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Dignity and respect are the key to a multimillion-dollar ministry supported by a successful thrift shop

During the COVID-19 closures of 2020 and 2021, the leaders of Dorcas Ministries decided to remodel their popular thrift shop to look and feel like a T.J. Maxx, the off-price retailer with discounted items from name-brand fashion to home decor.

The shop, located in a former grocery store in Cary, North Carolina, was already a treasure trove for bargain buyers. The new look made it even more enticing.

The Dorcas Thrift Shop space is mostly taken up with lightly used clothing, rack upon rack, neatly organized by type. At one end of the cavernous building are multiple shoe shelves arranged by size. Handbags, belts and scarves line a wall.

thrift shop volunteers
A volunteer stocks shoes; another volunteer does some shopping at the end of her shift.

Closer to the checkout points are seasonal items — right now, Halloween costumes — and farther down, toward the rear of the store, shelves stocked high with housewares. In between, glass cases sparkle with vintage jewelry.

Customers flock to the shop from all over Wake County and the surrounding region. After browsing with shopping carts or tote bins, they pay in cash or with credit or debit cards.

The average cost of an item? $2.50.

volunteer sorts at the thrift store
A volunteer traightens jewelry before the store opens; the housewares display next to the vintage section showcases higher quality specialty items.

There’s a reason the thrift shop, which anchors a plaza owned entirely by Dorcas, tries to model its services on professional business practices.

The ministry sees that as a way of treating people of all income levels fairly and eliminating barriers to social mobility.

“Our job is to treat everyone like God’s children, with the compassion, dignity and respect they deserve,” said André Anthony, the ministry’s CEO. “That’s our primary focus.”

Volunteers help neighbors thrive

That formula appeals not only to low-income shoppers but also to a healthy corps of middle-class volunteers from Cary and Morrisville, affluent suburbs of North Carolina’s capital of Raleigh, who have helped make the ministry a success.

The ministry takes pride in having earned Top 10 ratings in the “Best Thrift Shops” category on Yelp, the crowd-sourced review platform. On a typical weekday morning, several dozen people wait outside the shop ready to make their way in as soon as the doors open at 11 a.m.

Started 55 years ago by a group of women from nearby churches, the ministry takes its name from the seamstress Dorcas, mentioned in the book of Acts as “always doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36 NIV).

Last year, the shop generated $3.2 million in sales. It used that income to provide $2.2 million in financial assistance to the area’s poor, becoming a premier social welfare agency for a region of more than 200,000 people.

Dorcas employs 27 full-time staff, but it relies on 600 dedicated volunteers, without whom it could not fulfill its mission of “helping neighbors thrive.” Its volunteers, many retired from careers as IT specialists, corporate executives and health care professionals, are eager to give back to their community.

What compelling vision does your organization use to inspire volunteers?

Dorcas volunteer
A volunteer during her shift at the Dorcas Thrift Shop.

Some 500 of those volunteers take one or two weekly three-hour shifts sorting, cleaning, fixing, pricing and labeling the avalanche of donations that accumulates daily at the shop’s rear dock.

Impressive as it is, the thrift shop is just the foundation of a vast set of services that Dorcas offers with income from the store. That’s where about 100 additional volunteers with experience working with people in difficult life circumstances apply their talents.

In 2022, Dorcas helped 2,000 families (or about 5,800 individuals) with emergency financial aid and other services at its crisis center located in offices next to the thrift shop. Those helped are typically low-wage workers living paycheck to paycheck who, because of divorce, illness, the birth of a child and/or lack of paid parental leave, fall behind on their rent or are facing eviction.

“Dorcas is probably the most significant social ministry in our area in terms of how many people they serve and the kind of services they provide,” said the Rev. Wolfgang Herz-Lane, the senior pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Cary, one of 40 area congregations that regularly donate financially to the ministry.

