RECENTLY I CELEBRATED 15 years as pastor of a congregation in East Texas of under 200 members with about half of them present for Sunday worship. At denominational meetings and around town I'm asked, "When are you going to a bigger church? Why do you stay?" Sometimes I give a long, rambling explanation, but often I respond with, "Because I read too much Wendell Berry."
I've been reading Berry since '80 or '81. I discovered his essays while serving a rural congregation. I was looking for any insight I could get into the life of my congregants. At the same time, I was beginning to explore the issues of hunger, poverty, agriculture and economics. Somewhere I found a footnote mentioning Wendell Berry. One book led me to another; it wasn't long before I was reading everything I could find of Berry's.
I was in good company. As veteran pastor Eugene Peterson writes, "Wendell Berry is a writer from whom I have learned much of my pastoral theology. Berry is a farmer in Kentucky. On this farm, besides plowing fields, planting crops, and working horses, he writes novels and poems and essays. The importance of place is a recurrent theme--place embraced and loved, understood and honored. Whenever Berry writes the word 'farm,' I substitute 'parish': the sentence works for me every time" (Under the Unpredictable Plant).
Yes, Berry is a farmer and not a pastor. How are we to read him as a pastoral theologian when he has an ambiguous connection with the church? Berry is technically a member of New Castle Baptist Church, where he was baptized; he attends worship with his wife, Tanya, at Port Royal Baptist Church. He remembers going to church as a boy with his grandfather, and now his own grandchildren attend with him. But while Tanya is a church deacon and a board member at the new Kentucky Baptist Seminary in Lexington, Berry's relationship to the church may be more like that of his fictional character Jayber Crow, who attends church but sits in the back pew.