This spring, my husband and I decided to add a small container garden to our front deck. We started small because neither one of us has any gardening skills beyond lawn care. We planted okra, tomatoes and cucumbers in a square canvas contraption with four 18 inch planting quadrants. Eager to be successful, I researched watering, pruning, and boosting production. I also consulted a vegetable gardener friend to find out the answer to the most basic questions.
How often should I water and how much water each time?
Do I need to prune the plants? If so, what part of the plant do I cut away?
How much produce should I get from one plant?
How long do I have to wait until I have ripe veggies to pick?
I wasn't surprised to get many different answers to my questions so I chose the answers heard most often and hoped for the best. I made many mistakes along the way and have made notes so I can improve my garden next year. I'm not going to claim I am becoming a good gardener. I'm afraid that's going to take more than one growing season.
However, I CAN say my observations and reflections while gardening have inspired lessons for ministry.
There's a lot of good advice, but not all of it pertains to me. My little garden is uniquely mine. It is my job to assess my garden's needs and choose wisely from the wealth of information and advice available to me. The needs of a container garden are different from a raised garden, a regular garden or a commercial vegetable farm. I did my best to follow the advice and ideas that fit my situation and ignore the rest.
It is the same in Children's ministry. Knowing and understanding the unique characteristics and needs of a children's ministry is key. Researching best practices and listening to others in ministry is always advisable. Sharing my best practices and training others for children's ministry is how I reciprocate. However, I'd be foolish to give, or take, advise or use ideas that worked somewhere else without carefully considering whether or not they match the individual ministry situation or setting.
God is in charge. God provides the rain, sun and makes the plant grow. Yes, I fertilize, prune and fuss over the tiny plants, but I can no nothing to make them grow. Anything I did only supported or got in the way of God's work. "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 1 Corinthians 3:6
I reflected on how true that is in ministry and life. I can do nothing apart from God. I can only support what he's doing, try not to get in the way, and pray for a good outcome. Oh, many times I was tempted to accept praise for a growing children's ministry or beat myself up for a ministry crisis. In reality, I was merely a caretaker for a small part of God's ministry.
Growth is always desired, but not all growth is good or healthy. My aggressive cucumber plants were slow to start, but while I was away on vacation, they took off growing higher and bigger than the container could accommodate. The little tendrils the cucumber plant uses to climb up the bamboo frame climbed onto the other plants and even back on itself. With no other place to grow, the cucumber tendrils tightly wrapped themselves on the branches of the neighboring okra plants and tomato vines. The cucumber plant was huge, green and glorious, but underneath, those tendrils were in danger of choking out, and therefore killing, my entire garden. I actually sacrificed a few budding cucumbers and a bunch of vibrant leaves and shoots while pruning back the monstrosity, but it was necessary to save the entire garden.
In Children's ministry, growth is always desired, but not all growth is good, or healthy. A growing ministry must be carefully monitored and modified to remain healthy. It is much harder and more painful to cut out resource hogging programs and events once they're established than to wait and carefully add as staffing and facilities are available.
Picking fruit is the pay off, but it starts by planting the seeds. The last few weeks, I've had a blast discovering ripe veggies in my garden. Picking cucumbers, tomatoes and okra to enjoy with my family and friends has brought me such joy. Who knew a bumper crop of 5 okra pod grilled by my hubby would bring such a feeling of joy and accomplishment? As I shared above, I was not alone in this endeavor. I simply play my part. God gets the kudos for the growth. Someone in a greenhouse planted the seeds and nurtured them as they grew from seedling to small starter plants knowing someone else would enjoy the harvest. And that someone else is ME!
Children's ministry is a lot like that. This lesson was driven home by a dear children's ministry co-worker just a few days ago. She told me of a formerly homeless man she met who shared his faith story from addiction to wellness. He said his life turned around when he was saved by the same Jesus he met as a child at Vacation Bible School. She said she remembered me telling our eager team not to be discouraged by measuring immediate ministry results, but find joy in our role of planting seeds for the future. The man's humble story affirmed that truth and encouraged her as well as inspired her to share her joy with me.
Honestly, next year I will NOT be attempting to start my garden with seeds. I will be satisfied to allow someone else to be Paul and plant the seeds. I will gladly play the role of Apollos and water while God makes everything grow.
As for my role in children's ministry, I will remember my little container garden and the lessons it taught me.
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