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Forming Imaginations that Value Faithful Service

Jeffrey Bilbro

Pastors and leaders in rural churches should be reading good fiction.

Pastors lead busy, harried lives. Many rural pastors are bivocational, which adds to the demands on their time, and lay church leaders likewise have many responsibilities competing for their time and attention. I recognize this reality, so in making this recommendation, I don’t mean to add yet another thing to these leaders’ busy lives.

Beyond Busyness and Mega-Ministry

But maybe this busyness, a busyness that’s celebrated and honored by a culture organized around “making an impact” and “being successful,” is itself part of the problem. And reading good narratives can offer church leaders alternative ways of imagining good lives that serve the Kingdom of God. In The Pastor’s Bookshelf: Why Reading Matters for Ministry, Austin Carty describes how reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead started a profound transformation in his view of ministry and led him to appreciate John Ames’s unglamorous yet faithful service at “a plain old church” in a small Iowa town. At the time, he didn’t realize it, but over the years his vision of success shifted from the metrics favored by megachurches to the kind of quiet fidelity that Ames models. Years after reading Gilead, Carty looked back and realized that this narrative set him on a trajectory away from the megachurch circuit and toward parish ministry: “had I not read Gilead, . . . and had the world Robinson created not appealed so deeply to me, there is no chance that . . . I would have thought, ‘That seems like a nice life.’”

Fidelity to a People and Place

Robinson’s Gilead novels are excellent antidotes to the infectious notion of church-as-business. Another place to turn would be the novels and short stories of the Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry. These narratives likewise offer an imaginative vision that measures a ministry’s success not by attendance metrics or Instagram likes but by fidelity. Pastor and author Eugene Peterson has long pointed to his appreciation for Berry’s writings about place and community and their applicability to ministry. “Whenever Berry writes the word ‘farm,’” Peterson explains, “I substitute ‘parish’: the sentence works for me every time.”

Berry’s stories portray flawed people striving to love and care for their flawed places, and the beauty of their humble lives can reorient imaginations that have been warped by secular measures of achievement. Kyle Childress, in reflecting on how Berry’s writings have encouraged him over decades of ministry in east Texas, concludes, “My work as pastor is to nourish and encourage the common life in my congregation. It’s hard, sometimes tedious work, and often overlooked by others. Yet it is also good and satisfying work; there can be pleasure in it.” It’s this vision of Christian faithfulness that lies behinds Peterson’s classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.

As Peterson’s comment about substituting “parish” for “farm” suggests, Berry doesn’t often write explicitly about the rural church. And when pastors do feature in his stories, they tend to be seminary students or recent graduates who see small, rural congregations as stepping stones to bigger and better positions. One pastor who comes across more favorably, though, is Brother Williams Milby, who features in the short story “A Desirable Woman.”

Lessons from Pastor Milby

Milby’s wife, Laura, is initially daunted by the prospect of ministry in a small, seemingly stagnant community. Yet she comes to see the mundane yet transcendent beauty of their little church building, “a place consecrated to the proclamation over and over again of things in which most of the members more or less believed but in which they generally were not greatly interested, and which they helped to make uninteresting by their lack of interest.” Despite this daunting vocation, the Milbys take their calling seriously and try to fulfill it faithfully: “Not only did he stand up week after week to say and to offer again what he and generations of ministers before him had said and offered before, with no dramatic amelioration of this world as a result, but also he made himself answerable to any and every sufferer within a radius of five or six miles. Any sufferer who was in need or want of him could summon him, even by the ringing of the telephone in the middle of a stormy or frozen night, and he would go.” This is often a thankless task. Many of the sufferers who call him don’t attend the church, much less support it with their tithes. But Milby nonetheless offers them the generous gift of his presence as the necessary counterpart to his proclamation of the gospel.

By making himself responsive to the needs of his community, Milby models a necessary reminder to church leaders tempted to dedicate their intellectual and emotional energies to the discourse mediated via online platforms. The internet hosts endless, dynamic debates about doctrine, about how the church should relate to culture or politics, or about what strategies will lead to church growth. These certainly have their place, but they can easily distract from the primary conversation to which church leaders should attend: the talk that circulates among the local community. Berry describes this as “the unceasing meandering of [the community’s] story of itself by which it diverted, amused, and consoled itself.” This conversation is no more sanctified than online discourse, but Milby learns to “listen with greatest care” to the “subsurface current of gossip” because it “told him where needs were.” It’s this basic insight that leads pastor Mark Clavier—who has been deeply influenced by Berry—to commend the practice of pastors regularly visiting the homes of their parishioners. These social calls enable pastors to know their congregants and their joys and needs.

As he spends time in the homes of his parishioners and listens to the current of communal conversation, Milby comes to understand it as running along at least three levels. Near the top lies “convivial talk, open and unembarrassed.” Not far beneath this, though, “quieter and darker and less free, was the talk that issued from fear and envy, cherished grudges and resentments, meannesses, suspicions, unforgiven or unregretted wrongs.” Deeper still, “yet to the conscience of the young minister most present of all, was the depth at which the community suffered its mortality, error, pain, and grief. How many among the older wives or widows had buried a child struck down by a winter illness or an epidemic or a bullet in France, who now remembered in silence?” This is the suffering into whose presence he is called to proclaim the gospel.

As the book of Job reminds us, there is no pat answer for such suffering, but Milby learns to give himself to the “helpless standing by that was yet a comfort.” The value of such attentive, caring presence may be hard to quantify, but it bears witness to the God who became flesh and dwelt among us. And in his own darkest hour, this same God asked his disciples simply to “remain here, and watch with me” (Matt. 26:38). Even this seemingly simple request proved too difficult for them to do; such faithful presence is more difficult than staying busy doing things that make us feel like we’re accomplishing something.

Leaning to Cultivate Quiet, Faithful Presence

To the extent that church leaders attend to the latest poll about the rise of the nones or the scandal engulfing some celebrity Christian, quiet presence with the needy, suffering members of a local congregation will seem terribly insignificant. But reading good narratives by authors such as Wendell Berry or Marilynne Robinson or George MacDonald or Flannery O’Connor might reorient how pastors imagine successful ministry, reminding them that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed. It might direct their attention toward the local gossip that carries news of weakness and suffering. And it might help them find satisfaction in the quiet, faithful work of tending these needs.

Jeffrey Bilbro is an Associate Professor of English at Grove City College. He grew up in the mountainous state of Washington and earned his B.A. in Writing and Literature from George Fox University in Oregon and his Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. His books include Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the NewsLoving God’s Wildness: The Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics in American LiteratureWendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place (written with Jack Baker), and Virtues of Renewal: Wendell Berry’s Sustainable Forms.