Good Work: Learning about Ministry from Wendell Berry

By Childress, Kyle | The Christian Century, March 8, 2005 | Go to article overview

Good Work: Learning about Ministry from Wendell Berry


Childress, Kyle, The Christian Century


RECENTLY I CELEBRATED 15 years as pastor of a congregation in East Texas of under 200 members with about half of them present for Sunday worship. At denominational meetings and around town I'm asked, "When are you going to a bigger church? Why do you stay?" Sometimes I give a long, rambling explanation, but often I respond with, "Because I read too much Wendell Berry."

I've been reading Berry since '80 or '81. I discovered his essays while serving a rural congregation. I was looking for any insight I could get into the life of my congregants. At the same time, I was beginning to explore the issues of hunger, poverty, agriculture and economics. Somewhere I found a footnote mentioning Wendell Berry. One book led me to another; it wasn't long before I was reading everything I could find of Berry's.

I was in good company. As veteran pastor Eugene Peterson writes, "Wendell Berry is a writer from whom I have learned much of my pastoral theology. Berry is a farmer in Kentucky. On this farm, besides plowing fields, planting crops, and working horses, he writes novels and poems and essays. The importance of place is a recurrent theme--place embraced and loved, understood and honored. Whenever Berry writes the word 'farm,' I substitute 'parish': the sentence works for me every time" (Under the Unpredictable Plant).

Yes, Berry is a farmer and not a pastor. How are we to read him as a pastoral theologian when he has an ambiguous connection with the church? Berry is technically a member of New Castle Baptist Church, where he was baptized; he attends worship with his wife, Tanya, at Port Royal Baptist Church. He remembers going to church as a boy with his grandfather, and now his own grandchildren attend with him. But while Tanya is a church deacon and a board member at the new Kentucky Baptist Seminary in Lexington, Berry's relationship to the church may be more like that of his fictional character Jayber Crow, who attends church but sits in the back pew.

Berry's much beloved Sabbath poems were written about Sundays when he may be walking through his fields, pastures and woods instead of going to church. In his fiction, the church exists on the periphery of the community's fellowship, and exhibits what philosopher Norman Wirzba calls a "disincarnate form of Christianity," a kind of gnosticism, isolated and disconnected from where the people live their lives during the week. Many of us are recovering gnostics and have served in those "disincarnate" churches.

I engage Berry as a guide to good pastoral ministry by starting where he starts: with his place. "Place" is a beginning from which to counter the disincaruate forms of the faith that disturb Berry and go against the grain of biblical faith.

Berry's place is Port Royal, Henry County, Kentucky, where his family has lived and farmed since before the Civil War. He was a boy in the decade preceding World War II, and saw the end of farming that used horses and mules instead of tractors. After World War II, everything rapidly moved toward mechanization and an urban, industrial economy. Berry says, "I began my life as the old times and the last of the old-time people were dying out" (Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition, by Kimberly Smith). But his father and grandfather taught him how to farm with horses and mules, and he continues the practice to this day.

After receiving his bachelor's and master's degrees in English from the University of Kentucky, he married Tanya and studied creative writing at Stanford University with Wallace Stegner. An aspiring writer, he traveled for a year in Europe, after which he wrote and taught in New York. Then he decided to move back to Kentucky. Most of his friends and colleagues thought he was crazy. He bought a small, marginal farm and reclaimed it, took care of it, and farmed it using traditional methods.

In the more than 40 years since that move, Berry has written over 40 books of fiction, poetry, essays and biography. …

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