5 Ways Wendell Berry Is Making Me a Better Pastor

I discovered late last year that the community in which I pastor is a real-life counterpart to Wendell Berry’s fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. Though I’ve pastored here for nearly seven years, I only discovered the affinity between Henry County, Virginia, and Berry’s Port William when I was introduced to—and subsequently binge-read my way through—his Port William novels.

Our community shares much in common with Port William. My congregants recall with affection their days planting and harvesting tobacco, flue-curing it in barns, and selling it in auction houses. They remember the transition from mule-drawn plows to tractors. Like the citizens of Port William, the people of Henry and neighboring Franklin counties recall with wry smiles the days when home-brewed corn whiskey was almost as common as peach preserves.

These similarities and others make Berry’s novels particularly fascinating and refreshing to me. Reading his accounts of Port William has enabled me to see my own community with new eyes and begin ministering more effectively within it.

Here are five ways Wendell Berry, through his Port William stories, is teaching me to be a better pastor in my own community:

1. He is teaching me to be more gentle with people.

I came to this pastorate anticipating a higher level of interest and commitment than I had a reasonable right to expect. In the past, I had been part of church families who were energetic in their labor to fulfill the church’s mission. Disappointment has too often led me to become impatient with my people. But in reading the stories of the Port William membership, I learned to view the role of pastor from the outside, from the perspective of the community people themselves. Berry’s Jayber Crow provides valuable insight:

The preachers were always young students from the seminary who . . . wouldn’t stay long enough to know where they were, for one thing. Some were wise and some were foolish, but none, so far as Port William knew, was ever old.

When pastors don’t stay long enough to build trust, is it any wonder that congregations are slow to respond to their teaching? By what right, then, am I—a relatively new outsider—impatient with my people? This realization is helping me follow Paul’s example: “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7).       

2. He is teaching me to be more appreciative of rural culture.

I attended seminary in a midsize city and grew to love the vitality and culture that characterize cities. I appreciate the idea of denominations and church planting networks focusing on cities in terms of strategic impact. But while strategy demands we energetically plant churches in the city, integrity demands we also patiently shepherd old churches in the countryside. And this is no sacrifice. Berry’s vision of Port William celebrates the beauty of rural life. Describing a farmer’s midnight vigil over the birth of a new lamb, he writes:

He sits there on a bucket, his elbows resting on his knees, his hands clasped together, conscious only of the nearness of this place: the ewe and lamb in the lighted pen, the flock sleeping and stirring in the dark behind him, the cold night air on his face and hands.

There is beauty in the countryside farms we’re too quick to forget. Berry is helping me to see and appreciate that beauty more.

3. He is teaching me to be more aware of my community’s corporate identity.

One of Berry’s central themes is that of membership along the lines of Paul’s description in Ephesians 4:25: “We are members of one another.” The Port William membership, which works itself out in the trading of labor and goods and familial watchcare over one another, rotates in many ways around the character of Burley Coulter. It is he who first articulates the concept of the membership in the story The Wild Birds:

I think of . . . Mam and Pap and Old Jack, and Aunt Dorie and Uncle Marce, and Mat and Mrs. Feltner, and Jarrat and Tom and Kate Helen, all of them dead, and you three here and the others still living. . . . The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. 

One implication of this corporate identity is that an effective pastor must learn to minister to the individual both as an individual and also as part of the community.

4. He is teaching me to be more generous with my time

I find it easy to allow the weight of sermon preparation to dominate my schedule. During weekday conversations it’s not uncommon for me to be distracted by the thought of how far behind I’m falling on my to-do list. But the importance of spending time with congregants can hardly be overstated. Berry’s poignant account of a pastor’s attempt to comfort a grieving family in A Place on Earth drives this home. After failing to communicate the hopeful message of Scripture, the pastor retreats from the family to the quiet sanctuary of his church building, where he reflects on the distance between himself and his parishioners:

The Word, in his speaking it, fails to be made flesh. It is a failure particularized for him in the palm of every work-stiffened hand held out to him at the church door every Sunday morning—the dark hand taking his pale unworn one in a gesture of politeness without understanding.

The pastor fails to realize that the vast divide between him and his people is due to the kind of retreat in which he is then indulging. As the vignette closes, the church’s gravedigger enters the building to stoke the fire. “Not wanting to appear unfriendly,” the pastor “comes back and sits near the old man—trusting that, by keeping a distance of four or five feet between them, he can hold the conversation to an exchange of formalities and then leave in a few minutes.”

The only way pastors will bridge the gap between themselves and the people they shepherd is by spending time with them. Berry is teaching me to be more liberal with my minutes and hours.

5. He is teaching me to be more conscious of place in my community’s identity.

For some time now the relationship between people and their land has been confinded to the realm of sociologists. But Berry, with his constant descriptions of the terrain of Port William, its proximity to and dependence on the river, the character of the farms on its river bottoms and ridges, and the connections between this land and the nature of its people, has reminded me that humans have been intricately linked to the earth from the beginning.

If I want to understand the identity of my community, I must learn to grasp the nature of the physical place my community inhabits. I have learned that the tobacco crops grown in the red Virginia clay required careful cultivation and precise harvesting. The older men in my church have clear memories of laboring in tobacco fields from dawn to dusk. And while they themselves went to work in the textile and furniture mills that sprang up in Henry County later, it was those formative seasons in the tobacco rows that shaped them into the people I know today. Understanding this allows me to communicate with them more effectively.

Fresh Eyes

In these ways Wendell Berry is teaching me about my people, helping me see them with fresh eyes. Not every pastor will find the same stunning similarities between their congregations and the people of Port William, but the lessons Berry teaches through Port William will still prove valuable for us all.

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