by Zach Below
In early 2012, after one too many dud lessons, our small group decided it was time for a change. We had been locked up in a living room for too long. We just wanted to do something…anything. After many discussions, vision board activities, and Google searches, we decided that we were going to create a community garden in a local park down the street.
And we did! We went to work. A couple of group members researched successful community gardens (because none of us really knew anything about them). One of our members wrote a formal plan, and another lobbied the parks department for permission to build the garden. The parks department actually agreed and went as far as running a new water line to the projected site for watering. We even pooled our collective junk and had a group yard sale that funded the project. We were excited, growing closer, and having fun.
That excitement and energy culminated on planting day with a group prayer at the beginning of the day and high fives and fist bumps at sunset as we celebrated a completed vision realized. We stepped back and looked at the 12 beds we’d planted, complete with fancy new signs. It didn’t cross our minds that the vision was nowhere near complete.
Within a month, all that energy and excitement had come to a screeching stop. As group members took turns watering and weeding the beds in 100-degree Midwest humidity, it dawned on us that there wasn’t a single person in our group who was actually passionate about gardening, produce, or anything related to maintaining a garden. We tried to stay faithful—and did for a short time—but these days I avert my eyes as I drive by the park that houses our dried-up abandoned community garden.
Truth be told, we all still feel awful about not maintaining what we started. We simply couldn’t. Believe it or not, we did learn a number of things from this failed venture. Among those things:
- Mission energizes. There was no doubt about it—rallying around a mission (even an ill-conceived mission) infused our group with energy. We went from a place of lifeless meetings to life-giving purpose. Unfortunately, the mission energy didn’t last, but more on that later.
- Mission breaks down relational barriers. There is something about working alongside a person to realize a vision that inherently connects you on a deeper level. Our group had the same issue as many other groups. Somehow small relational pockets or cliques formed within our group, and people gravitated to those relationships over others. Those pockets broke down as we planned and served together. It was a great time of bonding for our group as a whole, and the individual relationships within went to a deeper level as well.
- Sustainability matters. Our group learned this lesson the hard way. I hate the thought that we as the church left something undone, but there was just no way that a community garden was sustainable to a group of 10 people who didn’t enjoy gardening. I realize this is something we probably should have figured out before we started, but hindsight is 20/20.
As our church’s groups have continued to navigate through our own expression of this mission-driven shift over the last few years, we have learned, more often than not, that even collective passion isn’t enough to sustain a mission long term for a group of volunteers. I love hearing the stories of groups that have, in true entrepreneurial spirit, started something from nothing. A collective passion and vision has been able to sustain the groups’ chosen mission for a number of years. However, we have found this is not the norm. I believe people have great intentions and really do want to serve somewhere within their passion; however, life tends to get in the way. All of a sudden what started as passion becomes burden, and the feelings of hope you began with end in feelings of failure. We believe the last point is the answer.
- Find community partners. All too often we as the church think we want/need to create something on our own—start some new initiative, do something new and different. However, I believe that the key to mission sustainability in groups is partnering with established community organizations. The church has a history of being siloed. What would the impact be if small groups within the churches in our cities overwhelmed our community organizations with volunteer service on a consistent basis instead of the church always doing its own thing! I believe the reputation of our churches would be stronger, our community organizations would be more successful, and the love our groups have for Jesus and our cities would be hard to ignore.