Christ the King provides Dorcas with a steady stream of volunteers and refers people in need. So much so, Herz-Lane said, that he thinks of it as a “social ministry arm of our congregation.”

Helping people in crisis

Like the thrift shop, the Dorcas crisis center is modeled on an ethic of respect and dignity for all. A receptionist greets people and directs them to private rooms where they meet with case workers to assess their needs and come up with plans to address their financial difficulties.

How do you communicate your vision and invite potential volunteers to be part of it?

woman at desk
Administrative manager Erica Brower working at the Dorcas office.

Clients at the crisis center receive checks — usually within 48 hours — to help pay for rent or utilities. Dorcas may even help pay for veterinary care (addressing the No. 1 reason pets wind up in shelters — families’ inability to pay veterinary bills).

But the aid doesn’t stop there. Clients receive ongoing counseling and other services for a period of three months to a year. That may include one-on-one career coaching, cash stipends for those willing to enroll in workforce training classes at the local community college, or preschool scholarships for children.

“We don’t just hand them a check for rent assistance; we hand them a check and say, ‘OK, let’s talk through some changes that can be made,’” said Sally Goettel, a former Dorcas board member who continues to volunteer there. “By getting that holistic approach, it’s just so much more effective.”

Dorcas Ministries
A volunteer gives a client some resources in the Crisis Center.

At the crisis center, clients can also take advantage of a mobile University of North Carolina nursing clinic that provides free basic preventive care, including school physicals, every Tuesday morning and twice a month on Saturdays.

But the most basic form of support the ministry provides is food.

Food assistance for families in need

Similar to the T.J. Maxx-inspired thrift shop, the Dorcas food pantry, located a few doors away, is modeled on a high-end food store. Dorcas clients can take a cart and browse a wide selection of prepared foods as well as fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy items, baked goods, paper goods, diapers and even cat food. Grocery shelves are labeled in English and Spanish. Recently, the pantry started a Taco Tuesday meal kit. (About 8% of Cary residents are Hispanic.)

Here, too, the idea is to treat people with respect — not just to give them a handout. While anyone can shop at the Dorcas thrift shop, the pantry is reserved for families in need who have gone through its client services intake.

“It’s not a preselected bag of food,” Anthony said. “It’s very much client choice. It’s intentionally set up where, when you walk in, you feel just like anybody going to a grocery store.”

If you have an idea for Christian social entrepreneurship, could it be supported with an active volunteer base?

thrift shop volunteers
A woman unloads flats of canned vegetables in the food pantry; another stocks pet food.

Sallie Whelan, a retired schoolteacher, said it’s the interaction with clients that makes the food pantry such a satisfying volunteer experience.

“I wanted to do something in my retirement that would go towards my philosophy of helping people,” said Whelan, 67. “We’re working directly with the people that are shopping — helping them find something that they’re looking for or explaining the process to them.”

Founded on faith and dignity

While the ministry is motivated by the Christian faith of its founders, the employees and volunteers do not ask clients about their faith and only mention its Christian roots if asked. Among the 40 congregations supporting Dorcas, one is a synagogue; another, a Hindu temple.

“Whether they’re Christian or whether they’re Hindu or whether they’re purple or whether they’re green, if you want assistance and you live within the geographic region that Dorcas supports, they can assist you along a path,” said Barbara Bostian, 66, who volunteers as a career coach and serves as vice chair of the ministry’s board of directors.

That desire to help neighbors is how Dorcas got its start. In 1968, a group of mostly white women from Cary’s downtown churches that had been meeting for a Bible study decided to add a service project.

Southern schools were still segregated in those days, and the women decided to form a class for Black children who didn’t have access to kindergarten.

They drove through town, stopping at homes where they spotted a clothesline with children’s clothes or toys on the front lawn. About 40 children eventually enrolled and met at a local predominantly Black church.

Thus was born Christian Community in Action, still Dorcas’ legal name.

How does your faith community offer support while maintaining the respect and dignity of its neighbors and clients?

