Learning Ministry in the School of Farming
Over the years of ministry, I gained a greater appreciation for the theological, biblical, and ministry training I received in seminary. I have taken many courses, attended a number of seminars, and read countless books on leadership that have helped me in ministry. However, in many ways, the most important lessons I learned about leadership did not come from the classroom but from the lessons I learned growing up on a farm in northern Idaho.
Figure it out.
Several years ago, I went back to the family farm to help my brothers with “putting up the hay.” One morning my brother and I, along with their employee, were standing and talking about what needed to be done for the day. My brother informed us that we needed to take the three semi-trucks down the highway about 10 miles, load them with hay and then bring the trucks back to the shed to put in storage. Since only three of us were standing there, I realized that “us” also included me. I quickly protested. Although I grew up driving various farm trucks, I had never driven a “semi,” much less driven one down the highway with a 50ft trailer loaded with hay. My protests were met with those words that I so often heard growing up on the farm, “Oh, you will figure it out.” And so I did.
Growing up on the farm, I drove many different pieces of equipment, from tractors and ‘cats,’ to swathers, combines, telehandlers, and, yes, trucks (in fact, my first time driving in a large city as a young teen was not in a car with parents to teach me, but in a farm truck by myself!!). Each time, the first time that I learned to drive a new piece of equipment, the training consisted of “you will figure it out.” As I look back now, I realize that those five words encompassed critical training for both working on the farm and ministry. You do not have the time to receive training for every piece of equipment you will drive on the farm. In the two weeks I helped my brother with the hay, I drove three different semis, two different telehandlers, a swather, and a large tractor pulling a baler. If I had to be trained to operate each of them, I would never have achieved anything, nor would my brothers. Instead of getting the work done, they would have spent the whole time training me on each piece of equipment. Time that they did not have. As a result, the farmer learned that by saying “go figure it out,” they ultimately provided training that enables a person to work effectively on the farm. Instead of training a person how to operate a specific piece of equipment, they were training a person how to critically analyze how any piece of equipment works and then adapt the principles that you have learned previously and apply them to the present situation. Instead of learning specific rules, I learned two important lessons. First, I learned problem-solving skills that would enable us to adapt to many situations. Since I had already driven large machinery, I had learned about distances and judging when to make turns so that you did not turn too short and drop the trailer in the ditch. Since I had already driven tractors and trucks by shifting with the RPM rather than the clutch, I did not have a problem shifting the “semi.” Second, I learned the confidence to try and figure it out rather than simply assume that I could not do it.
The problem in our seminary education is that we are taught specific skills for specific situations. We are taught how to lead a particular church with a specific set of principles that they assumed would operate the same in every (usually from a mid to large church context). However, when we face a situation not covered in our training, we feel inadequate. Because the seminary did not cover this specific church, we think that our training failed. So we look to the latest book that will tell us what we need to do. The problem is that these books were written from a different context and setting (again, generally from an urban perspective). But each church is different. The specific sub-culture of the community is distinct, and the size of the church requires different skills and abilities of the pastor. We need to recognize that every church is as different from one another as a semi-truck is different from a tractor. Instead of applying specific principles that worked elsewhere, the challenge we face is learning to “figure it out.” We need to look at each church individually and see how each church operates. We need to first accept the people for who they are and learn to understand them, instead of trying to fit them into some pre-established idea of what we think they should be. We need to adapt what we learned in the past and our education without forcing the church into a preconceived matrix.
It was a hot summer day, and I was around 12 years old, helping my dad work on our John Deere 55 combine. Working on a combine is never fun; it is dirty work, and the chaff often blows, and you start to itch before long. As a typical kid, I soon began to complain about the heat, the dirt, and the itch. Finally, my dad had enough. With a voice of exasperation, he barked, “If all you are going to do is complain, then you can just go to the house.” I remember vividly the lesson I learned that day; if you are given a job to do, do not complain about it, just do the task. Needless to say, I stopped complaining and continued to help. But it was a lesson well learned. No matter what job we do, there will be difficult times and enjoyable aspects. The reason I was helping my dad that day was that I wanted to drive the combine in the field when we were done. But there will also be tasks that are frustrating and challenging. To do your duty, you have to be willing to do both.
Ministry brings many joys. People accept the saving work of Christ. New believers start to grow and become faithful disciples. People who have been in the church for a long time become leaders who faithfully seek to build the church. But with the joys of ministry also comes the frustrations. People start to complain about what others are doing. People suddenly stop attending or go to another church. For all the positives of ministry, we can find an equal number of frustrations. If we are not careful, we can become focused on the frustrations, so we complain. Get a group of pastors together, and it can become a contest of who has the worse church. But instead of complaining, we need to focus upon what we must do to lead the church. A complaining pastor will never be happy and never content with the church. They soon become church hoppers, always looking for greener pastures, where the congregation will be more receptive to their ministry.
Focus on the solution, not the problem.
On the farm, the day is filled with the continual rise of problems. No matter what you are doing, things will never go as planned, and problems continually arise. The machinery breaks down, the cows break out of the fence, the tractor becomes stuck, and the list goes on. Not only are there constant problems that arise due to the nature of farming, but there are many mistakes that people make that only cause further complications. Often you hire teens who do not have a lot of experience, so they make mistakes. When you learn by ‘figuring it out,’ sometimes you don’t get it right. I did my share when I was growing up. I ignored the wet spot in the field, so I got stuck, and when you get stuck with a 300 h.p., eight-wheeled tractor, it is not easy to get out! Once, while backing up a truck near a bank, I got too close and tipped a loaded truck on its side. Needless to say, my boss was not pleased. However, in all these mistakes and problems, the one thing that you learn is not to focus on the problem or even the cause (except to learn from your mistakes like not getting so close to a steep bank) but to instead focus on the solution. You can grumble all you want when the tractor is stuck, but it does not get the tractor out of the mud pit.
In the course of ministry, I have observed many pastors who become controlled by problems. They grumble about how the church is not growing, how people are not getting involved, and about the church's problems. Instead of seeking solutions, they complain, becoming critical and bitter towards the congregation. Instead, we need to focus on the solution. Instead of becoming discouraged by all the problems, accept the challenge of finding a resolution. This means that we are not always looking back but looking forward. Not looking at what people did to cause the problem or conflict, but looking for what we need to do to resolve the issue.
Be creative and utilize what you already have.
Farmers are the masters of innovation. For centuries they have adapted what they have to meet the needs they face. For example, when equipment breaks, the farmer does not have the time to always run to town to get the part, and even if they did, often the parts house will not have it, so it will be a week before it comes. As a result, farmers learned to look around them and utilize what they had on hand to fix the problem. It was always the joke on the farm that a farmer could fix anything with baling wire and duct tape. When growing up, my dad always carried three tools: a knife, a pair of pliers, and a Crescent wrench. With these three tools, he could fix about anything. Once when my brother broke an axle break on the truck, they were faced with the prospect of trying to find one. Since the truck was old, getting a new one would be challenging and time-consuming. So instead, they found an old, abandoned truck in a field, and they took the axle out of it and adapted it to fit theirs.
Often in ministry, we look at all the things we do not have. We lament that we do not have more money, more staff, more committed leaders, more families, more extensive facilities, and the list goes on. We fail to recognize that God has already provided everything we need. Too often, we look at what we don’t have rather than utilize what we do.
The one thing about farming is that there is never a dull moment. Plans are made for the day but quickly discarded. Equipment breaks down. Livestock get out. Rains arrive earlier than expected. The day is filled with changes that force the farmer to adapt to the changing situation. Furthermore, you have to learn many different skills. On a farm, you have to be a market strategist, a chemist who keeps track of the latest herbicides and what they do, a veterinarian, a mechanic, a heavy equipment operator, a bookkeeper, a supervisor, all the time of running a multi-million-dollar business. A farmer wears many hats, and he must be able to change and adapt depending on what he is dealing with at the moment. So, the one thing the farmer learns is flexibility. When things do not go as planned, he must adjust and alter what he is doing. A wise wife realizes that when her husband tells her what field he will be in during the day is probably the one place he will not be when she needs to find him in the afternoon. Whenever I go back and visit my brothers on the farm, it is not uncommon for me to go with them for a quick trip to the nearest town to get a part, expecting to be back well before lunch, only to find that I am not back at the house until 4 in the afternoon. A farmer quickly learns to always keep his lunch with him no matter where he goes because he may not get back to where he thought he would be.
In ministry, we need to learn to be flexible and continuously adapt to the situation. Ministry is always in a state of flux, and I have seen many pastors who become frustrated because their carefully laid out plans and visions do not come to fruition as they thought. As a result, they blame the congregation for their lack of support in fulfilling their goals and vision. But the reality is that ministry involves broken people, which constantly brings new challenges. There are times when our focus must be on the organizational aspect of ministry, and there are other times when it is upon the people and their needs. Situations arise that need our immediate attention. This is especially true with people, just as a farmer must adjust his schedule and plans when a cow becomes sick and needs attention, so we must adapt to the needs of the people.
Sustainability and Character define success.
On the farm, success is defined by what you do and who you are rather than what you accomplish. Rural people have a different view of success. In an urban business, the idea is to outperform the competitor to gain more customers and growth for your business. Thus success becomes determined by the increase in sales and revenue. Farmers are not concerned about growth but longevity and sustainability in rural areas. They recognize that if they were to aggressively pursue growth by taking customers (in this case, land leases), it would mean that they would be putting their neighbor out of business. While the farmer wants to increase his productivity and income (who doesn’t), he does not wish to do so at the expense of his neighbor. Consequently, the focus is more on sustainability, keeping the farm in a financially sustainable position. Success then is based more upon the person's character and how he runs his farm than the growth of the operation. People are judged not by how big their farm is but by their work ethic and willingness to help others.
In the church, we are often influenced by the secular model of leadership, where we pursue success by the church's numerical growth. If the church is plateaued in attendance, we start to look for what is wrong with the church. While we do not admit it, the reality is that much of the growth is coming at the expense of other churches. Furthermore, we fail to recognize that real growth is the work of God rather than the result of our efforts. As I have pastored small churches over the years, I have come to realize that the church's numerical growth is not nearly as critical as the sustainability of the church and how we perform our ministry.