7 Leadership Lessons from the Lawn
Increased time at home during lockdown has grown greenfingers across Britain and spring gardening has sprouted lessons to learn for church leaders.
The lockdown has encouraged many of us into our gardens. You might not have subscribed to the Gardeners’ Question Time podcast yet, but you may be one of the many who are enjoying getting our hands in the soil far more than we ever thought possible.
I’ve slowly become a gardener over the past three years. What I don’t know still far exceeds the very little that I do. But as I’ve pottered around the garden in lockdown, I’ve been struck afresh by how many leadership lessons we can pick up.
Few are instantly life-changing: gardening rarely is, and church leadership even less so. But here are seven 'P's that have particularly resonated with me during this lockdown.
1. Planning: Sowing and Growing Requires Planning
Everyone’s trying their hand at growing fruit and vegetables and seed sales have rocketed since lockdown. Many of us don’t really know what we’re doing - the Royal Horticultural Society has seen a five-fold rise in queries for advice on its website in recent weeks.
But as many of us are learning—sowing and growing requires prior planning. Tomato seeds need to be sown in the spring if they’re to crop in the summer. Other veg needs to be sown successively, to ensure you’ve got fresh produce for more than one Caesar salad at some point in June.
Sowing and growing requires prior planning.
In the busyness of ministry, we rarely make the time to plan. The urgent often pushes out the important. However we finally emerge from the last restrictions on our regular ministries, now is a great window to plan.
What ideas can you germinate?
2. Potting On: Cultivate at the Right Time
The exciting thing about sowing seeds is how quickly they germinate and grow. That’s when many of us discover that we’ve massively over sown.
Within a few weeks, our seed trays of foxgloves, cosmos, and whatever else we’re growing are over-crowded. Leaves start fighting with each other to get the light. Roots begin competing for space and nutrients. If we’re to help these plants keep growing, we have to act and move them into bigger pots to establish a stronger root system.
But the growing problems don’t stop there. I learned this lesson two years ago when my over sowing produced more snap dragons than I could give away! To help snap dragons grow into healthy plants, you have to snip the top off the growing stem. That forces them to grow thicker stems that are healthier, stronger, and able to flower beautifully.
If you pot on and cultivate at the right time, your seeds will grow into healthy plants that will soon be ready to plant out. Then you will need to position them properly to help them flourish, in the right place with the right soil. If we ignore these requirements, the seeds we’ve nurtured won’t ever flourish as they should.
Every stage in growing seeds can be seen in discipling Christians. The great privilege of seeing people come to faith is only the beginning of a lifetime’s work in helping nurture their growth in Christ. As our brothers and sisters grow, we need to provide opportunities and space for them to flourish—even if that means some of our most precious plants eventually bless someone else’s garden.
How can we serve and equip the growing Christians in our church families who need to be encouraged and helped to grow on to the next stage?
3. Pollination: No Pollination, No Fruit
I love apple blossom. I’ve lost count of how many meals we’ve eaten under our apple tree’s branches, listening to the honey bees busily devouring its nectar. If I learnt anything about plant biology at school, I’ve long since forgotten it. But here’s the important headline: apple blossom needs other apple blossom to produce apples. Without pollination, there wouldn’t be any fruit.
The same is true in ministry. We’ve not been made to go it alone. Most of us are used to talking about the diversity and interdependence of gifts in the church family. But few of us may have appreciated just how much we depended on each other before the lockdown.
As leaders and preachers, many of us have relied heavily upon the technological know-how of others in our church families to make online services possible. I, for one, have never been more thankful for our AV team.
This lockdown is a great opportunity to reflect on just how much we need and depend upon each other. Why not write a list of five or ten people whom you’ve become even more thankful for recently, and send them a brief thank you?
4. Plodding: Keep on Keeping on
So much of gardening is a daily or weekly routine. Right now, the change is as good as a rest for many of us—but the routine may quickly become drudgery. The lawn needs mowing. Again. The beds need weeding. Again. The hanging baskets need watering. Again.
