, working with those you serve
Still, when you think about it, a community garden is one of the least expensive ways for a congregation to steward its resources for the good of others - to make a difference, make friends, make a little beauty in the world.