Life, Death, and Tomatoes

February 22, 2017 | | Connectional Ministries, New Disciples

Starting new ministries is no easy endeavor.  Getting people on board, finding funding, making new plans, scrapping those plans when they don’t work, making new new plans, getting more people on board…you get the idea.  All of this would be hard enough if we were talking about planting a garden, but when it’s planting ministry, it gets even trickier.

There’s often an inadvertent little message buried into the idea of starting a new ministry, and it goes like this: “The way we are presently doing things isn’t good enough.” Now again, if we were talking about cutting-edge gardening techniques that would lead to fresh vegetables all summer, we would be thrilled… Who doesn’t love a few fresh vegetables right out of their own backyard?  Unfortunately, it gets complicated when we talk about the same kind of growth in ministry. Nobody much enjoys the message that there is a new way of creating ministry and their way of worshiping or doing small groups or doing outreach is insufficient. That message has special implications that are far more personal than how we feel about our gardens.

All of this has me thinking about tomatoes.

If that’s a little confusing, I’ll explain. When I was growing up, my mom decided she wanted to have a tomato garden. She grew the biggest, most beautiful tomato plants you’ve ever seen. She watered them, fertilized them, even sang a little bit for them. Those plants were huge and green and healthy. There was just one small problem: they never produced any tomatoes. Now, I’m not sure of your feelings about tomato plants, but I’m with my mom on this one when I say “a single tomato shouldn’t be too much to ask of a tomato plant.”

So we went to the local garden center where my mom explained to the gardener that she had “the healthiest tomato plants in all of central Oklahoma…but they aren’t making tomatoes.”

“Yup,” he drawled, “quit waterin’ ‘em.”

“It’s possible you didn’t understand me,” my mom replied.  “I have the healthiest tomato plants in all of central Oklahoma.  They’re watered, fertilized and cared for…but they aren’t making tomatoes.”

“Yup,” he repeated, “quit waterin’ ‘em.”

As my mom began to ask for a manager, our garden specialist decided he should elaborate on his advice: The only reason a plant makes seed for the next generation (and the fruit that comes with it) is because it thinks it might die.  “If it don’t think it’s gonna die, it ain’t gonna make any seed.  So…like I said, quit waterin’ ‘em.”

A few weeks later, our tomato plants were thirsty, and the tomatoes were abundant.

Maybe there’s a little church leadership lesson built in here.  Instead of simply keeping our ministries alive, maybe we should focus on what it takes to bear fruit (or, tomatoes in this case). Maybe “fruit” happens when we take the kinds of risks that make us keenly aware of our churches’ own mortality.  As a friend of mine recently said, “sometimes I wonder if we Christians actually want immortality when we say we want resurrection.”  What I’m sure she meant was: “sometimes I wonder if the Church is a huge, healthy tomato plant with no tomatoes.”

Starting new ministries is hard.  There’s no way around it.  It’s hard because it’s a lot of work, and it’s hard because it sometimes leaves people feeling like their faith practices are obsolete.  Good leadership leads people into this difficult conversation about our ministries’ mortality.  Our churches, our worship styles, our small groups, and many more things will face their end, but the Gospel will live on.

As church and church leaders, our job is not to be immortal; our job is to offer the seeds of ministry for many generations to come.