Bishop Fairley implores conference clergy to plant spiritual gardens

April 27, 2023
By Alan Wild

CRESTWOOD, Ky. – Bishop Leonard Fairley spent parts of four days over the past week and a half worshiping and breaking bread with clergy from across the Kentucky Annual Conference – and talking about planting gardens.

“No matter the difficulty of the journey when as called clergy we dare to tend the lambs of Jesus, when we dare to feed the sheep, by God’s hands something amazing and miraculous always springs forth even in the depths of despair. When we dare plant spiritual gardens, God provides the increase,” Fairley said in a message titled “Planting Spiritual Gardens.”

He delivered the sermon four times to different United Methodist clergy groups – the Order of Elders on April 13, the Order of Deacons on April 19, and the Fellowship of Associate Members and Local Pastors twice, April 18 and April 22. The gatherings – which included Holy Communion, prayer, and worship songs – were held in spacious Holloway Hall at the Conference Office in Crestwood.     

The view out the giant picture windows of budding leaves and blooming redbud and dogwood was in keeping with Fairley’s sermon, which focused on spring and rebirth. Despite the current unrest in The United Methodist Church, it is past time to renew our focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ, the bishop told the gathered clergy.

He noted later that the time of worship would be the last time that some of those present would be in covenant with their fellow United Methodist clergy, as some have chosen to withdraw from the UMC. The bishop was grateful for the opportunity to gather in a spirit of worshipfulness and mutual respect. Each address was slightly different as Fairley would at times deviate from his prepared text, but the central message of planting and rebirth never wavered.

In an interview, Fairley said: “My hope is that the UMC can truly pivot, and to do that, we need to be able to let each other go in peace, in love. That way, you don’t carry that burden into the new season that God is calling us all into.”

During his sermon, he said that growing spiritual gardens is “the main thing – growing passionate spiritual disciples who change the world.” But it’s difficult in this season, which he likened to being in exile.

“I don’t know about you, but it feels like we have been in exile long enough,” he said. “It is time to push through the darkness and reach toward God’s preferred future lived out in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

At times as he addressed the groups, Fairley’s tone became fiery as he lamented that the tone surrounding the LGBTQ-inclusion debate has often been acrimonious, with people “hyper-alert, hyper-paranoid, firing self-righteous bombs at each other.”

That is the wrong response, he said: “We can choose to just survive, or we can choose to actively pursue peace, beauty, life, health – staying aware of the risk and expressing compassion through our caution, but releasing our fears and finding a kind of home, while inviting others to saving grace and the forgiveness of our sins … in Jesus Christ.”

He urged them to “lay down whatever hurt, pain, frustration, and disappointment you might be carrying and let’s start planting spiritual gardens. I invite you to lay aside all the acrimony and your mistrust and anger you feel toward your sisters and brothers even though you feel they have done you wrong, even though they have made a different choice than you have: Lay it down and let’s start planting spiritual gardens by sowing the seeds of love, peace, and justice.”

He concluded with a prayer titled “Be the Gardener of My Soul,” which included these lyrics from Richard J. Foster:
      Clear away the dead growth of the past,
     Break up the hard clods of custom and routine,
     Stir in the rich compost of vision and challenge,
     Bury deep in my soul the implanted Word,
     Cultivate and water and tend my heart,
     Until new life buds and opens and flowers. Amen.”

The Rev. Jim Nichols, who serves as chair of the conference’s Order of Elders, said after the elders’ worship service that he was ‘’excited about all of our family that showed up,” noting that there was a spirit of family despite all the noise around departing clergy and churches.

“I’m excited about all the gardens represented in the room,” said Nichols, who serves as senior pastor at Southern Hills UMC in Lexington.

The Rev. Brandon McGinnis, chair of the Order of Deacons, said after that session that it was good to gather in worship for one of the first times since the pandemic.

“I thought our time to worship together was very special, because usually when we’re together as an order, we’re planning something, so it was nice to be together, hear the bishop’s message, and just worship together,” said McGinnis, who serves as the Wesley Foundation director at Eastern Kentucky University.

Fairley’s message about spiritual gardens seemed to resonate. One especially powerful moment came while the deacons worshipped. The Rev. Sami Wilson, of Bowling Green, wept as she heard Fairley’s comments at the time expressing hope that people will flourish wherever they feel called to serve.

In an interview later, she explained that she and her family worship at Broadway, which is remaining UMC, but Christ Church in Bowling Green, where she serves, is planning to disaffiliate at Annual Conference in June.

“I have a foot in both worlds – so much love; my church family in both places,” Wilson said, tearing up again. But she is grateful that she will continue serving people on the front lines with a pending appointment to Marketplace Chaplains – and she will continue to be in relationship with both her church families, Wilson said.

“It doesn’t matter what the name on the door says. The Kingdom of God transcends that name on the door.”

Another powerful moment came as the gathering of local pastors on April 18 was concluding. The bishop had already left Holloway Hall, and the pastors called him back to Holloway Hall so they could pray over him. They prayed not only for their bishop but for the elders, deacons and all the conference clergy.

A bit later, as two of the pastors were leaving Crestwood to return home, they found themselves following a truck. Suddenly they noticed what it said on the back: