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  • Ben Disney

The Carpenter and the Gardener:

Two Ways to Lead a Church

(Hint- One of Them Doesn’t Work)

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders.
Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


It’s a book about parenting. But it also contains valuable lessons for those who lead churches.


In a new book entitled “The Gardener and the Carpenter – What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us”, Alison Gopnik describes two ends of a spectrum on parenting methodologies. On one end are the “Gardeners” who are more about creating an environment (soil) that allows kids (plants) to grow however they will grow. On the other end are the “Carpenters”, parents who want to build and design the child the way they think would be most successful.


A Carpenter parent believes if you just do the right things, get the right skills, have the right tools, read the right books, get the right education; you can shape your child into a successful adult.

Carpenters who lead churches often operate with the same expectations. The task is to provide the basic building blocks, lay the foundation, manage the system and teach them what they need to know to become what they need to be. It’s all part of a clear design and intentional effort to shape and mold the individual and to instruct them on the basics of the Christian faith.


Gardeners, on the other hand, focus on toiling the soil and planting seeds. The primary task is to create a space in which the conditions are right so people can grow and flourish. Gardeners realize much of the process is beyond their control and out of their hands. Some seeds will fall on rocky ground or hardened paths and never take root. The drought will come, the weeds will threaten to choke out the emerging plants, and the conditions will not always be conducive for growth. But there will be moments when everything falls into place and the ensuing life and beauty is breathtaking.


Carpenters are often rigid, unyielding and inflexible. There’s one goal and one way to accomplish it. Their job is to mold and shape people through teaching and instruction for a very particular outcome. Those who fall into the category of a Carpenter leader include Fundamentalists, legalists, micromanagers, helicopter parents and authoritative Pharisees.

So, what does it all mean for a church leader like you?


A carpenter protects against change.

A gardener expects it.


If you’re a Carpenter leader chances are you like order, precision and predictability. It works best when everything is planned properly, measured carefully and executed meticulously.

If you’re a Gardener leader you realize church operates less like a blueprint design and more like a rich, fertile garden full of unexpected changes and surprises.


In practical terms it’s even more obvious. Tell people exactly what you want them to do, micromanage them and give them a list to memorize, and they will at best live into and up to your own expectations. Give them a vision, set their hearts on fire, open their minds to the possibility that God is already at work in the world, and they will exceed your greatest expectations.


If you’re still wondering which model works best - here’s a hint. Yes, Jesus grew up in the home of a Carpenter and we can assume he had some experience and training in the field from his father Joseph. But he left the trade, walked away from the family business and his hometown only to follow wherever God was leading him.


At the end of the story when they’re all looking for the crucified body of Jesus, Mary is the one who runs into the caretaker of the grounds. If I recall, it was Mary who is frantically asking questions of the stranger, astonished to realize she was instead talking to a resurrected Jesus. Who did she think she was talking to at first? Oh yeah, it was the Gardener.


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