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.

Putting faith in two inches of humus

In some ways, I want to be a pastor the way Wendell Berry is a farmer.

I wrote that sentence so I could decide whether it is true. Reading it now, I think it is. At least no part of me rises up to resist that statement as my own.

I admire the way brother Wendell found a place and worked it and let it work him. I admire the way he writes. I admire the way he says standing by our words is the test of who we are. I admire so much about him that I can forgive him for being from Kentucky.

All these thoughts came up today as I was reading his mad farmer manifesto.

These thoughts probably come up because I am at seminary, and being here with so many other students from so many different places and traditions always shakes up what I think I know and sends me back to the places that feel solid and true. This also happens because I’m contemplating commissioning as an elder next year and the always on the move, never setting down roots kind of ministry we do. How do you love and cultivate the land when you are barely there long enough to break up the soil once or twice?

I’ve been writing this week about national headlines and denominational politics and the thoughts of our best and most glittering pastors. It makes me long for some small, good work to do, a few acres in God’s kingdom and the confidence of knowing that spring will follow winter and the apple blossoms are hidden there waiting for rain.

Do we exploit small churches?

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.