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In the spring of 2014, Nate Stucky was nearly finished with his doctorate in practical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary when he was invited to the president’s office.
He walked into the office to discover a property survey unrolled across the desk.
“It turns out,” President M. Craig Barnes said, “we own a farm.”
Throughout his time in seminary, Stucky had dreamed of teaching theology on a farm—or a “farminary,” his colleagues joked. Intrigued by this vision, Barnes began to explore rumors that the seminary owned a nearby piece of empty property. The seminary purchased the plot in 2010 from a friend of the school, hoping that one day the property could somehow contribute to the mission. For four years, it remained nothing more than an asset on a spreadsheet. As Barnes later discovered, the 21-acre field was already zoned for agriculture, and Princeton’s Farminary Program was born.
The Farminary is one of several seminary-based projects across the United States that are exploring the role of food in the formation of ministers, questioning how churches might better fulfill the call of Genesis 2 and John 21—to keep and till the earth and to feed Christ’s sheep.
“As Christians, we are called to care for bodies—those we serve and the body of the earth,” says Fred Bahnson, director of Wake Forest University School of Divinity’s Food, Health, and Ecological Well-Being Program. “All of that is bound up together in Genesis and in the Eucharist. As God feeds us, it is our concern to feed others.” When seminaries provide a space for growing and eating food, they are better prepared to grasp the biblical story in the context of the agrarian society in which it emerged.
The creation account in Genesis 2 tells of a relationship between God, humanity, and the earth. “You can’t tell the story of the relationship between God and humankind unless you include soil and, by extension, all of creation,” Stucky says.
A large part of Jesus’ own ministry involved food: telling parables about growing food, performing miracles to provide food, restructuring the tables at which people eat food, extending forgiveness to Peter in an offering of food, and, most important, asking his followers to remember him in the sharing of food. Throughout Scripture, God uses food to demonstrate his provision as well as to provide a foretaste of the new heavens and earth.
Food as a Lens
“Scripture reflects an agrarian world and sensibility,” says Norman Wirzba, professor of theology, ecology, and agrarian studies at Duke Divinity School. Understanding this context, Christians are compelled to “think about food in a way that will reorient us in the world.” When we study food through the biblical narrative, our relationship to all of creation must be covered in humility and gratitude. “With Jesus as our hermeneutical lens,” Wirzba says, “we see creation as a gift to receive, not just as objects to control.”
The study of food not only aids in understanding the agrarian context of the Bible; it also serves as a way to “bring what are often heady abstractions down to earth,” says Wirzba. When focused on the study of doctrine, it is easy to forget that Christianity is an incarnational faith. Because the Creator God makes himself known through his material creation, the study of food, its nutritional, communal, and cultural significance, reveals truth about God’s nature as well. As Wirzba says, “Food is a terrific window by which to ask all the questions of life.”
Like Wirzba, Dan Doriani, professor of theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, notes that “food and drink are a blessed part of the holistic life.” A holistic life, he says, “keeps us from hyper-spirituality [and] neglect of the body, and it promotes community.”
Every aspect of our modern-day food system, from growth to distribution and consumption, includes elements of injustice. It is impossible to talk about the needs of the world without talking about food. Likewise, it is impossible to talk about food without engaging discussion about the needs of the world. Hunger, obesity, disordered eating, and environmental degradation all become issues the church can address when focused on God’s call to tend the earth and feed the world. Ministers equipped to talk about food are ministers prepared to address concerns that will inevitably afflict some people in their congregations.
“There’s a crisis of relevance in the church and in theological education,” says Stucky on why it’s important for pastors to understand food. “There seems to be a pretty big disconnect between our trying to be church and the world’s sense of its deepest needs.”
Students entering into ministry today desire to close this gap, looking for ways the local church can respond to the physical and spiritual needs of their congregations. Jeff Chu, a Princeton Seminary student who participates in the farminary program, says that “the future of theological education has to engage more deeply the realities of lived experience.”
“I don’t see how we can train faith leaders who aren’t conversant in food justice, ecological sustainability, and the connection of those two to public health,” says Bahnson. The spiritual well-being of a congregation is interdependent with the physical health of its members, which is reliant on access to nutritious food, clean water, and clear air. Preparing for ministry must include training in how to address the health crises that a congregation will face.