Dorcas thrift shop exterior
Dorcas’ director of marketing Shelley Hobbs (far left in floral dress) leads a tour of the facility during a volunteer training session.

Soon after the program began, people started donating clothes for the children, and a small clothing closet was set up. To help preserve people’s dignity, CCA began charging people a nickel or a dime for each item. This was the start of the Dorcas Thrift Shop.

“They started putting money in a jar,” said Jill Straight, Dorcas’ senior director of client services and advocacy. “And then when one of the families they were working with needed help with a light bill or water bill, they used the jar of money to help with the bill.”

By 1972, the thrift shop transitioned from a church closet to a downtown apartment. The kindergarten program ended in 1980, but the thrift shop continued to grow.

After moving half a dozen times, the ministry bought an old strip mall in 2008 and invested more than $4.5 million in building upgrades. It rented out adjacent spaces to other nonprofits, including a Habitat for Humanity ReStore, an after-school literacy program and a behavioral health care management group.

Dorcas Plaza also includes a few for-profit businesses — one of which, a pool hall, has been a good neighbor to the ministry, contributing money through fundraising drives.

These sound business decisions have helped the ministry boost its volunteer roster. Each week, a Dorcas staff member conducts an orientation tour for potential volunteers. On a recent Tuesday, those included a handful of retirees and a young man with developmental disabilities.

training volunteers
Shelley Hobbs leads an orientation for new volunteers.

Shelley Hobbs, Dorcas’ director of marketing, gave the group a behind-the-scenes tour of the thrift shop, the food pantry and the crisis center.

All were familiar with the Dorcas Thrift Shop, and several said they had shopped there for years. One of them, Carolyn Jungclas, had recently retired from a career as head of procurement for First Citizens Bank.

Jungclas, 60, described herself as a crafter who loves to sew. She wanted to volunteer to sort through the linens and fabrics the thrift shop receives. A friend had told her that Dorcas could use her help.

“I’m a firm believer, from the Gospel of Luke, that to whom much is given, much is expected,” Jungclas said.

But what impressed her most was the ministry’s emphasis on treating people with dignity.

“To me, that just is so key,” Jungclas said. “I’m hoping to start as soon as possible.”

How do your volunteers describe the work of your organization? How do they describe working for your organization?

Questions to consider

  • What compelling vision does your organization use to inspire volunteers?
  • How do you communicate that vision and invite potential volunteers to be part of it?
  • If you have an idea for Christian social entrepreneurship, could it be supported with an active volunteer base?
  • How does your faith community offer support while maintaining the respect and dignity of its neighbors and clients?
  • How do your volunteers describe the work of your organization? How do they describe working for your organization?

Chapter 11: Sacred Stories

The hard work of life is remembering. Remembering who you are, remembering how you want to be in the world, remembering where you last left the kids. Down through the centuries our ancestors have told and retold stories to help us find our way. Sacred stories that remind us of our true identity. Soul stories to encourage us to pursue our deepest yearnings for freedom. Told from one seeking heart to another, these sacred stories function like a lighthouse — guiding us away from the shallows, leading us toward the more gracious depths of who we are.

When asked why he spoke in parables, Jesus told his followers (as paraphrased by Anthony de Mello): The shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story. All wisdom traditions entrust stories to embody their deepest truths. The Bible is full of stories. The Bhagavad Gita is a story. The Buddha’s life teachings are embedded in story form. The life of Muhammad is transmitted through story. Jesus’s life and teachings are communicated through story.

Science is also a story that seeks to unveil reality and dispel illusion. Behind the doctrine, the rules, the rituals, and the institutions of all wisdom traditions, you find stories that not only seek to transmit teachings but invite a deeper, more liberating experience of the self and the world.

