Recently, my students, future ministers, gave oral reports on ministries they visited and evaluated. For the first time, I heard several of them use the word "organic" as an adjective to describe healthy ministries, and lacking "organic" as a negative. What is organic ministry anyway and why are so many of my students drawn to it?
I remember an older woman who exploded, "Organic!"– I'm beginning to hate that word. If everything is organic, how do we ever get anything done?" Her frustration grew out of several conversations with younger women, and, in her opinion, this organic thing was throwing up roadblocks to effective ministry, specifically mentoring in her case. Those of us new to organic might think that it means we abandon structure, organizations, or direction, but that's wrong.
The organic movement began in Europe in the early 20th century when a small group of farmers determined that man-made fertilizers produced deficient plants and began using only natural products. Today the organic approach is a widespread movement, involving food, fitness, birthing centers, moving away from outside control, artificial ingredients, and synthetic products. it started as a means to produce natural food, but grew into a belief system that shapes values and lifestyles of many next-generation people. When we understand that this organic belief system extends to the ways young people relate to one another and how they want to worship God, we begin to get them.
The organic movement values natural products and methods. However, it is not without intentionality. Organic farmers prepare fields, plant crops, and add products to their plants to manage insect damage and weeds to promote the overall health of the plant. But they do this in a way that assists natural processes. Like the organic farmer, young leaders do not resist all structure, just too much structure, and what they perceive as erroneous unnecessary structure. But locating the line between natural and overly structured is enough to make many older leaders a little crazy.
What does organic look like in ministry? We are still learning. In mentoring, we know, based on one of my student's (Barbara Neumann) research, that it moves away from artificial matches, timetables, required curriculums, and micromanaging relationships. Young research subjects confided that they disliked processes that felt contrived, overly scheduled, phony, and programmatic. And they revealed that these issues were important enough to sink mentoring relationships. They talked about their intense desire to share their lives with a mentor who valued flexibility, authenticity, and transparency. They craved meaningful interaction with someone who wouldn't try to make them over into a mini-version of themselves, but rather would come alongside as a trusted, non-shockable guide, ahead but not above. They didn't want to go through a prescribed curriculum together. They wanted someone who would help them apply biblical truth to their particular challenges right now. What they described did not change the heart or essence of mentoring but lauded a radically different ethos–a new environment, natural, simple, organic.
I sense that what we are learning about organic mentoring will soon transfer to organic ministry–I already see it as women move away from elaborate thematic retreats and toward simpler, more natural times of honest connection, deep teaching, and reflective processing together. I sense that the more we older leaders really listen to younger voices, the more our ministries will take on a new flavor, a more organic flavor, that might look more like the Shema": These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up…" Sounds more organic to me.
Is anyone seeing what I'm seeing and hearing what I'm hearing? What are the benefits of a more organic approach to ministry? What cautions do we need to consider? If we move toward more organic ministry, we will need God's guidance and the best minds and hearts working together.