United Church of Christ

Farm Church as Embodied Spirituality: An Interview with Sarah Horton-Campbell

This past year saw the birth of a new UCC church: Common Life Church & Farm. The church is located in the village of Saxapahaw, between Chapel Hill and Greensboro, in North Carolina's central Piedmont region. This month the church began leasing farming fields and equipment from a local sustainable farm. The farm is run by a full-time farm manager and is supplemented by the congregation’s spiritual practice of tending the garden together. The church’s pastor is the Rev. Sarah Horton-Campbell. I interviewed her as part of an ongoing series focused on church leaders who are envisioning and bringing to life new ways of being the church while having a notable emphasis on creation care and justice. 

Tell me about the meaning and significance of your church’s name “Common Life Church and Farm.” Is there something in our culture or in the unique character of your church that makes this title especially relevant?

A main focus of Common Life Church & Farm is embodied spirituality. What does that mean? By “embodied spirituality,” I mean that how we worship and do church is structured in such a way that it reflects our faith values and engages our intellect, heart, and bodies.

The name Common Life evokes the way that relationships are central to our spiritual practice. By worshiping in a dinner church setting, we are interacting with one another and recognizing the Divine in each other. Another important spiritual practice for our church is tending the garden together. Gardening puts us in relationship with the earth as well as with one another. Dinner church and gardening are also both ways to experience and connect with God.

We often remind ourselves that God calls us to right relationship with God, one another, and the earth. In our communal gatherings, we don’t just learn about this call and then enact it elsewhere. We are actively engaging in our relationships with God, one another, and the earth through our communal worship and spiritual practices.

Common Life is located in a semi-rural area. In this area, there is not a progressive, welcoming, and affirming faith community for people of all backgrounds. Common Life hopes to provide this kind of community as an Open and Affirming and racial justice oriented church. In a highly agricultural area, growing and sharing food together as spiritual practice is a wonderful way to bring people together and build relationships that can heal divisions in our community.

In a way, the business-dimension of your church is both old and new. It is old because it evokes Paul’s work as a tent-maker in supporting his ministry. It is new because it is not the traditional model of churches today that depend significantly upon tithes and offerings for their financial underpinnings. Can you explain your business model and why you see it as the right “new” practice for today?

Common Life is working on being supported by the tithes and offerings of our congregation as well as revenue from farm produce sales. I say “working on” because we have only been meeting as a congregation since January 2018 with a small core group, and at this point rely mostly on grants and funding from generous churches and individuals. As our congregation and farm business grow, we hope to be self-funded in several years.

The farm is central to Common Life for several reasons. First, the farm is like our sanctuary—it is where the congregation gathers for worship and spiritual nourishment. In addition, the farm is a way to connect with our community through the produce we sell at our farm stand, community events we can host at the farm, and educational activities we can provide to other churches, faith communities, schools, and community groups. We also plan to offer longer-term educational and formation experiences on the farm such as a summer youth jobs program for local teens to learn about sustainable agriculture as well as a yearlong young adult service opportunity. Moreover, by farming sustainably, the farm is our witness to God’s love of creation. By witnessing to creation justice in this way, we can provide our community with clean, nutritious food while we are contributing to the healing of the earth and reversing climate change.

In order for our congregation and community to experience these benefits provided by the farm, we need to be fiscally responsible with how the farm is run, so that it can support itself. Being a non-profit social enterprise business means that the farm can generate revenue that goes back into the mission of Common Life Church & Farm. Because we are located in a semi-rural area with a lower population, and our practices steer us toward being a smaller relational church, it is prudent to seek this model that provides high positive impact for our community while being fiscally responsible.

A central aim of your church is to develop the next generation of young leaders for the church. Can you tell me about how you plan to do this and the kind of leadership you envision being developed?

One of the ways, we aim to develop young leaders for the church and world is by hosting a UCC Young Adult Service Community (YASC). Through the program, young adults ages 21-35 commit to a year of service. As the host congregation, we will provide them with housing, health insurance, and a living stipend. We plan to host three young adult “interns” in this capacity, and they will live together in intentional community.

As a graduate of a similar program (Discipleship Year with Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC), I am a strong believer in how transformational these programs are for young adults. The benefits of these programs include mentorship, leadership development training, spiritual formation, and vocational discernment. Participating in such an intensive program for a year can have a profound effect on the rest of one’s life. These young adults are launched into careers and church leadership (lay or ordained) with a strong foundation of faith, justice, and community.

In our particular setting, we will be the first year-long YASC program in a non-urban setting that provides the opportunity to work on a sustainable agriculture farm. This type of experience can help young adults discern about a career in agriculture as well as other green jobs or creation and community justice advocacy. Even if a young adult discerns that this type of career is not in their path, being connected with the earth is a formative experience they will take with them into other professions, their families, and their faith communities.

 

Common Life Church & Farm is currently a mission of Pilgrim UCC in Durham, NC, which is helping launch this new ministry by providing the legal structure within which they can operate organizationally (e.g. receive tax-deductible donations, call the pastor, hire the farm manager, produce insurance, etc.) Common Life Church & Farm depends upon the generous funding of grants, congregations, and donors. In June 2018, Common Life was awarded a $17,000 grant from the UCC Genesis Fund.


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