Scaling things that grow

Since meeting him at Wake Forest two weeks ago, Fred Bahnson and I have been exploring different ways of thinking about how things spread, or get big enough to matter to communities. The question is critical to our work in Memphis because Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare is big: it is the regional referral hospital for a couple hours around, especially for children (LeBonheur is the only level 1 trauma hospital for hundreds of miles).

We want our congregational networks to be of the same scale as the clinical systems. We are not far from our initial goal of 400 congregations and now think the network will rise toward and perhaps past 500. A referral network is held together by guilds, protocols, legal obligations and vast amounts of money. Our young network of congregations is held together by trust, respect and shared compassion for people we think of as “patients” and the congregations think of as “members” or “neighbors.”

Should we think of our web of congregations sort of like gardens? Here’s where Fred has some insight:

“Scaling a community garden should be horizontal (connecting to other gardens) rather than vertical (getting bigger). I think too often when people look at a community garden or other highly-localized effort at agricultural shalom they say, ‘that’s great, but will it scale’? In other words, the garden is a quaint thing for a neighborhood, but you can’t really feed people with it. Sometimes when people ask if it will scale, they are really asking “can we make it really huge”….which leads to the Wal-martization of life that people like you and I abhor.

“I am intrigued by how your emphasis on how your whole system in Memphis seems to hang on face-to-face relationships. Until learning about your project I didn’t know that was possible on a city-wide scale. So my sense of scale has been expanded. But my hunch is that you’re near your limit. Once you’ve included every willing congregation within the area of Memphis, you’ve hit the walls of scale and to go further would not only compromise the fragility of the network you’ve built, it would change its very nature.

“When we talk about how to scale community gardens, I think we need to recognize that the scale must have that human face-to-face connection you’ve demonstrated so well in Memphis, and get no bigger than the connectional ability of its members. But it also needs to take in the very real ecological limitations of scale which modern agriculture simply ignores. E.F. Schumaker’s book comes to mind here. Small is beautiful, and ecologically it can also be much more productive than Big.

“A diverse garden is far more productive than a monocrop, and I’ve had the opportunity to see these all over (Cuba, Quintana Roo, Bolivia, California, Anathoth, my front yard…). Until recently, we Americans have had so much land that we haven’t really had to think very hard about how to make a small piece of land highly productive. That’s the new agricultural frontier. Currently, using conventional farming methods, it takes 1.2 acres to feed one person on a U.S. diet per year. That same acre can feed a) one cow for a year, b) fill up your gas tank exactly twice, or, c) with biointensive organic practices that same acre can feed 10 people for a year.

“So I guess what I’m getting at here is that we need to change what we mean when we talk about scale. Rather than think about scale as an expansion in size and space, we need to think about scale in terms of stacking and layering and creating densities of interaction. Which seems to be very much what you’re doing in Memphis (at the big end of the Small is Beautiful spectrum) and what we did at Anathoth (at the small end).”

I’m a city boy and never seen anyone actually feed themselves with a garden plot, but smart people like Heather Wood Ion assure me it did and still does happen. It is hard for others who have never experienced the care of a congregation to take that seriously, too. But it did and does happen. We don’t know exactly how to scale either gardens or congregations, but we are learning. With congregations there are two issues: connecting enough of them to make a difference (400, or 20% of them) AND build their capacity and competence (train, train, train, train) so they are truly useful and not just symbols. We want the bio and spiritually intensive type of generative relationships, sort of like one of Fred’s intensive gardens.

(For more of Fred’s intelligence find him at

– Posted on the journey

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Professor, Faith and the Health of the Public, Wake Forest University School of Divinity. NC Certified Beekeeper Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders, Religion and the Heath of the Public, Speak Life and God and the People. God and the People: Prayers for a Newer New Awakening. Secretary Stakeholder Health. Founder, Leading Causes of Life Initiative

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