Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Capability Church

After an unusually wet August and early September our part of Maine is experiencing some very pleasant autumn weather.  There’s been a hint of frost on a couple of nights, but no damage to late-season veggies and flowers.  Above all, the ground is beginning to dry out, which means we’ll be able to till it and prepare for winter.  Part of this process is cutting grass, which is growing thick and green, thanks to the extra rain and humidity.

This is all part of a seasonal cycle, much more familiar to our forebears than it ordinarily is to us.  Having grown up in the country I have a sense of the cycle, but that sense became dulled through years of living and working in suburban and urban communities.  Now in partial retirement, living on the farm where my wife grew up, and helping her bring its gardens back to life, I find the sense of the old rhythms returning.  I also find that reading on gardening and related subjects yields some surprising insights.

One of these reads is Michael Pollan’s book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education.  In Second Nature Pollan, whose overall knowledge of gardening is encyclopedic, focuses on the placement of gardens on any given property.  Rather than creating a single garden for everything, and then mowing everything else, Pollan suggests looking carefully at the totality of the land available, be it a quarter-acre or extensive fields and woods.  Once you know what you want to grow, he suggests finding the best place to put each planting, with lawn, trees and bushes placed to tie the whole together.  Describing all this, Pollan draws on the ideas of the eighteenth century English landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown.

Brown’s designs created the grounds of such estates as Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle, Kew Gardens and Highclere Castle, the latter better known to PBS fans as Downton Abbey.  Brown earned the nickname “Capability” not for his personal talent, which was enormous, but for his approach to each property he designed.  “What,” he would ask, “is the capability of this place?”  Should this little hill be cleared or magnified?  Should that little brook lead into a pond, or its course be widened to create a small river?  Should the flower gardens be set off by a narrow lawn that draws the eye past the flowers to the valley beyond?  Can the kitchen garden enhance the house, or would a line of shrubs between them do a better job of showing the house to advantage?  Each property is unique, and what works for one will not do for its neighbor.  Brown’s ideas were controversial at the time, and they certainly do not fit with the uniformity demanded in some of our neighborhoods today.  However, a walk about the properties in which he had a hand is never a dull experience; you come away with a strong sense of place.  I find myself drawing on his ideas as we work to create new gardens here in Maine.

Lately Capability Brown’s approach has been in my thinking about church planning.  At first glance this may seem a wildly unrelated connection, but please bear with me. 

Drawing on many years of planning and assessment exercises in a number of different churches I’m familiar with the usual approaches.  We seek God’s guidance to discover what we ought to do in order to better flourish as a congregation.  We often delegate this task to an ad hoc committee convened for the purpose, and then have the committee report back to the congregation, which may or may not vote on proposals.  Is our committee structure right?  Do we have activities for everyone?  Is the worship vital, and do people “relate” to it?  Are the pastor’s sermons the kind we need (or want)?  Are we getting enough pledges, and are people giving enough?  How can we increase giving?  Does the building need work, and how can we pay for that?  Are new people coming to church, and how can we attract more?  How about outreach?  Will that bring in new members?  What missions do we support?  And why?

These are all perfectly valid questions, though many of them betray deep anxiety over money.  We answer them, define ways to implement recommendations and, depending on how committed we are to seeing them through, they serve as a way of steering our course for the next few years.  The approach can be helpful, though in truth it seldom issues in passionate recommitment.

But suppose we took a page from Capability Brown?  We would begin in prayer, seeking direction, looking for ways to meet our needs as a gathered community, and hopefully to articulate a vision.  The next step, however, would not be to survey the congregation to determine their perspectives on what we’re doing right and what we need to change.  Instead, we’d look at our total picture, and ask the question, “What are the capabilities of this gathering of God’s people in this time and place?”

Who are we?  What is our faith like?  Are we highly verbal people?  Are we doers?  Are we prayers?  What are our occupations, and what do we do for recreation?  How many of us grew up here, and how many come from other places?  How often do people move?  What skills and talents do we know about?  How can we encourage people to tell us about those skill and talents we’re not aware of?  How many of us are there?  These and similar questions can help us create a portrait of who we are.

Then there’s the matter of where we are.  What is our town like? Are we a city church, a suburban church, a small town church or a rural church?  Are we an acknowledged part of the local scene, and if so what’s our reputation?

If we have a building, what’s it like?  Is it big, small or in between?  How many rooms are there, and what use do we make of them?  Are we on a postage stamp of land or do we have several acres, and in either case what do we do with the land?

As we answer these and similar questions we’ll begin to see a picture of who we are, where we are and what spiritual and physical resources we have at our disposal.  From this picture we can begin to sense what our capabilities are, and seeing those we can gain a vision of how our particular gathering of individuals, in our town or city, with the resources we have available in the present time, can serve God and our neighbors in ways that show forth the love of God and neighbor with authenticity.  Notice that the thrust of this approach is fundamentally positive.  Discovering the capabilities of people and church we attest that God has brought together these very individuals in this time and place for a purpose.  These capabilities, guided by the Holy Spirit of God can form the basis for a unique witness to the love of Christ, and in the process members and congregation can flourish in the light of that love.

Howard MacMullen
© October, 2013

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