Growing Ministries in Green Spaces

By Jeannie Babb

Brian Sellers-Petersen is often asked how churches can be better stewards of their assets, more specifically, their lesser-utilized assets of land and kitchens. As senior advisor to the president of Episcopal Relief and Development, Sellers-Petersen has spent much time here and abroad learning how to better steward land. His global experiences now fuel his passion for encouraging Episcopal parishes, schools, seminaries, camps, and conference centers to come up with creative ways to steward church lands. He encourages all parishes to develop a plan to utilize this often-overlooked resource.

The development process should start with the question, “How can we use church and community assets to create a better quality of life and steward God’s gifts?” Assets to consider begin with the church’s land but also include the buildings, location, and human resources. “In a lot of the countries in which Episcopal Relief & Development works, we help develop parish, school, and kitchen gardens to support food ministries. Many Anglican schools and parishes have land and/or access to land that can be developed to grow food.”

Besides growing food, Sellers-Petersen says parish gardens can also serve many other functions of the parish—education, spiritual-development, and community building. “The best Sunday-school classroom is a garden.” He points to ERD’s program, Abundant Life Gardening Project as a way to marry educational structure to a garden project. With or without such a program, a parish garden can provide many lessons that come through the soil itself—nurturing life and observing growth, death, and rebirth—and can fill the gaps between faith groups, generations, and nationalities.

In the case of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Town and Country, Mo., average Sunday attendance is just 62. Yet, this small parish donates up to 2,000 pounds of produce each year to programs feeding needy families. Calling their gardening ministry Shepherd Farm, Church of the Good Shepherd grows turnips, beets, cabbage, beans, tomatoes, sunflowers, and other vegetables. If people are surprised that such a small parish is doing such a big thing, one of the middle-school students working in the garden will tell them, “It’s because we’re all a little crazy, but in a good way.”

Good Shepard’s rector, Pamela Dolan, is currently enrolled in the Advanced Degrees Program at the School of Theology. Her thesis explores church gardens as a spiritual practice. As she researches and writes, she is constantly making new church garden contacts, both inside and outside the Episcopal Church, and learning new ideas. Shepherd Farm’s latest experiment involves growing vegetables in hay bales.

A church garden can also serve as a bridge between parishioners with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. At All Saints Episcopal Church in Smyrna, Tenn., a large area of land is farmed by church members and includes the immigrant community from the Karen Province of Myanmar (formerly Burma). They bring their cultural heritage and agricultural skills to bear in the church garden.

In this instance, the gifts being stewarded are persons from two distinctive communities who would not otherwise have such a rich opportunity to grow together. Thus, gardening churches do not just steward church land, they enable congregations to become good stewards of relationships.

Helping to bridge denominational gaps, the Episcopal Church awarded Sarah Nolan an Environmental Stewardship Fellowship in 2014 to help create the Episcopal Faith, Food, and Farm Network. Nolan’s application for the Fellowship was sponsored by the Beecken Center at the School of Theology.

Nolan manages Abundant Table, an ecumenical, interfaith organization that invites people to explore spirituality in connection with the land. These connections take place through weekly community worship and dinner, field trips, week-long intensives, or an 11-month Episcopal Service Corps internship on a five-acre farm in Santa Paula, Calif. The award recognizes Nolan’s ongoing work at Abundant Table and enables her to expand on it. As Nolan wrote in her application, the Faith, Food and Farm Network was designed to “provide nourishment through building relationships, disseminating resources, and sharing stories rooted in agricultural and food based ministries of all shapes and sizes.”

Gardening builds community in several more ways. Many parishes find that land stewardship through gardening closes generation gaps. Young people seek knowledge from older generations while older people in the church seek help from younger, more agile parishioners. Sellers-Petersen describes visiting a church garden in Nashville that was placed next to a retirement community. There, he met an elderly woman walking with her little dog. She told him that the garden saved her from depression, as helping to tend the garden gave her something meaningful to do every day, restoring a sense of purpose and value to her life.

“This is not a fad,” Sellers-Peterson says. “Church gardens have been going on for many, many years.” He recounts a church garden in Tacoma, Wash., where second and third generation Cambodian Americans bring parents who often do not speak English. For more than 25 years, this garden has not only provided food for church families but also served as a bridge between generations and nationalities.

The harvesting and distribution of produce also builds community beyond the parish. Church of the Nativity in Huntsville, Ala., and St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta, Ga., both host thriving farmers markets in their parking lots. Trinity Cathedral in Portland, Ore., hosts the city’s farmers market. By doing this, they are able to support local growers, combat the problem of urban food deserts, and encourage their parishioners and neighbors to eat healthier meals, simply by being good stewards of parking lots that sit empty on a Saturday.

Sellers-Petersen encourages all churches to take inventory of their unused assets. “Church properties often have a lot of grass,” he notes. “We spend a lot of money on lawn service and chemicals. I’ve literally found churches that only use their lawn once a year —on Easter day for an egg hunt.”

He continues, “Similarly, the church kitchen may only be used once a week for coffee hour.” Kitchens represent another tremendously undervalued asset in Episcopal parishes. These spaces are often reserved for receptions and parties but could also be used to can vegetables and jellies and to cook, distribute, and serve meals. Some church kitchens are busy in summertime feeding children for whom school lunches are normally the most substantial meal of the day. Kitchens can also be used to impart knowledge, create community, and provide a space for relationship with neighbors.

Sellers-Petersen offers tips from his experience with churches wanting to start a garden. He says the rector need not be directly involved, as that may not be sustainable, but it is important to have buy-in from the rector, vestry, and buildings and grounds committee. He suggests reaching out to other churches and community organizations who may want to participate or who are looking for local mentors such as the Master Gardener organization.

Not every parish has a kitchen or lots of land, but every parish has assets. “Every church can do something. Every church has underutilized assets they can use or they can squander. I don’t want parishes to feel they have to do something brand new or big or really adventurous, which can be daunting. It's better to plant herbs in a wash tub than to make some big multi-year plan.”

He advises parishes to start small and plan for costs like water, supplies, and maintenance. These costs are part of mission and outreach and should be included in the outreach budget. He adds, “If the church has the choice between growing food in the front yard or the back yard, always go with the front yard. The more visible place may not give you as much yield, but go with visible, because it lets people know your values. It is an invitation.”

—This article was included in the Fall 2015 issue of From the Mountain.

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