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Congregational Profile: LifeGARDEN

LifeGARDEN, a mission of Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Maple Grove, MN, is a labor of love of member and Associate in Ministry – Director of Worship, Alice Woodard. She explains,

I first started thinking about the possibility of a community garden while attending a worship conference at St. Olaf in 2005 called “For the Fruit of All Creation.” Gordon Lathrop… was talking about how we might somehow help connect people with the land through our worship…Then I remembered that our church building is on land that was farmed for many years by charter members of Lord of Life, who sold it to the church when a larger building was needed. They grew sweet corn here and their children sold it a popular roadside stand to help fund their college educations. So it seemed like a natural thing (to me, at least) to start a community garden here.

My vision was to have a garden where generations would work together to grow food for themselves and some to donate, while caring for land that was used to grow food in the past. [I] wasn’t sure how that would happen but attended a class taught by a Minneapolis group called “Gardening Matters” where I learned how to build a community, as well as a garden. Five years later I finally sold the idea and we started work. The first steps were plowing, getting water extended out to the area, and building fences, before any planting could start. Each year we have learned more, tried new things, changed crops as needed, and improved the area for community purposes with picnic tables and umbrellas, a message board, [and] a community herb garden.

Now, the mission is thriving. The LifeGARDEN fits into one broader mission of the congregation, their “hunger” ministry. The congregation has a “sandwich project” where parishioners help to make sandwiches for the homeless in Minneapolis, and financially supports two food shelves in the local community. Last year, the LifeGARDEN donated over 12,000 pounds of food to the local food shelf.

They actively market to the local community, allowing non-congregational members to join the farm and rent their own plot for the summer. Everyone who rents a plot must also work on the “mission garden” a few hours a week, volunteering their time to work on a communal garden that supports the local food shelf. Congregational members are able to meet community members, and Alice reports that a strong LifeGARDEN community is forming. She recounts one experience where a woman planted her garden in the Spring and then became ill. The community around her took over her plot, and brought her crops throughout the season. People have found entry-points into broader leadership roles by their work in the garden, agreeing to work as an usher after having positive experiences volunteering in the garden first.

But this is more than just a story about a feel-good mission project that is deemed an “home run” by the local pastor: instead, it’s a story about creatively using a congregation’s resources. There are three types of resources I want to highlight from this example.

  1. Physical Space Resources: Lord of Life Lutheran Church is in a unique space — it is in a growing suburban area with a lot of donated land. Alice recognized that this land wasn’t being used, and that a garden might help to bring the community together. She used one previously unused resource — the land surrounding the church — to add a mission to the congregation and a service to the community. Alice recounts this story: “Since the garden is set close to the county road and the parking lot, lots of people see it and comment on it. I overheard one young lad telling his father as they were leaving church one day – ‘Look – there’s the church farm!’”
  2. Financial Resources: At first, the farm was dependent on the congregation for help. Alice reports, “For the first two years we relied heavily on funds from the church’s benevolence budget. This was when we needed to install irrigation, build the fence, purchase equipment and tools… The third year we received (unsolicited) a grant from Thrivent Community Crossroads, which helped pay for a larger tiller, a couple of truckloads of compost, and materials to build raised beds for physically challenged gardeners. We have been financially independent for the past two years, paying all our bills through plot fees ($30 per 10×10 plot). We do occasionally receive donations from church members also.” Alice worked to make this project, to as large of a degree as she could, relatively self-sufficient after initial start-up funds. Considering financial repercussions of new missions is an important consideration before starting the project. Will it be able to be self-sustainable? If not, are there resources within the congregation to pay for this mission? Are there grants or other financial options to fund such a project? This congregation had the funds to pay for the large initial costs, but after that first downpayment was paid, the rest of the mission has been self-sustaining.
  3. Commitment Resources: Alice Woodard was inspired and motivated to work on this project. She actively attended workshops, learning the skills required to develop and encourage this successful project. She had the idea for a project, found help and inspiration around her, contacted her pastor about the mission, and the pastor worked to encourage her mission. Successful programs in churches need many hands — more hands than just the pastor can supply. Motivating and encouraging motivated laity is an important step to a successful program. Alice is committed to the congregation and to this broader mission. While she is a staff member at Lord of Life, this ministry is an extension of her previous duties, and was a labor of love for her. Identifying key individuals who are motivated and committed will help to encourage broad and unique participation within the religious community.

How can you best use your congregation’s resources to further the needs of your community? How can you better encourage parishioners to follow their ideas for mission? What can you take from this example to further your religious community?

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org