The power of stories to free us, whether religious or secular, depends on the integrity and compassion of the tellers and the openness of the listeners. The sacred stories of religion are often at first glance amusing relics, utter nonsense, even potentially destructive — unless they are shared by people who are knowledgeable and trustworthy. Only within the sacred bond of compassionate teller and seeking listener can we know a story’s worth. It is within that trusting container where we can give ourselves to the story. There we can expose our hurt and longing to its plotlines and allow the story to read us. There we can allow ourselves to enter the story. Not as fact. More than fact. As a way of seeing, as a gateway to peace, as a pathway home.

There we can allow ourselves to fall into the story’s rhythms and feel its truths. The same way we might give our body to the steps of a dance in order to feel its joy. Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow, quick-quick, slow, slow.

                                                             *****

I was in a lost, longing-for-meaning place in my midtwenties. For about six months I could hardly sleep more than a handful of hours. All the repressed wounds of my childhood were radiating out from me like a high-grade fever. There was a terrifying emptiness gathering within me, a gnawing sense of worthlessness, and the only way I knew to address it was to stay busy and distract myself from the anxiety by working and working and working. I became mindlessly driven, physically ragged, deeply sleep deprived. My marriage suffered and my health deteriorated. I began to obsess about finding a new job, certain that different employment would give me some sense of peace.

It took a good friend and colleague to recognize my crisis was more than vocational. Tenderly, persistently, he convinced me to join him on a contemplative retreat at a Franciscan convent. I agreed — but only under the ridiculous stipulation that I could commute home each night to catch up on work.

There are parts of ourselves that can’t be known, places within us that can’t be accessed without a story. The week at the Franciscan convent was destabilizing. Full of silence, prayer, long periods of solitude, I was forced to feel the stark, despairing state I was in. I was lost and hurting and had no idea what to do. Every morning the retreat teacher gave a talk and then offered a spiritual practice. Each talk was based on a story that sought to uncover our deeper nature.

One morning he told us the story of the prodigal son, one of the parables of Jesus.

A man has two sons. The younger son is restless, impatient. He goes to his father and asks for his half of the inheritance. The father agrees. The son takes the money, heads into the nearby city, and eventually spends it all on parties, prostitutes, dissolute living. A famine descends upon the land. Broke, desperate, working for a pig farmer to feed himself, the young man decides to return home, apologize, and see if he might be hired as a farmhand — a much better life than his current state. While walking the road home, the father sees his son and takes off running. Before the younger son can fully apologize, the father embraces him, places his rings on his son’s fingers, and instructs the servants to prepare a celebration.

Meanwhile the elder son is out working in the fields. He hears music and revelry. He asks one of the field hands to investigate. “Your brother has returned,” the field hand reports. “Your father is throwing a celebration.” The elder brother is greatly triggered by this news. Filled with resentment, he refuses to join the party. The father hears the response of his eldest. He leaves the festivities, goes out into the fields, and begs his son to join the party. The elder son is indignant. He reminds his father of his loyalty, frugality, and hard work. How could he celebrate a son who has been so self-serving, disrespectful, and wasteful? The father feels compassion for his eldest boy. He reminds him everything else he has belongs to his eldest. The father adds, “But we had to rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, was blind but now he sees.”

The retreat teacher invited us to personally interact with the parable. We were sent out to find a solitary place to meditate on the story, with instructions to try and see, hear, taste, smell, and feel the story as if we were there. He encouraged us to go wherever the meditation took us — allow ourselves to become one of the characters, place the story in a modern setting, or change the characters from a father and two sons to a mother and two daughters if helpful.

I found an empty basement classroom in the convent, sat alone in the dark, and as instructed, gave my imagination over to the story of the prodigal son. I saw the dust of the road, heard the goats and sheep in the nearby field. I saw the sons, the eldest responsibly and dutifully heading out to the fields, the younger son pacing, dissatisfied. As if it were an old home movie, I watched the story take place within me.

