At least four times during the past year ministry colleagues who serve in different parts of the state have asked me how retirement is going. This happened again yesterday while I attended The Bishops Day of Prayer in Birmingham. I replied, “I am not retired. I am appointed and I serve full time at Decatur First Church.” Then I ask “What makes you think I am retired?”
My age could have something to do with it. I turned 62 last November. The number of consecutive years I’ve served churches could lead one to think I should be retired. I’ve been serving churches since 1973, so this makes 45 years. But more than anything else colleagues say, “I keep seeing pictures of you and your grandsons on the farm and pictures of gardens you helped plant and tend on Facebook, so I assumed you were retired.”
Aha! Therein lies the source of the mistaken assumption that I am retired. Few preachers still serving full-time appointments raise cattle, bale hay, grow vegetables in their own and 2 community gardens, and serve on the local Farmers Market Board, and share that with their grandchildren as much as possible. Maybe a preacher in a rural farming community church, but not the pastor of a downtown First Church in a thriving city. But oh, yes. That’s where I am. And our church is not winding down but gearing up implementing a ministry plan focused on discipleship and extending the reach of our church by 300% by 2022.
So how do farming and gardening and sharing both with grandchildren as much as possible fit with full-time pastoral ministry? Are they diversions, activities for days off only, and if not how are they not a distraction from ministry?
I am so glad you asked! I grew up farming and left it behind as a young adult in 1976 to prepare for and practice full-time ministry. I began my return to farming in 1995 when it became increasingly evident to me that my connection with the soil and livestock, the entire land community, is at the core of my identity and a primary source of my vitality as a human being. And as the years have passed, I have discovered that there has always been a deep connection between theology and agriculture, the church and farming. My modern theological education in the 1970s and 1980s basically ignored the connection. That was not only an oversight but bad theology. If I profess belief in the Trinity then I believe we cannot separate the Creator from the Redeemer from the Sustainer and Sanctifier of life. Therefore I believe we cannot separate the care and salvation of human beings from the care and salvation of the earth God gave human beings to care for and to be our source of sustenance and growth.
So there you go. I do take days off from ministry to go to the farm and work on fences and treat cattle and bale hay. But I unapologetically help organize volunteers and help grow food in our church’s Urban Acre Community Garden and Sumatanga’s Farm to Table Garden as a ministry activity. In fact, our church’s community garden grew out of a class I taught titled An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Those who participated in the class wanted to do something with the knowledge they had gained and put it to work tending the earth and growing food from the soil to share with the hungry.
And the same with the garden at Sumatanga. Sumatanga Camp and Conference Center had bought a farm adjacent to its property, and it was lying dormant. Since that seemed like such an obvious waste, someone asked me if I thought we could grow food there. “Can we grow food there? Why, yes we can.” And so it began. Tending the soil and taking produce from it to fill hungry stomachs is a ministry, a calling, a command of God, a community-building and life-giving way of life and work. I am more alive and energized and connected with people in other functions of my pastoral ministry because of the time and study and work I have shared with them in the garden.
So, I am not retired but I am pretty busy in all facets of ministry, including caring for and being sustained by the soil. And thank God it is not all behind a desk or in committee meetings. So if you see soil under my fingernails and callouses on my hands just know they are signs that I am alive and healthy and happier and more fulfilled in ministry than I’ve every been.