Tending the Soil

I was disillusioned with ministry. Two years into my pastorate of a small church, our leaders agreed to hold a weekend conference with a well known author and speaker. We promoted the event to our congregation and to area churches. We stocked our book table with this author's books. Hoping for a huge crowd for the Friday night and Saturday morning sessions, I was frustrated, embarrassed, and maybe a bit angry when only 30 or so people came.

On vacation a week later, I came across these insightful and convicting words from Eugene Peterson:

Congregation is the topsoil in pastoral work. This is the material substance in which all the Spirit's work takes place--these people, assembled in worship, dispersed in blessing. They are so ordinary, so unobtrusively there; it is easy to take them for granted, quit seeing the interactive energies, and become so preoccupied in building my theological roads, mission constructs, and parking lot curricula that I start treating this precious congregational topsoil as something dead and inert, to be rearranged to suit my vision, and then to bulldoze whatever isn't immediately useful to the sidelines where it won't interfere with my projects . . .

Why do pastors so often treat congregations with the impatience and violence of developers building a shopping mall instead of the patient devotion of a farmer cultivating a field? The shopping mall will be abandoned in disrepair in fifty years; the field will be healthy and productive for another thousand if its mysteries are respected by a skilled farmer.

I learned from Peterson that congregations, like soil, are unique:

Every parish is different, even more than each soul is different, for the parish is a compound of souls. What works in that place cannot be imposed on this place--this is unique, this place, this people. If I am dismissive of the uniqueness of this parish, or unwilling to acknowledge it, I will impose my routines on it for a few seasons, harvest a few souls, then move on to another parish to try my luck there, and in my belligerent folly I will miss the beauty and holiness and sheer divine life that was all the time there, unseen and unheard because of my rapacious religious ambitions.[i]

Ouch! Peterson's comparison hit home. Was my disillusionment rooted in "rapacious religious ambitions"? Was I more like a developer trying to build a shopping mall than a farmer cultivating a field?
Things began to come into focus. I felt disillusioned and frustrated because my plans had failed, but I was trying to build something out of this church without paying attention to its soil.

I began to view my task differently. Perhaps my attempt to host a well attended conference with a high-profile speaker was misguided. Maybe it didn't fit. Maybe I needed to pay more attention to this congregation, this context--to tend this soil that had been entrusted to my stewardship and care. And maybe this would look different than I had first envisioned.

Chastened by Peterson's insights, I returned to my pastoral vocation with renewed vision. That was years ago, and while I still face occasional moments of disillusionment, I continue to look back to that realization of my role as a pastor-farmer as a turning point.

I haven't tried to host another conference in our small church. But I have tried to tend the soil, to cultivate genuine spiritual growth in the unique culture of this congregation.

Making It Personal
  • Do you ever feel disillusioned in ministry?
  • Could your disillusionment be rooted in pastoral discontent or religious ambitions that do not reflect God's call on your ministry and congregation?
  • Are you tending the unique soil of your people? Or are you pushing them to do things that do not fit?

[i] Eugene H. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plan: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992) 134-136.

This article was originally published by Pastor Connect on February 5, 2009. 


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Love the pastoral heart!


Amanda said...


I remember thoroughly enjoying hearing Don Whitney, however long ago that was.

To encourage you, I definitely feel as if you are a farmer and not a developer. Tim and I can probably both attest that we have grown more in love and truth and been more encouraged and loved at Fulkerson that at any other time in our lives. So, thank you so much for that!

Brian G. Hedges said...

Thanks for the comment, Taj. Glad to see you're following the blog.

And thanks so much for the encouragement, Amanda. We love you guys!

Gregg Metcalf said...

Excellent post. Truth I need to be reminded of. Thanks!