I have no idea how much time passed, but then something happened. Like a lucid dream, I fell into the story. I could smell the dry earth, feel the sun on my back, hear the distant laughter and music from a party. I was the elder brother. I felt depleted, isolated, hopeless, full of resentment — and then surprisingly, in the midst of this story-dreaming, I felt a visceral sense of overwhelming welcome, a sense of being held. An unburdening, a release, a compassionate embrace. I wept, and the aloneness and fear and sense of failure I had been carrying dissipated.

When I finally pulled myself together, I immediately wondered if I was having some kind of psychological breakdown. The experience was so powerful I thought I might be losing my mind. I went to find the retreat leader, Morton Kelsey, who was not only an Episcopal priest but also a trained psychotherapist of forty years. I assumed he would offer a diagnosis and recommend medication or therapy or possibly even some time in an institution.

Troubled and disoriented, I found Morton in the cafeteria and asked if he would meet with me. After evening prayer we found a quiet place to talk. I told him my experience of the meditation, fully expecting him to become alarmed. Instead he told me a story, one about growing up with a father who could be quite remote and demanding. He then asked me about my own upbringing, my relationship with my parents. I answered as best I could.

Then he told me a story about his first job. Back and forth we went, like village bells answering one another across a valley, with various experiences from our lives. Whatever note I struck in my story, he would strike a similar note, allowing me to feel heard and understood. For almost three hours we sat facing one another, telling stories, back and forth, back and forth, until there was a deeply felt connection. Eventually the hour became late, our words spent. Morton stood to leave, and I suddenly realized he had not answered my question.

“But what about the meditation? Was it a breakdown?”

“Well,” he said thoughtfully. “What do you think? We’ve been talking for hours. You seem calm. You’re speaking coherently. Your body seems relaxed. You don’t seem agitated in any way. It doesn’t appear to me you are having a psychotic break. Maybe it was something else? Maybe it was Divine Love. Maybe it was God.”

                                                                   *****

“There must always be two kinds of art,” writes poet W. H. Auden. “Escape art, for humans need escape as we need food and deep sleep, and parable art, the art which shall teach us to unlearn hatred and learn love.” My experience at the Franciscan convent is the sacred story of how I began to live from a deeper awareness of love and truth. It was the beginning of a healing season for me that included therapy, long talks with my wife, a commitment to spiritual practice, a different approach to work.

My friends who are secular humanists would tell it another way. They might describe my experience as a breakthrough of the unconscious or of transference of care from teacher to student. I’m okay with that. But since it is my sacred story, I tell it in the way that feels most true for me.

Your sacred story may have a different setting. Maybe it takes place at a bowling alley, a community center, a mountain lake, a grandmother’s kitchen, a desert plateau, a detention center, a Girl Scout camp. Maybe your story begins in divorce, the wake of grief, the ecstasy of nature, a quest for truth, a near-death experience, a restless longing for love. And in your story you might replace the Episcopal priest with a molecular biologist, a Holocaust survivor, a cognitive therapist, a Buddhist nun, a Native American elder, the old guy who lived next door. And in your story, instead of a Jesus parable, there might be a conversation about galaxies, a pilgrimage to your mother’s home village, a letter from a trusted friend, a mindfulness practice, a month of solitude in a Minnesota cabin, a heartfelt conversation with your best friend’s father, a stranger’s confession in an AA group.

There is a depth to story that we rarely take time to ponder, let alone to tell and hear. Story is how we transform pain. Story is how we make something useful out of the absurd. A sacred story is a love letter expanding your heart with kindness. A sacred story is a treasure box filled with images of what matters most. A sacred story is a map, passed down through generations, directing you toward a fountain of truth. A sacred story is a medicine, a balm to relieve your fear and suffering. A sacred story is an angel in the night. A sacred story is a window that offers perspective. Sometimes a sacred story is a shield, a protector, a source of courage and love. Sometimes your sacred story is what gives you strength to face the real and present dangers of our world. Sometimes your sacred story spends years searching for you, trailing you through all your harried days, cornering you in some blue fluorescent rehab center, looking you in the eye, and saying, “Okay, here’s the truth.”

