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People Aren't Projects

...and other lessons I learned as a rural pastor.
People Aren't Projects

Early in my pastorate, a woman stopped by our church in rural Washington State looking for moving boxes. I was happy to help her out. We had just arrived in town, so we had plenty of boxes. “Thanks, Pastor,” she said. “You saved my life.”

Perfect. Life-saving was just the sort of work I had gone west to do, and the life-saving I imagined mostly involved making myself useful and fixing things. I was hooked.

Training and circumstances set me up for a fixit ministry. Somewhere in the thick of my studies at Harvard Divinity School, I chose the lofty goal of making my education useful to the larger church. I imagined myself helping people tidy up their theology: a little nip and tuck to their hermeneutical presuppositions. Read the Didache and call me in the morning. The tiny, urban congregation my wife and I joined during graduate school made plenty of space for an eager student to exercise his gifts, and when I started to sense the first inklings of a call, the congregation encouraged me and sent me off. After completing ministry training at the Mennonite seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, we set out to serve a small, rural congregation in eastern Washington. I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.

There was plenty to do. Our rural community was not exactly the stuff of bucolic dreams. It had come into its own some 50 years earlier when the Grand Coulee Dam was completed, and water from the Columbia River made irrigation possible on a vast scale. Homesteaders arrived in waves, and the town became a melting pot of Hispanic and white cultures straddling a wide socioeconomic spectrum. We had gang problems and hunger problems and the 10,000 indignities of poverty. It was perfect, the kind of tumbledown place that matched my hankering to put my faith into practice and really live the gospel.

I launched into my ministry with relish, setting about trying to fix things at the church. I dragged a cardboard box into the congregational library and proceeded to clear the shelves of Christian romance novels and Left Behind books. I didn’t ask anyone. Zeal for my Father’s house consumed me, and I just did it. I made plans to get rid of the old hymnals, which in my mind featured a few rather questionable hymns. We didn’t sing from them, but no matter; they had to go. I proposed removing a few pews and replacing them with chairs. None of this went over well.

In the community, I convened a committee with a vision to revamp the Senior Center into a Senior and Youth Center. I got involved with a neighborhood development outfit. I walked around town with a grabber claw in one hand and a bag in the other, picking up trash.

I was working so hard to fix the congregation and community that I was turning them into projects.

My fixit spirit didn’t stop with the congregation and community. I wanted to fix people too. I wanted to take hold of people’s lives and do a little spiritual chiropractic. Crunch them into shape. Maybe if I could get that divorcing couple to sit down with me, or counsel the young man who was slipping into gang life, or incisively—yet gently—point out the doctrinal weak spots in the theology of those folks who rarely showed up in church, things would work out. All these people needed was for someone to apply a bit of spiritual elbow grease. And all I wanted was to save a few lives.

My Fixit Theology

I thought I had to engineer all the changes I wanted to see. But the deepest changes can’t be imposed from outside. They come about slowly, through the patient alchemy of the Holy Spirit. The most important changes happen because of the cross. My theology lacked a practical cruciformity. Instead, I had adopted a fixit theology.

It wasn’t that I was doing the wrong things. Most of what I did was alright in and of itself. The problem was the spirit in which I carried out my ministry. I didn’t recognize it at first, but I was working so hard to fix the congregation and community that I was turning them into projects.

Converting people and place into projects is a risk in any ministry. We pastors see ourselves as results-driven professionals. We cast vision. We work toward goals. We count. That’s what I did. We think that useful ministry means getting results, and we become a cross between an organizational consultant and a church growth guru. It can happen anywhere: in the concrete jungle, along the emerald suburban lawns, or out in the sticks.

But I suspect project-making is a special danger in rural places, because many of us operate out of a narrative of rural decline. We’ve bought into our culture’s assumptions that rural places are draining of population and verve, places crumbling into ghost towns, landscapes marred by abandoned shops and barns. Rural decline is an old story, going back at least to the Roman poet Virgil, who rhapsodized about the virtue of the Roman countryside, but who also fretted that the peasants were revolting against the hardships of rural life and moving to the city of Rome.

In the American context, Theodore Roosevelt convened the National Country Life Commission at the turn of the 20th Century out of concern that rural places were simultaneously the source of the nation’s moral fiber and fraying at the edges. This narrative of decline may be one of Western society’s foundational narratives.

To be sure, the narrative of rural decline has roots in reality. Some places have experienced a precipitous drop in population, like Jewell County, Kansas along the sparsely populated border of Nebraska, which lost 50 percent of its people between 1970 and 2000. And there are tiny communities wobbling from the meth and opioid epidemics, hindered by poverty and a lack of economic mobility.

Yet other rural communities have found their footing and diversified economically—places in Kansas like Hesston or Greensburg or my own Moundridge—and diversified ethnically, such as in western Kansas around Liberal and Garden City, where people from various parts of Central and South America, Somalia, Burma, Vietnam, and many others have made their homes, drawn by the massive meat processing industry with its dreadful, blood-splattered hours. It’s complicated in rural places. There’s more going on out here than decline.

Nevertheless, it’s the narrative of rural decline that has largely infected our imaginations. In the rural church, this puts pastors and leaders at a special risk of falling into a spirit of fixing and saving. There’s so much to do in our rural places, and we just want to be useful.

The Most Useful Pastor

I started to come to my senses one summer evening as I rode along with a church member in the “buddy seat” of his tractor. As he baled hay in the cool evening air, we talked about life and faith, church and family and community. Then he startled me out of our comfortable conversation with a passionate statement: “I don’t want people to think we’re just a sorry little town!” I had no doubt he meant it for me, though he was kind enough not to spell that out.

It began to dawn on me that while I had gotten quite good at analyzing brokenness and concocting plans to fix it, I had failed in the one thing needed. I had failed to love.

