Tending to the work on the ground

While we tend to the monotony of ministry, we demonstrate our commitment to the community and create the possibility for real hope and real transformation.

I’ve spent a good part of the last four months sitting in the dirt. I’ve been slowly pulling out the vines of an invasive plant that has taken over a long stretch of potentially beautiful lilac bushes in my yard. I trim the vine as close to the soil as possible, coat what’s still exposed with herbicide and move to the next vine. It’s a slow, arduous and tedious task. The vines have been allowed to grow for decades; they are thick in diameter and density.

As I sit on the ground, I have a lot of time to think. I think about the potential of the lilac bushes to bloom and flower. I think about who planted them and who decided to stop caring for them well. I think about who deposited the trash that I find wrapped in the roots of the good and bad plants.

I think often about how the sitting, digging and pruning are a long, embodied metaphor for ministry. Before I began clearing out the vines, I had to make a decision. I could cut out the vines and risk losing the bushes, a quick but risky venture, or I could kill the vine branch by branch, an infinitely slower process but one more likely to produce my desired result: healthy, flowering lilac bushes. Certain moments in ministry call for the “slash and burn,” but more often our desired results require slow, sitting-in-the-dirt kinds of processes.

When we are new in a role and can see dysfunction at every level, attempting to fix it all at once can be an exercise of disastrous futility. When our formational ministries aren’t transforming lives with knowledge and the presence of God and our community and our volunteers are all burnt out, we can’t simply stop all formational programming -- at least not without taking the risk of inflicting long-term harm on the people and the ministry. When a conflict over worship has captured the congregation’s energy and imagination, we can’t simply stop gathering for worship. When the staff we lead is stricken with extensive personal crises, inhibiting work and positive communication, we cannot simply stop working.

These are moments that often call for the slow, sitting-in-the-dirt kinds of approaches: methodical, careful, daily attention over sustained periods of time.

My slow process in the yard has yielded all kinds of unforeseen benefits. As I sit, neighbor after neighbor passes by and stops to chat. I’ve learned more about my neighbors -- their names, where they go to church, which classes they take at the community center, who they visit -- while sitting on the ground than I learned in four years of just living in the neighborhood. They want to know how much longer it will take and when I plan on trimming down the overgrown tops.

They tell me about long projects they’ve tackled, and they tell me the story of these long-neglected bushes and express hope for what they will become. Given the racial, economic and social chasms that separate me from most of my neighbors, these conversations mean so much more than simply shooting the breeze.

The longer I sit there, digging, cutting, coating, the more I learn about my neighbors and the more I realize that sitting in the dirt is less about clearing vines from my bushes and more about being a good neighbor. In the hope that they offer for the lilac bushes lies the hope that I have for my life in the neighborhood: a slow, reliable presence that patiently listens, tends and brings joy.

In ministry, we often undervalue the work that happens every day on the ground -- the meetings and administration. But it is when we show up and sit in the dirt every day that enables the people around to share stories, hopes and laughter. While we tend to the monotony of ministry, we demonstrate our commitment to the community and create the possibility for real hope and real transformation.