Salford Mennonite Church, located in Harleysville, Pa., was founded in 1717. An agrarian congregation throughout its history, the past 50 years has seen a transition to a suburban and professional lifestyle for its members.
Church leadership consists of a pastoral team of four (lead pastor Joe Hackman and three associate pastors, Maribeth Benner, Ben Wideman and Beth Yoder) with additional support staff, and a church board made up of nine members. Present membership is 450, with an average Sunday morning attendance of 300.
Our mission statement declares our desire to be “A joyful, learning community eager to live and share the peaceable way of Jesus.” We have a sister church relationship with Dios Con Nosotros in Mexico City, and a local neighbor relationship with Advent Lutheran Church of Harleysville.
We have a garden ministry shared with Advent Lutheran, regularly participate in Mennonite Disaster Service trips, Chosen 300 Meal Ministry feeding the hungry in Philadelphia, and an active Justice and Peace ministry. Our facility is active during the week with Salford Mennonite Child Care Centers (campuses at Salford and Dock Woods community).
Our congregational focus for the next few years is “Learning to Listen: across the generations, in our personal lives, and in our local community.” See our website and our photoblog for more glimpses of life and ministry at Salford.
The congregation in Doylestown was about at the end of their rope, struggling to find ways to engage their community after years of declining attendance.
Pastor Randy Heacock knew the future didn’t look good: if the congregation continued to do things as they always had, within ten years they could easily die out.
Or, they could try something new and see what happened.
The leadership team began a process of discernment, asking “What does it mean for us, Doylestown Mennonite Church, to lose our life to find the greater life God desires for us?” said Heacock. After six months, they invited the congregation into further prayer and discernment. Heacock began conversations with the congregation’s LEADership Minister, Steve Kriss, and other young and emerging leaders in Franconia Conference.
Slowly they began to develop a plan. Less than a plan, actually, according to Scott Hackman and KrisAnne Swartley, who, along with founding team member Derek Cooper, were hired in April of 2011 to give leadership to this new congregational direction. “KrisAnne and I are organizing on the fly,” said Hackman, “we’re cultivating as we go!”
The new missional team was given flexibility and the support of the congregation as they plunged into the world of their Doylestown community, a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia that rarely allows its deeper needs to show above its suburban chic surface. They took prayer walks, hung out at coffee shops, developed relationships with the church’s neighbors.
Around the same time, a member of the community approached the leadership at Doylestown to ask if they were open to allowing unused land behind their facility to be cultivated as a community garden. Out of that partnership, the Sandy Ridge Community Garden was born.
As the missional team watched the congregation enthusiastically join the gardening project, they began to wonder what it would be like to create a Christian community with a variety of entry points, where people could belong even if they didn’t connect with or commit to Sunday morning attendance.
They were particularly inspired by the life cycle of the garden—every season has life and death, and that’s ok, they realized. Acknowledging those cycles allowed the congregation to join in where they wanted to, to back off when they needed to, to connect and release. They decided to call their new ministry “The Garden.”
By September, The Garden was ready for its first official experiment: a peace walk through Doylestown to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and proclaim a counter-cultural witness.
Only one community family joined them.
Since this family had been 30-year residents of Doylestown, Swartley asked them to lead the prayer walk. The family guided the missional team around town, eventually leading them to the cemetery where their daughter was buried. In tears, they told the story of their daughter’s murder and shared how much it meant to them that someone was working in the community to build hope.
It was a turning point for The Garden. Although numbers were small, the missional team caught a glimpse of the importance of The Garden’s presence and ministry in Doylestown. “We need to reimagine what failure is in post-Christendom witness,” Hackman explained.
The “failures” have also opened up doors of connection with members of the congregation as the missional team shared their stories on Sunday mornings or through their blog. Members could participate in Garden Groups—home gatherings over food and conversation—or partner with the community garden and other Garden initiatives without pressure or expectations.
Some of the expectations they have surrendered have been formed by years of stories about what “mission” really is, like “we need more young people or a better worship band or a more charismatic pastor,” said Hackman. They came to realize these stories aren’t true. “What we need is to be more of what we are in spaces where people are already,” he added.
As a result of this developing culture, the Doylestown congregation is experiencing new life and vitality. For years, there was a sense of low self-esteem at the church, a sense of failure, said Swartley. “Now there’s a renewing of their identity as loved people of God. And that makes room for other people!” It’s been inspiring to watch, she added. “They’re awaking once again to what they are and how beautiful they are and their potential.”
Doylestown has not seen a dramatic growth in their Sunday morning attendance, but they have seen an increase in the number of people who call the church their own. From community gardeners at Sandy Ridge to men and women who attend AA meetings in the church’s fellowship hall, members of the Doylestown community will say, “That’s my church!” even if they have never entered the sanctuary on a Sunday morning.