When you started dreaming dreams of your grand garden redesign—daily, unexciting routines weren’t what you had in mind. But without them, everything will begin to unravel. Leave the lawn too long, and your grass will turn to straw. Leave the weeds to spread, and they’ll take over your beds and squeeze the life out of your plants. On the flip side: faithfully plodding away at these unseen routines is what makes growth and beauty possible.
The parallels for ministry are obvious, aren’t they? So much of what we’re called to is a daily and weekly routine. So much of it doesn’t feel exciting, spectacular, or life-changing. But it’s the faithful, steady, “plodding” work of ministry that God graciously uses to extend His kingdom and build up His people.
Don’t give up on the small things you may be tempted to think don’t really matter. Or the jobs that don’t get noticed or appreciated. Keep on keeping on.
5. Protection: Learn About the Enemy
We’re slowly nurturing a cottage garden-style bed in our west facing border. The honeysuckle’s in flower. The climbing rose is full of buds. And the geum, nepeta, and clematis are days away from bursting into colour.
But after two years of trying, I can’t keep a lupin alive for love nor money. Why? Slugs. However many pellets I put down, some always manage to find a way through. And they destroy my plants. They eat more in a single sitting than a teenager who’s finally allowed back to McDonalds.
You might not be struggling with slugs in your garden, but everyone’s fighting off something. That’s why there’s a ‘Pest and Disease’ expert on Gardeners’ Question Time!
Once we’ve planned, potted on, pollinated, and plodded—a gardener’s work is never done. We always need to be on the look-out for something that’s out to kill what we’re trying to grow. So, what do we do? We learn about “the enemy”. We walk around our garden multiple times a day, looking for even the slightest hint of danger. And that vigilance never stops. Not unless you’re happy for your plants to be eaten by pests.
Our spiritual enemy prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Insofar as we’re able, we’re charged with the great responsibility to spot every attempt our enemy may use to get at us and the flock under our care. He’ll use anything. Disunity. False teaching. Blatant sin—and the seemingly insignificant lapses in judgement.
What specific dangers have you become more mindful of during this lockdown?
6. Providence: God Makes Things Grow
Lots of people—and pastors in particular—love gardening because it’s people-free, hands-on, and yields results. We’ll get to the results in a minute, but before that we need to remember that there’s a lot in our gardens that’s outside of our control.
The blossom that’s covered our apple tree this year was decimated by the storms last spring—and that crippled our crop last autumn. The past year has seen both high-levels of flooding and low-levels of groundwater, highlighting drought conditions more extensive than we’ve seen since 2006.
We can plan, plod, pot on and protect—morning, noon, and night. But we can’t control the weather. The environment-sustaining, life-giving weather we need depends upon the kind providence of our God and Father. That’s wonderfully humbling! It means we can genuinely enjoy all that we’re able to do in our gardens without becoming proud. And it keeps us prayerful—because we can’t sustain life like our Father.
Paul uses exactly the same picture in 1 Corinthians 3: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (vv6-7).
7. Produce: God's Harvest is Bigger and Better
No supermarket tomato tastes as good as one you’ve picked fresh from your own homegrown plant. There’s a wonderful sense of accomplishment in seeing seeds bloom into a gorgeous flower.
Every year, I’m amazed afresh by the seed-to-crop ratio. The fact that tiny seeds I can barely see can grow into a tomatillo plant that produces more fruit than I can store in my freezer is staggering. But that’s exactly how God made and designed our world.
And—in and through His amazing grace—that’s exactly what we see with kingdom growth too. The seed of the Word and our testimony may seem really small and insignificant when we compare it to everything we’re surrounded by today. Technology’s instantaneous. Immediate growth is what sells. But God has graciously chosen to extend and grow His kingdom through the ordinary means of grace He’s given us—and nothing will stop Him bringing home the fruit of His harvest field.
That seed-to-crop ratio will be bigger than anything in horticulture. God is drawing to himself men, women, boys, and girls from every nation, tribe, people, and language who will stand before Him in the new heavens and the new earth in an innumerable throng. And the original seed? One divine promise to an old, homeless, infertile man God graciously called out of a pagan land.
When you get to enjoy the fruit of your gardening this summer—pause and remember, with great hope and thankfulness, that God’s harvest will be bigger and better. And most amazingly of all, it will include sinful people like you and me.