September 2019
Mobilizing our Assets for Mission

Stewardship and Land

Christianity is a food religion. A faith based around a meal table. Birthed in the agrarian life of ancient Palestine. I grew up thinking that Joseph and Jesus were carpenters, but I have come to understand them as farmers who had a side-hustle carpentry shop. As I read and listen to the gospels, there are not many stories about carpentry, but lots rooted in soil, food and eating. Mary and Joseph and their neighbors were subsistence farmers, not unlike many in our global family.

I grew up in the land of church potlucks and casseroles – Minnesota. In the Methodist Church of my youth, coffee (and donuts) after worship were a weekly sacrament. It’s the same in our Episcopal tradition – plus, we share food at the Eucharistic table every week and just about every time we gather for worship.

During the past 20 years of my work with Episcopal Relief & Development (ERD) and the Diocese of Olympia, I have visited hundreds of parishes, schools, camp and conference centers, monasteries and community outreach ministries. Of those ministries that reach into the community and neighborhood, the most common have to do with food – food pantries, meals, community gardens, support for local Meals on Wheels, food bank affiliates for Feeding America and ERD’s global hunger alleviation programs.

Our role in God’s supply chain of abundant life

I have a multi-use stump speech, sermon and presentation that I give that includes the idea that all Episcopal congregations and institutions can grow food, regardless of the amount of arable land on their property. I back it up with examples of parking lot gardens, roof gardens, vertical gardens and indoor hydroponic gardens. I have since amended my thesis to “all can grow food, but not all should.” But in some way, we are all called to live out the feeding of the five thousand, where “all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over.” (Matthew 14:13-21) We are all a part of God’s supply chain of abundant life.

For years I worked with ERD’s community development methodology, Asset Based Community Development (ABCD). It offers an important first step if you are interested in food or agrarian ministry or believe it is the best use of your assets to benefit your community. ABCD may help you discover that your assets are best deployed in a completely different way, maybe even a non-food ministry. Embrace it! ERD and the Episcopal Church’s Domestic Poverty Office have a training program in ABCD - Called To Transformation.

Stewarding the land in many ways

The fact is, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church globally own a lot of land. Collectively one of greatest assets is land. To put a fine point on this fact, we are stewards of a lot of land and called to care for all of creation. We have come into possession of our land through a variety of means. The question is, how to best steward this outstanding resource to benefit our communities and give glory to God. There are countless examples of the ways congregations, schools, seminaries, monasteries, camps and conference centers are engaged in this life-changing ministry.

  • Shepherd Farm at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Town and Country, Missouri, and the Organic Vegetable Garden at St. Andrew’s, Seattle, are wonderful models of parish gardens that serve the hungry and provide volunteer opportunities for church and community members.
  • The University of the South and their domain consists of 13,000 acres with a strong commitment to environmental sustainability that includes land-use planning, drinking water procurement, wastewater processing, food production, natural resource extraction and biodiversity protection.
  • Food enterprises based in dioceses and parishes are growing in numbers. Examples include: Thistle and Bee in the Diocese of West Tennessee; Transfiguration’s Crazy Chile Farm in Mesa, Arizona; Honore Farm and Mill at Bishop’s Ranch in Healdsburg, California; Shima of Navajoland at Good Shepherd in Fort Defiance, Arizona; and Harbor Roots Farm CSA in Grays Harbor County, Washington.
  • Next door to the Diocese of Los Angeles’s Cathedral Center is the Edendale Grove Parish Garden and the Living Labyrinth. Next time I’m in LA, I plan to ask if I can sample while I walk the labyrinth.
  • Bellwether Farm in the Diocese of Ohio “offers a model of sustainable living that promotes physical and spiritual wellness, fidelity to the environment and social justice. It incorporates farming, food production and eco-stewardship into land-based educational programs for people of all ages and backgrounds.”
  • During a 2018 visit to the Diocese of Iowa, I learned that church-based Pocket Prairies have the power to sequester carbon, provide habitat for wildlife, prevent erosion and supply clean water. St. Mary’s in West Columbia, Texas, helps steward a rare, pristine prairie that has never been grazed or plowed with over 300 different species of plants.
  • In 1705, Queen Anne of England donated 215 acres of prime Manhattan farmland to Trinity Parish on Wall Street, which in turn has stewarded this land asset to the benefit of the Anglican Communion globally to the tune of millions of dollars through their grants program. They also have a conference center, farm and donkey sanctuary in West Cornwall, Connecticut.
  • A growing number of Colleges and Universities affiliated with the Episcopal Church are growing food on campus for use in their dining halls or sale to their communities. The Bard College Farm is a 1.25 acre urban farm. It demonstrates the realities of small-scale organic farming and enriches the local food culture, along with growing produce for the campus dining service. Along with Bard and Sewanee, check out what is happening at Kenyon Farm in Ohio, Trinity College Community Garden in Connecticut, Fribolin Farm at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Upstate New York, and St. Barnabas Center for Agriculture in Haiti, to name just a few.
  • We need to be concerned about the decrease in the bee population due to colony collapse disorder. Pollinators, including bees, affect 35 percent of global agricultural land, supporting the production of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide. Great Cathedrals like Notre Dame of Paris and St John the Divine of New York City have bees, along with local congregations like St Peter’s, Lebanon, Indiana. Another way is through planting pollinator gardens, like St. Luke’s, Atlanta.
  • A variety of the assets of two St. Paul, Minnesota, congregations, St. John’s and Holy Apostles, were brought together years ago for a Farmers Market. Many of the farmers selling are congregants of the predominantly Hmong Episcopal Church, Holy Apostles.
  • Ascension School in Cove, Oregon, is the site of the Diocese of Eastern Oregon’s office, camp and conference center. Eighty-five acres that they had previously rented to local farmers has been returned to diocesan stewardship. They have begun the process of restoring most of it to native grasses, trees and shrubs and native food sources utilized by the indigenous peoples of this region for millennia.
  • Farm churches are starting to pop up. Examples include Abundant Table Farm Church in the Diocese of Los Angeles, Austin Farm Church in the Diocese of Texas, Plainsong Farm & Ministry in the Diocese of Western Michigan; and Sycamore Commons in Powell River, B.C.

Look around your community and diocese – you can find wonderful examples of land stewardship for the benefit of the community, as well as under-utilized land that can be stewarded in a way that brings abundance to your community.

Brian Sellers-Petersen, author of Harvesting Abundance: Local Initiatives of Food and Faith, currently serves as Missioner for Agrarian Ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia. His work is dedicated to church and missional agriculture, land stewardship, food ministry, environmental justice and civil society engagement. Through 17 years of ministry with Episcopal Relief & Development, Brian has a breadth of knowledge to share on agriculture that includes farmers markets, church gardens, farms with community supported agriculture (CSA) operations, indoor hydroponic gardens, parking lot gardens, apiaries and community garden education. Brian also works to continue to build the movement for strengthening and expanding small-scale, sustainable agriculture as a member of the General Convention Task Force on Creation Care and Environmental Racism and upcoming Podcast,


Inspiration and help

New ways to grow food

A strategic approach to community development

Land stewardship examples from dioceses, congregations and other church institutions

This article is part of the September 2019 Vestry Papers issue on Mobilizing our Assets for Mission