“The agenda is creating space for people to belong to each other and God,” said Hackman. It’s not a church growth plan. “And how does that result in more people coming to your church? I have no idea. But we have more people coming to Doylestown.”
The Doylestown congregation committed to a minimum of three years for this new initiative; Hackman and Swartley have high hopes for the next two years and beyond. “[My dream is] that more than half of the present congregation would try at least one experiment in the next year in their neighborhood. Any experiment,” said Swartley. “That would be super fun and then we’d get together and tell those stories—what we’ve learned, who we’ve met, how we’ve seen God at work.”
And Hackman hopes for growth, but not in the traditional sense. “Whether that growth is Sunday morning, through groups, events, I don’t care,” he said. “Our identity as Christians keeps growing and that creates more room for people looking for God.”
It’s been three years since Heacock realized that something needed to change. And something has. “While I certainly don’t know where all this is heading, I do know God is present, people are open, and lives are being transformed,” he reflected. “That is good enough for me.”
Once or twice a week for the past several weeks, folks from the Doylestown community have gathered at Doylestown Mennonite Church to work the soil. They have sweat under the hot sun as they have planted varieties of tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, squash, carrots, beans, herbs and flowers.
But when it comes time to harvest the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor in a few months, the gardeners will take home only half of the produce — maybe less.
And they think that’s great.
The men and women who have been working in the Sandy Ridge Community Garden agreed from the beginning to give at least 50 percent of the produce they grow to local food pantries and soup kitchens.
Ginny Kane, a retired secretary who lives in Plumstead, said she’s “absolutely thrilled” to be able to fulfill a need in the community.
“This time and age, especially with the economy and everything, people are lookin’ out for themselves,” said Dave Pinchick, a master gardener from Buckingham who has been working in the garden.
“This reminds me so much of my days at Millersville with the Amish. These people are real salt of the earth — they work together as a community for the community. They give up so much of their time and efforts for the benefit of everyone.”
The Sandy Ridge Community Garden was started by Sharon Shaw, a landscape designer who lives in Doylestown Township. Shaw had volunteered in community gardens in other communities and wanted to start one close to home. She drove past the Doylestown Mennonite Church every day and saw a field of sunflowers, and thought that field would be just the place for a community garden.
So Shaw stopped in to visit the church’s pastor, Randy Heacock.
Heacock said, “A number of years ago, we tried to think about… How do we use our facilities for ministries? That land out there, we often thought it would be neat to do something of this nature on. But we never had anyone come forth and say, ‘Hey, I’ll organize it. I’ll pursue it.’ When Sharon stopped in one day, it was an answer to prayer.”
A few members of the church help out with the garden. But many of the volunteers on Shaw’s e-mail list are from outside the church.
Heacock said the community garden allows church members to “rub shoulders with people that probably in many ways are very close to us geographically and we never had the opportunity to meet or didn’t make it happen. It opens up the opportunity for them to understand who we are, what we pursue and opportunities to share similar joys or similar concerns, and to pray with them.”
The church is not just there for its members, Heacock said, “What we have is for all. And Sharon’s desire to have the garden reach out to food pantries, that just sits very much with our desire (to give to the community outside the church). There are people in need and we can easily help with that.”
Shaw’s plan to give produce to local food pantries and soup kitchens grew from her volunteer work at a soup kitchen in Lansdale. She said: “When you work there, you get a sense of the menu. The menu is a lot of processed food, a lot of canned foods. Really, nothing fresh comes in the door. More and more, we’re hearing a lot of stories about how important that is — good nutrition, fresh local foods. I want to make sure people have the same access to good, fresh local foods that we do.”
New Britain resident Dave Horn has been volunteering with the food larder at New Britain Baptist Church for about 10 years; he said the organization doesn’t get much fresh food in donations. He figured helping out in the garden would be a way to get some fresh produce for the larder.
The land at Doylestown Mennonite Church is a “nice area,” Horn said. “It’s got good soil there, compared to a lot of areas around.”
The community garden has had quite a bit of help from community members and businesses. Shaw has donated machinery for tilling and other parts of the project through her landscape design and construction business, Martin Shaw LLC. Histand’s Equipment donated hoses and gardening tools, Jeffrey Sparks Excavating donated compost, Bucks Country Gardens donated seeds and landscaping design company Just One Seed donated seedlings. Several other gardening businesses and private gardeners also donated seeds or seedlings.
Many of the plants are starting to grow.
“Hopefully, it will continue,” Horn said. “Hopefully, the weather cooperates. That’s always the big thing.”
If you want to give your time or seedlings to the Sandy Ridge Community Garden, you can “like” the garden on Facebook or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.