November 22, 2023

No Taking Without Giving

“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” might work for God, but congregational leaders need to give something new whenever they take away something old.

Church of the Holy Communion recently started receiving concerning reports about the health of the iconic tree in our memorial garden – the tree under which we have buried people’s ashes for decades. (Dealing with this tree was one of several things that I had hoped to make The Next Rector’s Problem, but that I have had to address more urgently!)

Recognizing its obligation to ensure the physical safety of our campus, the vestry knew that it had no choice but to begin planning for the tree’s removal. But, the vestry also knew that taking down this particular tree and grinding its stump would be a painful sight for the families with loved ones buried in that area. So, we asked ourselves: If the tree has to go, what can we put in its place? If we have to take, what can we give? If we have to know the grief of loss, how can we also know the joy of resurrection?

That’s when the magic began.

The vestry invited a team of parishioners to start dreaming about the future of the Holy Communion Garden. Two of the finest landscape designers in Memphis joined the team and quickly turned the committee’s vision into something that could be realized. They researched the religious symbolism of various plants and determined which biblical plants would thrive in our climate. They figured out how to make the garden more accessible to people with mobility limitations and planned to address longstanding drainage issues that we never thought we would be able to resolve. They even developed a plan to excavate the soil where ashes had been interred and to re-use it in the place that was designated for future interments. (A place far away from any trees that might need to be removed in the future!)

When the plans were rolled out, the congregation responded enthusiastically: Grief over the impending loss of our memorial tree quickly gave way to excitement about the garden’s potential. And, people who had recently “dug deep” for a major, generational-scale capital campaign opened their hearts and wallets once again to make it possible. Hardly anyone is talking about the impending loss of the tree these days; just about everyone is talking about the future of the garden.

The root of this project’s success was the vestry’s decision not to take something away without also giving something in return. This should be a guiding principle for many areas of congregational life: When a long-standing ministry needs to end, what can we start? When a beloved piece of liturgical furniture needs to be retired, what can we create? When we commit ourselves to giving any time we take, grief and anger can give way to joy and anticipation.

Construction of the new Holy Communion Garden begins this fall, with a re-dedication tentatively set for Easter Day. The garden will be our icon of new life emerging in the face of impending death, and our reminder always to give something new when we find ourselves needing to take something old.