Sunday, March 20, 2011

Helping to Grow: Gardening and Youth Ministry

In February I applied to Princeton Theological Seminary for a Masters in Youth Ministry. Additionally over the last few months I have applied for several jobs working with youth and young adults in a variety of settings. For more than eight years, I have been active in youth ministries starting when I was still a teen myself. I did not even see that work as youth ministry until a couple years ago. Now youth ministry is part of my life's calling. Also in the last several years I have become more interested in gardening. As Spring begins, I am reflecting on the connections I see between these two activities.

In the fall of 2007, while living in Greensboro, NC, I started to see the connections between gardening and youth ministry. I spent most of my time there working with children and teens or on a farm or in a garden. As I look back on my time in Greensboro I see this period as crucial to my development as a youth leader. While living in Greensboro I volunteered with youth groups from two Friends meetings, worked in an after-school program at a Friends School, and spent one weekend a month serving as an adult presence at retreats for a yearly meeting Young Friends program. In addition I worked on a local farm a couple hours a week, usually getting paid in vegetables, and volunteered in a couple area schools' gardens. That fall I did not earn a lot of money, but I loved my time there because all my work involved helping with the growth of living creatures (both plants and youth). By the time I left, I would tell people that if I combined all of my activities, I would be helping to grow organic children.

In my mind, youth ministry and gardening have a lot of similarities. First, I watch for growth and I try to sense what I should do to nurture the growth, whether I need more or less of this or that. A tricky balance exists in giving too much or too little freedom to youth. I want to allow space for them to explore and learn, but I also need to set boundaries for safety. It is the same way with watering a garden; Too much or too little water can harm a garden's growth. The balance is important for the growth of both healthy youth and plants.

Second, both youth work and gardening require preparation. I plan out my garden plot and in youth work I plan the activities I lead. To work with teens, I realize I need to be ready and think on my feet, because my plans could easily fall flat and I need to be quick to act while seeming very confident, so I always have back up plans too. For my gardens, I need to plan where I put my plants to maximize the space but still allow the plants to thrive.

Third, I have seen the lasting impacts of both activities. At harvest time in the garden, I am able to eat what I have grown and I try to share the bounty with friends. In youth work, I have witnessed some of the teens I have worked with growing into adulthood and go off to college.

Lastly I have found that sometimes all I can do is to plant seeds and hope they will grow. For example in my last job leading workcamps (service projects) in Washington DC, usually I would only work with a group for a very brief period of time, like less than a week, and the groups would come from over the US, so I would only work with the group once. Often I felt frustrated about not being able to build a stronger connection with the groups, so we could have deeper meaningful reflections about the service work we had participated in together. In the end, I would sustain myself through imagining that the week of service planted a seed in each participant that would germinate much later into a newfound passion or life learning. I know, like in a garden, that not every seed will sprout, but some will. That hope helped to keep me going in my job for two and half years.

These two activities will continue to be integral in my life and I look forward to the lessons and joys they both bring.


  1. Thanks for the work you do Greg. Kathy Summers

  2. Ah yes, that's much more insightful then "I water them and they grow" haha. I especially like the part that talks about boundaries and water. Such a difficult balance to strike with youth, especially when we're sometimes motivated by wanting a group to like us. Good thoughts, G.