Such training was not available when Bahnson was in seminary, but he wants to ensure that future seminarians have it.
Bahnson’s interest in agriculture began after he discovered the writing of Wendell Berry in a Christian ethics course. Bahnson later traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, to work with Mayan coffee farmers, an experience that led to his own career working the soil. Aware of the division between his cerebral knowledge of Christianity and his preparation to follow God’s command to keep and till the earth, Bahnson questioned what it would look like to offer more robust theological education. When Wake Forest invited Bahnson to start a food-based theological program, he found the opportunity to teach others the aspects lacking in his own education.
Wake Forest’s Food, Health, and Ecological Well-Being Program trains seminary students to understand the connections between food, health, ecology, and faith, and to offer continuing education for professional and lay church leaders. With specialized coursework and internships, master of divinity students may earn a certificate in food, health, or ecology or a combination of all three. Courses such as Field, Table, and Communion and Culinary Culture in Black Religious Experience explore the importance of food from ecological, health, and cultural perspectives.
Through the annual Re:Generate Fellowship, a training program for young faith leaders, as well as summer intensive courses, workshops, and networking events, Wake Forest seeks to connect those who are already working at the nexus of food, health, ecology, and faith and to equip faith leaders that desire to do so.
For Tapiwa Mucherera, professor of pastoral counseling at Asbury Theological Seminary, care for creation has always been integral to faith. Growing up in Zimbabwe, Mucherera learned from his aunt the Shona African practices passed down from generation to generation. “When we properly plant crops in their season, we do it according to what God intended in nurturing the earth,” he says. As a child, Mucherera observed that certain years some fields remain fallow. His aunt explained that it was to “give the land a breather and rejuvenate it.”
Once in high school, Mucherera learned the Genesis story of creation. His pastor taught him that “humans are not to dominate the earth, but to use it in such a way that it will continue to reproduce life—food, oxygen, plants, and minerals.” The call for humans to care for the earth exists from the very beginning of the gospel story—as do the consequences of ignoring God’s initial command. “If the earth suffers, all of creation will suffer,” says Mucherera.
Asbury’s commitment to creation care and food production is central to its Kentucky and Florida campuses. A community garden at the Kentucky site is a gathering place for seminary students and their families as well as local residents. Explaining their decision to attend Asbury, one student said, “I want to come to the kind of community that would plant a garden.”
“The original vision for the garden was that it might be a kind of ecoseminary,” says Marilyn Elliott, Asbury’s vice president of community formation, a place that could “bridge racial divides, teach children about nutrition, provide organic food cheaply or free for students,” as well as create a safe and restful place for the whole community.
Three years after its opening, the garden has done all that and more. Incorporating conversations around creation care into Old Testament, theology, and leadership coursework, Asbury creates a strong theological framework for the action that takes place in the field. In addition to providing food and a gathering space for students, the garden provided the seedbed for Asbury’s Small Business Incubator, a program thriving on both the Kentucky and Florida campuses.
By offering students stipends to start small food businesses, Asbury’s Office of Faith, Work, and Economics (OFWE) aspires to simultaneously teach creation care and “a theology of work that sees the business of gardening and farming as blessed work,” says Mucherera. “We want students to appreciate and understand that gardening and farming is ‘kingdom work’ and can actually benefit our ministries.” Looking to the apostle Paul’s life as a tentmaker, the OFWE encourages students to use food to build community and support their ministry. If churches have the resources to produce their own food, they are well-equipped to support themselves, to care for their members, and to steward the land they own.
This same commitment to faithful stewardship is at the root of Methodist Theological Seminary’s community farm initiative. In his course on place-based education, Tim VanMeter, associate professor of Christian education, leads his class on a walk around campus to ask how they might be more responsible in their land use. “How do we live as full creatures created to be in relationship with all that surrounds us?” he asks. “How do we live in relationship to our place that supports the thriving of all life?”
As ecological challenges like shifts in soil and water quality bring despair to many rural communities, VanMeter fears that it is primarily pastors and denominational leaders who fail to see the Christian call to respond: “As people of faith, our call is to seek thriving for all that God has created and loves.”
