Wendell Berry probably does not consider himself a mentor of pastors. He has been one for me, though. His writing about farming and marriage and poetry constantly brings me to reflect on the practice of pastoral ministry.
So, it is no surprise that his essay “God and Country” would do so. The essay, found in his book What Are People For?, is largely concerned with the ways in which the organized church is co-opted by the economy. Much in the essay is of interest, but for the moment, I want to raise up something Berry has to say about rural churches and the practice of using them as training grounds for student pastors.
No church official, apparently, see any logical, much less any spiritual, problem in sending young people to minister to country churches before they have, according to their institutional superiors, become eligible to be ministers. These student ministers invariably leave the rural congregations that have sponsored or endured their educations as soon as possible once they have their diplomas in hand. The denominational hierarchies, then, evidently regard country places in exactly the same way as “the economy” does: as sources of economic power to be exploited for the advantage of “better” places. The country people will be used to educate ministers for the benefit of city people (in wealthier churches) who, obviously, are though more deserving of educated ministers.
Berry goes on to note that in 50 years he has seen many young pastors called to serve as student pastors in rural churches, but he has never seen one called to stay in such a setting.
Of course — and playing right into Berry’s point — this is about economics. Small, rural churches cannot pay the salary of a full-time pastor. Because we pay pastoral salaries out of the offering plate of local congregations, only the larger and wealthier churches are ministered to by those whose pastoral vocation is their only vocation.
As a bi-vocational local pastor these last 7 years, I feel this. The churches I have served are used to seeing pastors come and go. They have come to accept the fact that I live in another county and have a full-time job that means I won’t be around much Monday to Saturday. They expect at some point, I’ll be moved away.
That is the way the system works.
Wendell Berry has me wondering — not for the first time — if this system reflects the kingdom or the economy.
Of course, that dichotomy is simplistic and probably, therefore, intellectually and spiritually lazy. We reflect both the kingdom and the economy. We live the already and not yet life of every Christian. But Wendell Berry does call me to look at the balance we have struck and ask if there are other ways — more faithful ways — to be the church in rural places and small towns.
It certainly calls me to examine my own heart and mind.