“I don’t want people to think we’re just a sorry little town!”

Love can be a slippery word. Sometimes we use love as synonym for niceness. Love can become a way for us to avoid the hard work of confronting, the thankless work of setting boundaries, and the vulnerable, exposed, soul-chapping labor of leading God’s people. We don’t always know what we’re saying when we talk about love. For instance, what does it mean to claim love for the crotchety guy who cut his fingernails during your sermon and left the trimmings in a little heap in the pew? What is love for the gang members tagging up the town with their spray cans? We have to learn to love in concrete and practical ways.

Jesus spoke of love in concrete and practical ways when he used the language of “friends.” In fact, the word for “friend” in Greek comes from one of the words for “love” used in the New Testament: philos. On that night when Jesus was betrayed, he told his disciples in the upper room that he would no longer call them servants, but “friends” (John 15:15). No doubt Jesus’ declaration put the disciples off balance, just as when he tied a towel around his waist and washed their feet (John 13:5). Through friendship, Jesus was pushing the disciples beyond a relationship of usefulness. They shouldn’t bother trying to form power alliances with him (Mark 10:35–45). The first shall be last, the last first (Matthew 19:30). Theirs wasn’t to be the Graeco-Roman friendship of privileged men, meant to enhance their own self-sufficiency and personal power. Jesus was teaching and modeling a different sort of friendship. It was about love (John 13:34). And it wasn’t the least bit useful.

I was slow to learn the useless practice of a Jesus-shaped ministry of friendship.

For a season, I connected with a semi-homeless man in our community. He would drop by the church and use our microwave to heat up his favorite food: frozen lasagna. Sometimes, I would sit with him while he ate, and we would talk about life and faith. I occasionally helped him out with practical challenges he faced.

One afternoon in the church basement, he looked up from his lasagna and paid me what I’m sure he intended as a compliment. “You know,” he said, “you’re the most useful pastor I’ve ever met.”

I suppose I should have been flattered. He handed the statement to me like a badge: Most Useful Pastor. But I realized in that moment that he was right, and that it was no compliment. I was useful. And useful was not the same as loving. Useful was not the ministry that he—or my community or congregation—most needed. Useful was only good for locating moving boxes or picking up trash or heating up lasagnas. Useful did not show forth the cruciform love of Christ. I had to discover this. I had to discover friendship.

A Ministry of Friendship

I’ve become convinced that friendship is the vital component so many of us are missing in our ministries. Our calling to preach and teach, to lead and dream and celebrate the sacraments among God’s people, must be rooted in the Jesus way of friendship. Friendship is perhaps our original vocation. By this I don’t mean that we’re to buddy up, as if we have permission to be chatty and purposeless so long as we project a generally friendly demeanor. I mean cultivating friendship as Jesus demonstrated it: a cruciform friendship rooted in love (John 15:13).

It’s this sort of friendship that positions us to minister to people as human beings. Friendship allows us to accept people as they are rather than converting them into projects to be fixed. Friendship gives us the courage to abide and listen and be vulnerable. And it’s this sort of friendship that is especially vital in rural places, for it instills in us a patient love for congregations and communities. They may not live up to our dreams of growth and vitality. They may even die. But our ministry is not about success—not as we conceive of it, anyways. It’s about friendship.

It’s the ministry of friendship—reclaimed through the humble practices of listening and abiding, solidarity and kindness—that we’re called to live out, especially in the sticks.

Margaret Ewen Peters, a pastor in rural Saskatchewan, Canada, told me how her congregation extended Jesus-shaped friendship to a member of their community. They discovered that the owner of the local bar was going through cancer treatment and couldn’t keep up on her bar’s maintenance. The roof leaked. Bills and repairs were piling up. There was a risk that the bar—which also happened to be the only restaurant in town, as well as the gathering spot for morning coffee—would close. So the congregation rallied to repair the roof and keep the bar open. The owner of the bar wasn’t a family member of anyone in the church. She wasn’t a church member. But she was their neighbor, and the congregation extended friendship to her.

True, fixing the roof is pretty useful. And there is a point where we have to follow James’ advice and meet practical needs (James 2:15–16). But so much depends on our attitude. Fixing the roof could all too easily have led to a fixit theology. But—as much as such a thing is possible—the congregation’s work was a free gift of love, an act of solidarity with a member of their community.

Love is the root of the ministry of friendship. As Daniel Janzen, another pastor I interviewed, put it, what we have to learn is to “really be people’s friends without wanting anything.” The ministry of friendship is the ministry of not wanting anything, which comes down to 10,000 acts of kindness and Christlikeness on behalf of people and place.

Recently my wife and I welcomed a new family to town. My wife had spotted a moving truck in their drive, so we dropped by to meet them, bearing a plate of cookies with a church postcard taped to the cling wrap.

We make a practice of welcoming newcomers. On this afternoon, the couple welcomed us into their living room. They asked questions and shared bits of their story and introduced us to their daughter. And then the woman caught us up short by saying, “I hope you didn’t come here just to invite us to your church.” Of course, we did go there to invite them to our church. But we also simply wanted to welcome them to the community. We wanted to befriend them. Our attitude proved vital when, a short time later, the woman’s sister died.

Jesus called his disciples “friends” because he loved them, and it was through friendship that he drew them into the Father’s eternal love. It’s the ministry of friendship—reclaimed through the humble practices of listening and abiding, solidarity and kindness—that we’re called to live out, especially in the sticks. Rural communities and congregations don’t so much need strategy or expertise or someone to clear all the romance novels off the library shelf. They need friends.

Brad Roth serves as the pastor of the West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kansas. He blogs on encountering God in the everyday at The Doxology Project. His book, God's Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church, will be released in September 2017 by Herald Press.

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