What are the images, the moments, the stories on which your soul meditates? What are the stories that remind you to unlearn hatred and receive love? Nigerian author Ben Okri declared, “We live by stories. We also live in them. One way or another, we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted — knowingly or unknowingly — in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly, we change our lives.”

Are the stories that shape you death dealing or life giving? Do the stories you hold as sacred heal, or do they exacerbate the suffering? Do they bring out your loving nature, do they cultivate freedom? Or do they bum you out, make you more afraid, anxious, resentful, and bitter? What are the stories you hold as sacred, the ones you tell your children, the ones you want remembered at your funeral? And are they any good?

Reprinted with permission from “Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us,” by Mark Yaconelli, copyright © 2022 Broadleaf Books.

Years ago, on a crisp autumn morning, I exited the busy streets of London and walked down the sterile corridors of the Royal London hospital. Local art hung on the walls in an attempt to make the ward more cheerful; fluorescent lights beamed overhead, bells were going off and “Code blues!” ringing out.

I was weary and my body was on high alert. For a week I had gotten very little sleep. A group of us had been tag teaming, coming and going, making sure a friend and her newborn son were not alone.

My friend gave birth without a husband or significant other, but she had friends by her side. The birth turned into a near-fatal experience and she had to spend a week in the hospital. Throughout that week she was accompanied by members of our community.

This little one had entered into our midst; he and his mother were decidedly not alone, even though they might appear so if you looked at the usual forms.

Being who we are, we broke most of the hospital rules.

One of the guys came to visit one afternoon and took the baby for a stroll, giving him a look at the London skyline while my friend had her dressings changed. Unbeknownst to him, he wasn’t supposed to leave the ward. Oops!

And visiting hours technically ended if you weren’t related, but we just quietly slipped in and out and kept acting like we belonged. We knew we belonged to one another.

The day before my friend was due to check out, I walked up to the nurses’ station and one of them casually said, “We’ve never seen anything like it.” Apparently, we had become the talk of the hospital staff.

She went on to say, “The love that flows out of that room…that mother and child are going to be OK. We just can’t figure out how any of you are connected, but it is clear there is love. I hope you keep doing what you’re doing.”

Over the course of my life I’ve seen strangers become friends and friends become family. My mother modeled this way of living. I experienced it in my youth group, and I’ve been chasing it ever since. This closeness is a million miles from our societal norms of isolation, individualism and self-reliance at all cost. And it’s a huge part of what makes my life sustainable as well as beautiful.

At the beginning of the year, I found myself in another hospital room, this time thousands of miles from urban London. I had traveled to Alaska, in the dead of winter, and arrived to find my mother on the brink of death.

I wasn’t alone caring for my mother in this hospital room, any more than I had been when I was caring for my friend and her newborn son.

Linda, 10 years my senior, arrived right on my heels from Texas. Linda and I shared the load at the hospital, one of us doing days and the other nights. Her daughter, who calls my mother Mimi, came for a few days as well. We were a true team.

In the weeks we spent at the hospital, caring for my mother and getting to know the nurses and doctors, I realized they too were trying to figure out how we were related. In that dark and sterile room, I could clearly see, for the first time, that my mother was the first to imprint on me this woven patchwork of family.

Linda worked for my mother in Texas, helping care for my grandfather when he was in his final months, and she travelled to Alaska during several of my mother’s surgeries. Her daughter, Bianca, spent summers with my mother and stepfather in Alaska.

Linda calls my mother “Mom” and phones her frequently – in truth more frequently than I do. On this trip, I realized something my mother had realized and embraced for decades: Linda really is part of our family.

It wasn’t until I was on the brink of losing my mother that I realized how she modeled for me ways to love the stranger; how to trust that strangers can become friends and friends will become the family who bring richness to life.

