Czar Nicolas II, who ruled Russia from 1894 to 1917, was walking in his palace garden one day when he found a soldier who was stationed as a sentry to guard that particular place.
Confused as to why a soldier would be assigned to such a location in his garden, he asked the man why he was there.
The soldier merely said that he was ordered by his superior officer to be in this spot.
The czar began to follow the chain of command up through the ranks to find out why this guardian was stationed in that place in the garden.
No one seemed to know anything other than orders had come down from above.
Finally, the czar discovered that more than 100 years earlier, when Catherine the Great ruled over Russia, she had planted a rose bush in that place in the garden. To protect her rose bush, she stationed a soldier to stand guard over that place in the garden.
Ever since, a guardian had stood tall and strong protecting that corner of the garden. The only problem was that the rose bush had long since died.
What Catherine the Great needed was not a guardian standing tall and strong to protect a rose bush, but a gardener, bending, stooping and working in the soil to nurture the plant as it grew.
The two images of guardian and gardener provide a wonderful way for us to think about the church. Is your church more like a guardian or a gardener?
Is your church acting like a guardian – trying hard to protect and guard the ministries that were planted yesterday? If so, how is the rose bush doing?
Or is your church thinking like a gardener? Are you digging new soil, planting new seeds and pruning back the old so new growth can occur, fertilizing the old soil so that a strong foundation will bear new fruit?
Remember these powerful words about ministry from Paul: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6).
We do the work of gardening, and then we trust in the creative work of God to bring about the growth.
This simple contrast between a guardian and a gardener has helped me in ministry.
When a decision came along in the life of the church, I would often ask before deciding, “How would a guardian act? What would a gardener do?”
Questions such as these might be helpful in other churches who desire to be healthy.
Church leaders would do well to try them out the next time they are facing an important church decision.
The resurrection of Christ, which we celebrated last Sunday, put things into focus. We care about the church because we are Easter people.
When Jesus was placed in the tomb following his death, Roman guards were stationed to protect the tomb.
Yet, even these guardians that represented the greatest military might the world has ever known could not keep a dead man dead.
On Easter Sunday morning, the stone was rolled away, the guards rendered helpless, the tomb empty.
John 20 tells us that Mary came to the tomb, saw that it was empty, and in her sadness and grief stumbled into someone whom she supposed to be the gardener.
Some commentaries call this the greatest case of mistaken identity that the world has ever known. Imagine mistaking the risen Christ for a simple gardener. But what if Mary was right?
What if Jesus, the servant Lord, really is a gardener who bids all of us to take up our crosses, our Bibles, our pulpits, shovels and hoes in order to follow him?
Churches should consider whether they are guarding their own agenda and holding on to their own desires. If they are, they should try the way of Jesus, the gardener.
Too many beautiful rose bushes called churches have faded and died because they were faithful about standing guard over them in order to protect what had been rather than being committed to gardening what God wanted to grow through us.
We need to begin thinking differently – to choose a better image to bring about life and health in our congregations. What will it be: guardian or gardener?
David Hull is the southeast coordinator for the Center for Healthy Churches and lives in Watkinsville, Georgia. He was previously the pastor of First Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama. A version of this article first appeared on the Center for Healthy Churches blog and is used with permission. You can follow David on Twitter @DavidWHull.