The Garden brings renewal and hope to Doylestown

the Garden
Sharon Shaw, the leader of the Community Garden, and KrisAnne Swartley, minister on the missional team at Doylestown Mennonite Church, pose at the photo booth at the outdoor party on April 29.

by Emily Ralph,

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.

Sandy Ridge Garden
Bill Leatherman, Steve Landis and Vernon Althouse of Doylestown Mennonite Church, help one of the master gardeners of Sandy Ridge Community Garden install a brand new fence and gate.

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.”