Did my mother live this way – long before someone made up the word “framily” – because her capacity for loving strangers was naturally high? Or because she was so aware she couldn’t do life on her own? She grew up in a fragile family system, having lost her own mother to suicide when she was a young adult, and she craved a good and healthy family for my brother and me. So she wove one together from the patchwork of people that populated our lives.

I learned in these hospital stays that those who have people with them in hospitals get better care. It isn’t supposed to be this way, but it is. And yet, as I surveyed the wards this past January there were very few patients that had people really with them. I’m so grateful that my mother survived, and I’m sure it is in some part due to being surrounded by her wide, untraditional family.

Recently, The Atlantic revealed the results of the longest study on human happiness. The findings showed that deep relationships are the key to well-being. By all measures, they are simply the most essential characteristic of the good life. It isn’t wealth – it’s people, it’s relationships – that enrich our lives.

Yet Springtide Research shows that 1 in 3 young people feel completely alone, and the U.S. Surgeon General has declared an epidemic of loneliness.

Seth Godin, in his CreativeMornings/NYC talk, “Thinking Backwards,” proclaims we are in the connection economy. This should be good news for people like me, who come from Christian backgrounds and claim to follow Jesus, but I’m not sure it is.

This leaves me wondering: Where is this runaway train of a culture that prizes individualism and self-sufficiency taking us? Does it take from us the one thing that truly makes a life good?

Long-standing traditions of hospitality to the stranger are embedded in our ancient heritage, dating back to ethical standards spelled out in Hebrew Scripture. However, many contemporary churches I know operate more like enclaves of race, class and privilege, more concerned with keeping tradition than offering sources of mutuality and deepening belonging as the early church did. Revitalizing a heritage of hospitality where friends become family offers something the world really needs right now.

Has the search for Mr. or Ms. Right narrowed our imagination of family and community? My friend who gave birth in the London hospital received more support than many wives receive from their husbands. But it wasn’t a one-way street; our caregiving was completely mutual, nourishing to us all. Those of us who don’t have children of our own cherish the very special relationship we have with this growing boy.

We spend the high holidays of Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving together as well as the ordinary Sundays enjoying the company of one another. We are friends, of course. But to say “friends” is an understatement. We are more than friends, more than community: we’ve done life together for well over a decade.

We are from different classes, hold different political views, and have different marital status. We’ve witnessed weddings and baptisms together, created campaigns, labored to build houses together, attended births and funerals. We show up for each other in mourning and celebration.

The “we” is both a small group that sees each other weekly and a wider network of friends that exceeds 100. These relationships were built in action projects and over countless meals. Even though our community life has changed as people move and organizations evolved, the people stay committed to one another.

We might describe these connections as “chosen family,” people that intentionally choose to do life together regardless of blood or marriage. It is a choice you have to keep choosing because with any relationship come bumps and bruises as well as joy and levity. All relationships take work and intention.

These hospital vignettes show a life full of connection and interdependence, but it’s because it is a life rooted in love. Love builds connection, connection breaks down boundaries and creates value. This gift and reality is born out of ongoing formation in ways of being that value belonging: they run counter to a culture of quick fixes and feel-good moments.

It takes sacrifice and repeated acts of showing up. I am learning – in the hospital rooms of 80-somethings and birthday parties for 8-year olds – that when we do this over time, friends become family. We transform our individual lives, yes, and also the possibilities for our collective humanity.

This leaves me wondering: where is this runaway train of a culture that prizes individualism and self-sufficiency taking us? Does it take from us the one thing that truly makes a life good?

Pastors and my garden plants could have a lot in common, to the benefit of the clergy.

This occurred to me recently when a denominational leader lamented that pastors feel they are unable to be vulnerable in denominational spaces. The denomination supervises too many elements of pastors’ professional lives for it to be a safe space for mental and spiritual health conversations.

