The place as it really is

One of the things I’ve read that most resonates with my sense of pastoral work was written by Wendell Berry. Berry is not a pastor or theologian. He is a poet, a writer, and — most important here — a farmer.

In one book of his essays, I have a book mark that I go back to from time to time because it speaks to me of the heart and craft of pastoral ministry and work. Please pardon a fairly long quotation.

[I]t is not uncharacteristic for a farmer’s connection to a farm to begin in love. … One loves the place because present appearances recommend it, and because they suggest possibilities irresistibly imaginable. One’s head, like a lover’s, grows full of visions. One walks over the premises, saying, “If this were mine, I’d make a permanent pasture here; here is where I’d plant an orchard; here is where I’d dig a pond.” These visions are the usual stuff of unfulfilled love and induce wakefulness at night.

When ones buys the farm and moves there to live, something different begins. Thoughts begin to be translated into acts. Truth begins to intrude with its matter-of-fact. One’s work may be defined in part by one’s visions, but it is defined in part too by problems, which the work leads to and reveals. And daily life, work, and the problems gradually alter the visions. It invariably turns out, I think, that one’s first vision of one’s place was to some extent an imposition on it. But if one’s sight is clear and if one stays on and works well, one’s love responds to the place as it really is, and one’s visions gradually image possibilities that are really in it.

Wendell Berry, Standing by Words, pp. 69-70

I’m tempted to quote more, but I fear even this much is more than some of you will read. If you skipped the quotation, please, lift your gaze a couple paragraphs and give it a few moments of your time.

So what does this have to do with being a pastor?

Pastors coming to a new church are very much like Berry’s farmer. When you first see the place, when you stand in the pulpit and survey the rows of empty pews or chairs, when you drive through the neighborhood around the church, you begin to imagine things that might be. This is especially so if you are a pastor with “vision.” Many a pastor loves a new church not for what it is, but they imagine it might be or become.

But the truth always intrudes on these visions. Every church is a place with a history. Its people are a unique collection of sinners and saints who have worshipped, celebrated, grieved, worried, hoped, and fought with each other for a long time. The congregation is like Berry’s farm. It reveals to you over time how God is at work in and through it and how with some degree of skill and patience a pastor might work with what is already there to help nurture what could be.

Every pastor knows all this, but we do not all believe it. For some, the vision of what the church could be — what it should be — drives them to take a bulldozer to what is already there. If they are talented enough and stubborn enough, they can do impressive things to the old place, but they often leave a lot of spiritual wreckage to be carted off in the process.

And, sadly, most of us pastors are neither talented enough nor stubborn enough to force a congregation to conform to the visions we would impose on them. Instead, the pastors begin to resent the very flock they are supposed to serve. They tell cynical jokes to each other at clergy gatherings. They long for greener pastures and better church members. They have less and less joy in the work and, often, turn back from the plow they once spent so much time and energy to take up.

This is not a large church vs small church thing. I’ve seen pastors of churches of all sizes who learned to let the place shape their visions. I’ve seen pastors of churches of all sizes try, with growing anger, resentment, and heartbreak, to force the congregation into their vision of what the church should be.

I will never claim to be an expert or a great pastor. My ministry has been an immense blessing to me, and I pray I have been useful to the church. For my part, I have always seen my role very much in keeping with Berry’s description of the farmer who learns through the work to see what is possible, what is already being done by God, and how those things might be shaped by the gospel’s vision.

This is not speedy work, but our Lord who spoke to us of sheep and seeds and harvests, I think, appreciates a good farming metaphor. I know I am grateful to have been called to this work.

2 thoughts on “The place as it really is

  1. You’ve got some “seasoned” insight here, John, and I won’t speculate on what experiences in your life became revelatory. Your post should be read alongside Timothy Tennent’s latest on the Next Methodism. The farming analogy is apt, even prescient. Most of the farm families I’ve known failed at it. That’s just a statement about the real world challenges of farming. A few succeeded and passed on the tradition.

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