Leadership Metaphors: Garden and Machine


Post Author: Margaret Fox


Tomato plant

I started to acknowledge that my leadership role, at its best, would be like cultivation—helping to create conditions in which life could thrive.

I was only about a month into my first call as solo pastor of a small Presbyterian congregation when a new class of elders rolled onto the Session, which is the church’s governing board. In my congregation, much of the ministry is carried out through teams, and the Session asked me to organize them, which meant rearranging some existing elders and assigning new ones to leadership positions. The problem was, with just a month in office, I felt I didn’t know them well enough to have a sense of who would fit where.

I had before me a list of teams, a list of elders, and a church directory.  I cleared off the table in my office and set about the task. Using color-coded note cards, I shuffled and reshuffled elders and church members among the teams, struggling to figure out the optimal arrangement. I was at this for about an hour before I stopped and asked myself, “What the heck am I doing?”

I realized that I had been treating the church as if it were a machine and people as though they were interchangeable parts. I think this is common, actually, in the vernacular of management—I have a feeling that in their professional lives many of the people in my congregation are subject to a similar kind of mechanistic metaphor. The language and concepts of industry have crept into our understanding of human beings. Employees find their names printed on organizational charts, an orderly arrangement of identical squares joined by straight lines. The task of handling people belongs to a department called “human resources,” as though people were raw materials like iron or copper or gravel or sand.

I have a book on my shelves that I like to consult whenever I’m in need of a paradigm shift. It’s called Finite and Infinite Games, by James P. Carse. I don’t know whether it has any philosophical merit, but it’s helped me explore conceptual dichotomies—society versus culture, theater versus drama, power versus strength, boundary versus horizon, title versus name. I have found it quite helpful in sermon-writing, especially when I find myself struggling to articulate how the kingdom of God differs from the world of our ordinary expectations.

Knowing I needed to bust out of my mechanistic metaphor, I pulled Carse off the shelf and flipped forward to a chapter in which he explores the dichotomy of garden versus machine. “The most elemental difference between the machine and the garden,” Carse writes, “is that one is driven by a force which must be introduced from without, the other grown by an energy which originates from within itself.” A machine is made of resources, but a garden is a source: the plants are living things; they contain within themselves a source of spontaneity and growth. A garden can’t be manufactured or engineered, but it can be cultivated: “to garden… is to design a culture capable of adjusting to the widest possible range of surprise in nature. Gardeners are acutely attentive to the deep patterns of natural order, but are also aware that there will always be much lying beyond their vision.”

I stopped thinking of the elders as parts and started thinking of them as plants—not as resources but as sources, sources of possibility, spontaneity, and growth. I stopped thinking I could engineer a frictionless machine, and started to acknowledge that my leadership role, at its best, would be more like cultivation—helping to create conditions in which life could thrive.

Who needs sunlight? Who needs shade? Who is growing like gangbusters? Who’s getting choked out? Who is flourishing? Who is struggling? What will this year’s harvest bring?

I couldn’t fully answer these questions—not at one month into ministry, and not even now that I’m a year in. But it’s helped, as I live into this leadership role, to imagine things this way. And it helps me as a pastor to remember that, as in a garden, it’s God who gives the growth.


The Rev. Margaret Fox has been pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Perrysburg, Ohio, since the first Sunday of Advent, 2016. She previously served as a chaplain resident at Norton Healthcare in Louisville, Kentucky. Margaret holds a joint JD/MDiv from Yale and an MTS from Harvard. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, reading, and being outside.


Image by: Dominique Knobben
Used with permission
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