I am a terrible gardener. As camps, mission trips, and assemblies take over my summer schedule, the landscaping around my home begins to take over in a way that reminds me of a certain parable. Looming thistles have begun to consume all the carefully placed flowers and shrubs. This wouldn’t be such a problem, except for the fact that I live in a condo, and my landscaping is not just my own. It is connected to everyone else’s. If my thistles go to seed, they will commence a hostile takeover of the communal spaces, leaving me to deal with not only prickly plants, but prickly neighbors. Those thistles then become more than just my problem; they are a community problem that will corrupt everything if allowed to.
Now follow my poorly tended nettles to the hills of Palestine, where gardens were the only things that stood between families and starvation. The steep hills outside of Jerusalem were covered with networked tiers and vegetation. Each tier was a bower of growing plants for subsistence living. Olive trees, a few fig trees, and vegetables were all found there. Each one belonged to a different family, almost like lots in a subdivision. Because of the steepness of the hill, the walls kept each tier’s high quality soil from washing away. After each part of the wall was built from the stones found in the area, buckets of good topsoil were hauled from the bottom of the hill, in order for things to grow, which in comparison makes weeding my landscaping look like a piece of cake.
Each family helped care for the walls of the family above them, and in turn they were dependent on the family below them to tend to their walls. If not cared for regularly, they quickly deteriorated, destroying the whole terrace system, not just their portion of the hill. Tending to the wall could be as simple as placing stones back in the holes that form over time with erosion. As each small stone at a time was replaced, the wall of a “northern” neighbor was restored. Thinking of my overgrown thistles and the imminent avalanche that could ensue when the little stones aren’t restored, caused me to ponder what kind of “walls” I need to be tending in my life as a staff pastor.
I have seen how deeply necessary it is that I do my part to mend walls and replace stones...
The walls above me in ministry are those of my senior does it look like to tend to those “walls?” What am I able to do within my limited ability and perspective? While working at a smaller church, it was much easier to see when rocks “fell out,” for they would often land on my toes, because we were working pretty closely together. I was and am still dependent on my senior pastor keeping his tier of the hillside growing and healthy, but I am still called to “man” the wall.
What are some practical ways you can “man that wall” of your senior pastor this week?
When was the last time you intentionally encouraged your senior pastor? So often we are coming to them with problems, issues, and the latest “Mabel” story. Instead, when was the last time you genuinely encouraged them with a note or voicemail just expressing something you appreciate about them? Oftentimes, you see the struggle in things our congregants think are effortless. You see the sleepless nights and internal bruising that come from leading change. If you too are experiencing these, how much better positioned are you to give encouragement?
“I’ll pray for you” is a phrase tossed about in church culture as flippantly as “have a nice day.” There is a different level of commitment and heart change that occurs when we shift from a flare prayer like “Lord, help him!” to diligently carving out some time and space to bring your senior pastor as a follower of Christ, as a (often infallible) person, as a spouse, as a parent, as a son or daughter, and as leader to the throne of grace.
How is it that your senior pastor tends to communicate concepts important to him/her? This is not always how they communicate when hurried or stressed, but when they are really dealing with heart connected issues, vision, and new ideas. If you can pinpoint what their primary communication style is to others, chances are good that is the best way to communicate with them about issues of importance. This is not a medium you want to overuse or abuse, but it is one that could help you to more effectively get your heart and ideas heard by those in leadership over you.
And as the rains would erode the soil, guess which soil eroded first? That at the top!
Caring for my depth of soil
One of the most fascinating and convicting parts of looking at the tier system of farming metaphor of the framework of our relationships is that each family was responsible for the depth of soil in their tier of the hill. With each bucket being hauled from the bottom of the hill, the higher up the hill terrace, the farther you had to haul it. And as the rains would erode the soil, guess which soil eroded first? That at the top! It requires constant vigilance to maintain a healthy depth, so new life can grow. Consequently, it’s time for a depth check: how many buckets of soil have you hauled to the top lately? What new truths have you learned? What new books have you read? How is your spiritual depth? How rich and unhurried have your times with your Savior been? The life and death of your “hillside community” is dependent on your tier teeming with new life, for the new plants hold the dirt in place, preventing mudslides and inspiring possibilities in the lives of others.
There is one more aspect of wall tending we often don’t like to focus on or think about; the walls of the tiers below us. How well do I allow others to tend to my walls? It is easy to put up defenses or try to repair them myself. I realize in pastoral ministry, I often experience disappointment when I, humanly, begin to gauge ministry effectiveness by how and if our congregants reciprocate or pass on care to others. The great good news is that what we immediately see isn’t the final picture, regardless of the age of our “plants.” This is where a deeper level of trust must be placed in our heavenly Father and in the disciples we have trained to care for the walls that come after us.
Perhaps the bigger question is how well have we taught others to tend and mend the walls?
Perhaps the bigger question is how well have we we must teach them, by building the walls with them, by teaching them how to pray, how to encourage, and study the people around them. Most of us are pretty good at this part. You are probably doing it everyday without even realizing it. The part I find much more challenging is the next step: we are called to invite others to monitor our depth and walls and tend to them. Perhaps we even need to take the risk of inviting our congregants to hold us accountable. We must remain diligent in caring for our walls. You might say I have several of those types already, and I have a voicemail blinking red from them right now! (Sigh.) I am not referring to your MGR (Much Grace Required) congregants, who already feel as though they have the ideal prescription for the greatest pastor. I am referring to finding a few of the humbler, teachable congregants, who need a challenge and something to give their lives to. These are the kind of congregants who, if trained, will tend to walls of each pastor long after you leave, die, or retire. Find a few of these people and challenge them to: be a source of encouragement when things are hard, be a prayer warrior when answers are scarce, and be an effective communicator, sensibly using your favored communication style. Their walls will be fortified and so will yours.
Be a source of encouragement when things are hard, be a prayer warrior when answers are scarce.
Today, around Jerusalem, very few terraced hillsides remain, because of walls that fell into disrepair. In as little as five years, an entire hillside framework can be decimated. When observing pastors and churches in America today, I wonder if our hillside frameworks are at risk, because we haven’t tended to the walls as communities. As I look around at my own tier, there are a few stones I need to take care of and a few more buckets in need of lugging (schlepping) up the hill. I guess that’s what you call job security. We are in this together! Happy hauling!
ELIZABETH BJORLING is pastor of Preteen and Jr. High Ministries at College Church of the Nazarene in Bourbonnais, IL
Note: Information on terrace farming in Jerusalem was gleaned from the teaching of Ray Vanderlann, Gull Lake, 2010. For more information online: www.followtherabbi.com.