Through the seminary farm and coursework in ecotheology, VanMeter hopes to see “rural, urban, and suburban churches rethink what their land can be when thought of as places for constructing abundance.”
As a result of the school’s community farm, VanMeter has observed students increasing pride in and celebration of their food service program. “We are more deeply aware of how we sit on our land and how deeply we are rooted in this region of the country. We have a grounding that allows us to pursue justice more rigorously.”
Through teaching courses at the Farminary, Stucky has discovered additional benefits to including creation care into coursework. Farminary courses are taught in six-hour blocks, including a lecture, a small-group discussion, time in the garden, and a potluck meal. The courses are steeped in the practice of hospitality toward one another and the earth.
“In the center of my being,” says Stucky, “I’m convinced that the quality of education is utterly inseparable from the shared meals and time in the garden.” While the meal does not necessarily connect with the content of the course, “it has everything to do with the role of teacher, learner, and the ways students engage with the material.”
One popular course Stucky teaches is Ecologies of Faith Formation. Studying the ecosystem of the farm as an example, the class questions what kind of ecosystem helps faith to grow. Through studying intricacies of a pile of compost, Pearl Quick, a second-year master of divinity student, has learned the importance of “letting things die inside of us so new roots can take hold.”
Clearly the overlap is not simply metaphorical; as students see their own lives formed by the soil in their hands, they discover the beauty of Christianity as a tactile faith. “To dig in the soil, to see the successes and failures of small-scale farming, to understand the cycle of life, death, and resurrection,” says Chu, “has given my theological education a depth and angle that I did not expect when I enrolled at seminary, and I couldn’t be more thankful.”
More than 100 students have taken farminary courses at Princeton, and a dozen faculty are involved in teaching courses on site. The school is preparing to launch a certificate in theology, ecology, and faith formation for students taking 12 credits of food-based classes, including coursework in biblical studies, history, and practical theology.
Every fall, the farminary also hosts the Just Food conference, bringing together pastors, lay leaders, students, and young scholars to discuss the intersection of faith and food justice. It is a time for support, collaboration, and creative inspiration for faith practitioners, whether preparing for ministry or decades into a pastoral career.
Seeds of Change
Every season brings more opportunities for ministers and Christian lay leaders to take part in the conversation on food and faith. Last spring, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary hosted its third annual Rooted and Grounded conference on land and discipleship, weaving together worship, theology, biblical study, and practical ministry. This past fall, Sam Chamelin, a pastor and 2017 Re:Generate fellow, hosted a conference exploring the needs of rural ministry in the conversation around food. And this winter, a ministry called Life Around the Table began field testing their Eating Together curriculum, an experiential program that guides communities through conversations on scriptural lessons about food in light of contemporary food practices.
Reverend Nurya Love Parish recently created a Christian Food Movement guide listing food-based ministries, conferences, books, blogs, and additional resources. In order to keep up with the movement, she turned the guide into a website that now serves as the primary resource connecting Christians concerned about food and faith.
For schools interested in incorporating food and ecology education into their program, Blessed Earth’s Seminary Stewardship Alliance provides resources to “reconnect Christians with the biblical call to care for God’s creation.” The consortium of over 40 seminaries commits to implementing good stewardship practices on campus and incorporating biblical and theological reflections on sustainability into coursework. Schools that pledge to join the consortium receive guidance in designing a program tailored to the institution.
“This messy theology done with dirt in your fingernails,” says Daniel Szemple, a 2017 graduate of Wake Forest School of Divinity, “has begun to shape the ecological witness growing out of our nation’s seminaries.”
This food-focused gospel was planted by God in the very creation of the world, nurtured by the ministry of Jesus, and tended week after week in the sharing of Communion all around the world. And it shows no sign of slowing down.
“New forms of ministry become possible when eating together is understood as witnessing to the kingdom of God,” says Wirzba. “Jesus was in the food business. Churches should be too.”
Kendall Vanderslice is a graduate of Wheaton College and Boston University (MLA Gastronomy). She is a student at Duke Divinity School and author of an upcoming book on dinner churches, to be published by Eerdmans.