My first year as a Chrisitian was spent at the Teen Challenge Training Center in Rehrersburg, Pennsylvania in the middle of farm and dairy country. I worked with the dairy cows. Each morning before dawn we’d herd them into the milking parlor, but first we’d clean out their stalls and shovel ankle-high manure down into the “honey pit” below the barn. Manure is far from sweet smelling. It stinks to high heaven! But manure is very important stuff. It contains magic powers. Spread it over a bare, seeded field in the spring and it does its work, slowly, invisibly, mysteriously, out of sight. Low and behold, come fall there’s life bursting from the ground! A crop of corn, barley and wheat; enough to feed people and cows for another season.
Spreading manure isn’t pleasant work. It’s hard, messy, dirty work, requiring patient trust. The important part of this work is out of the farmer’s hands. The farmer must learn to wait until harvest time and let the fertilizer do its job. Pastoring is a lot like that.
The competent pastor is expected to take charge and be in control. They’re expected to make things happen. But as spiritual leaders responsible to Christ, there are things we must not do, like being impatient and taking things into our own hands.
Jesus told an odd little story about this sort of thing:
6 … “A man planted a fig tree in his garden and came again and again to see if there was any fruit on it, but he was always disappointed.7 Finally, he said to his gardener, ‘I’ve waited three years, and there hasn’t been a single fig! Cut it down. It’s just taking up space in the garden.’
8 “The gardener answered, ‘Sir, give it one more chance. Leave it another year, and I’ll give it special attention and plenty of fertilizer. 9 If we get figs next year, fine. If not, then you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9)
We’re used to our leaders taking action but this story is about the opposite. This story takes us out of the action. When most pastors come across something wrong they into action. After all, pastors are expected to right the wrongs, confront sin… battle antagonists, critics, opponents, offenders… remove nuisances, get rid of the complacent, inflexible people that are blocking the path of kingdom progress… So like the farmer in this parable it’s easy lose patience and get rid of the problem, physically or verbally. “Chop it down!” Solving problems as Eugene Peterson puts it, “by amputation”. But I think here Jesus is saying, “Hold on, not so fast… wait… give me some more time to work.”
The gardener suggests using fertilizer, “Give it a chance. I’ll dig around it and spread some manure. Then let’s see what happens…”
This story interrupts aggressive problem solving most spiritual leaders are used to. Manure isn’t a quick fix. It doesn’t get immediate results. Spreading manure is unglamorous, dirty work. It stinks. It’s slow. So is pastoring people.
Leaders have been conditioned not to have patience for manure. We’re in a hurry for results – “get rid of the problem… cut it down… make a fresh start… fire her… replace him… don’t waste any more time on that stubborn kid… kick them out!” We push to put things right here-and-now, even if it means pushing God out of the way, in his name!
But God isn’t in a hurry. Jesus was fond of small, invisible, quiet, slow solutions – yeast, salt, seeds, grace, prayer… manure. Yes, God is a God of action, but as the apostle Peter wrote, he’s also patient and waits. As his under-shepherds, pastors need to put up with his slowness. Pastors have to learn how to patiently apply the fertilizer of grace, prayer, God’s Word, forgiveness, and mercy as they go about our work of tending to and healing souls.
What does this story tell pastors about responding to opposition, roadblocks, antagonists, people we encounter that are slow to respond? What might Jesus be saying about your impatience with people? What might he be saying to those of you who are thinking that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence? That it’s time to call it quits and move on? What might he say in response to your wanderlust?