No single organization can provide pastoral leaders with all of the support they need. Instead, pastors need a network of institutions committed in distinct but collaborative ways to their thriving.

As with clergy, my garden plants need more than a variety of components in their soil to grow; they need a network that shares these resources effectively and collaboratively. Front yard gardening — a high-maintenance and high-reward hobby — has provided me with a window into how plants network.

I didn’t set out to turn my entire front yard into a garden. I started with a 4-by-4-foot raised bed to grow some cherry tomatoes and basil. Seven years later, I have a yard filled with raised beds, grow bags and a perennial pollinator garden.

Vegetables, flowers and weeds comingle to produce food for my household, the birds, the squirrels and the bees. It’s chaotic and joy-creating for me while providing meaningful neighborly connections.

Slowly, over the years, my understanding of soil science has grown. Initially, I mixed bagged garden soil with homemade compost and declared it good enough. The plants grew as long as I remembered to water them and paid attention to pest and mildew problems.

Gradually, through gardening missteps and lackluster harvests, I began to learn about the complex needs of the many plants I attempt to grow. Dramatic plant failures have led me for advice to the local cooperative extension office help line more than once.

Carbon-rich soil feeds sugars and nutrients to plants and acts as a sponge, holding much-needed water for hydration. Mineral-dense soil provides potassium and phosphate. Bean and pea plants can pull nitrogen from the air (magic!), making crop rotation an essential part of successful gardening. And when the soil doesn’t have what the plants need, there is an entire cottage industry of soil amendments to help our green things grow.

But in between the compost and clay and the worms and grubs lives my favorite part of soil: the fungus. That white web uncovered in an overturned pile of mulch is garden gold, the mycelium network that acts as the fiber-optic communications channel for the plants.

Through these tiny strands, plants share resources and information with one another. The network also breaks down matter left by humans and other creatures, improving the soil’s quality and ability to support plant growth.

The importance of the mycelium’s invisible contribution to our daily well-being cannot be overstated. Working in my garden this spring to nurture the conditions for the mycelium to thrive, I have pondered how this network is a meaning-rich metaphor for pastors.

Each faith-based or church-related organization has a mission and strengths that define how it supports clergy, congregations and communities. It creates and provides a vital resource, but no single entity can offer all of the support needed for thriving communities and pastors.

We are more effective in our ministry when we understand our particular organization’s unique contributions to a thriving community — how we connect to other groups to support our people. This requires all of us to shed fears of economic scarcity and adopt a theology of abundance and collective wellness. It requires us to trust that a Creator God who has imagined a tiny fungal network into existence has imbued us with the capacities to share resources and wisdom needed to thrive together.

This eco-theological imagination complements Scripture’s many stories and metaphors that encourage us to think collaboratively about the work of being faithful in the world: the body of Christ, the sending of the 72, the formation of the diaconate in the early church. These biblical references bring meaning to local congregational and communal life, as well as the larger ecosystems surrounding pastors and faith communities. They, like the mycelium network, challenge us to share our resources and creativity with one another.

The economic realities of life in the 21st century require each of us at the personal and organizational level to ask hard questions about who we are, who we are not, and how we connect and share with others who have distinct offerings.

Our wealth is not financial; it is the relational trust we have with one another that we will not abandon one another, that we will show up to celebrate and support, to share and care. That is not to discount the need for fund development and viable economic models. Rather, the mycelium network challenges our culturally pervasive posture that economic thriving is a zero-sum game best won through resource hoarding.

The tiny, interconnecting strands of the mycelium reflect the sacred call to be in community with one another at every level of our life, work and ministry. This crucial network teaches us that we are not alone in growing thriving communities, congregations and ministers but live in a world full of living connections and relationships that make us healthier, stronger and more abundant.

The economic realities of life in the 21st century require each of us at the personal and organizational level to ask hard questions about who we are, who we are not, and how we connect and share with others who have distinct offerings.