Growing Good Soil in Ministry


Post Author: Amber Slate

This August and September, we are presenting a series of articles introducing our newest cohort of Writers in Residence. These young clergy women are gifted writers from a variety of backgrounds, denominations, and ministry settings, who will share their voices on Fidelia regularly over the next two years. We are so delighted to have the opportunity to share their work with you.


Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”-Matthew 13:8 (NIV)

people bending near the ground, working with soil and plants behind a fence on a clear day

The “Farminary”at Princeton Theological Seminary

The farmers in front of me dreamed of having the richest soil in the entire state. Regrettably, history was working against them. They had acquired an old sod farm, and the poor practices of the previous generations had stripped away the nutrient-rich top soil. The soil had been full of life-giving organic matter and they sold it away year by year with each reaping. The farm thrived for a time. However, with the depletion of the soil, every year they worked harder and yielded fewer results. Finally, they were forced to close down the operation and pass the land to the next successors.

Slowly, these new farmers began to change the story with a more sustainable model. They brought in some new soil and enriched what remained with compost. They took in the discarded compost scraps and used that as the basis for what would surprisingly be the source of new life. There would be much good fruit that would be grown in abundance in this new soil.

I had heard this story of this particular farm before. However, when I heard it again during my search for my first ordained call, it stopped me in my tracks. Finally, I had a clear picture of the unsettling cloud that had seemed to hover over my search with a gloomy presence. I had encountered too many churches that seemed to want to continue in a metaphorical “soil-depleting mentality.”

If you’re in the white mainline American church tradition like me, you’re probably familiar with the longing for the church to return to its “golden-age” in the 1950s and 60s. My interviews involved questions about how I could start getting those higher yields back. There wasn’t much discussion of the state of the soil. I was saddened by the fact that churches couldn’t see past the old successes to imagine what new life could grow in their midst. I wondered at their ability to persist in working harder with fewer results rather than embrace a new vision. I longed for more imagination about the good fruit that could come of good soil and what a witness that could be for the good news of the gospel.

In my own context, I see a cultural shift away from institutional church as a sign that we have not paid enough attention to the soil. The church has employed practices that yielded high results for a season but depleted the good soil that would ensure its sustainability over time. The church has operated in high-yielding power and privilege at the expense of those who are marginalized because of race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and class. As a result, I see in my generation a longing for relationship with God, others, and creation, but not the church. I also see a longing for connection, reconciliation, and life, but little interest in propping up a patriarchal institution.

A year into my first call, I’ll admit that attempts to go from a soil-depleting mentality to a sustainable-farming mentality in the church is hard work. Like seriously hard and slow work that I face with a fluctuating amount of fortitude, hope, anger, and courage. It’s hard to face the places in myself that are comfortable with privilege. It’s hard to discern the best way to lead in a new direction and know if patience or urgency is the needed ingredient. It’s hard to wait in hope that God will turn the compost we bring into new life and good soil.

In the midst of that hard work, I am bolstered by the words of Kenda Creasy Dean in a recent interview about those going into institutional ministry who says there are “people who are, you know, looking at what they are going to be doing in some kind of institutional position but understanding what they are really there to do is to participate with God in building a new thing, that what they are going into is a platform. It’s not the box they have to fit into. It is what they are going to use to kind of grow up this new thing that looks like ministry that they might not even have a vision for yet.”[1]

This is good news to me because it means growing good soil in ministry can mean walking in the dark, growing into a new thing, waiting for a vision of new life, and expecting to be surprised at what might emerge that is out of the box! I’m left reflecting on these questions that I will now pose to you: In your context, where has the soil been depleted in the service of success and privilege? What is rotting that should be added to the compost pile? Are you still waiting for a new vision to emerge? What signs of good soil and new life do you see?

________________

[1] Creasy Dean, Kenda. Producer Mike McHargue. “Episode 156 – Homebrewed Christianity Team-up.” Ask Science Mike. Podcast audio, June 26, 2018. http://mikemchargue.com/asksciencemike/.

A special thanks to Dr. Nathan Stucky who introduced me to the story of the small-scale sustainable farm in this story known as the “Farminary” at Princeton Theological Seminary.


The Rev. Amber Slate serves as pastor of Aurora Presbyterian Church in Aurora, Oregon. Amber grew up on a farm near Ritzville, Washington, as a part of the Mennonite Church USA.  She earned her BA, Theology, from Whitworth University. 

After college, she served for five years as the Middle School Youth Director at a Presbyterian church in the Seattle area. She graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2017 with a Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Christian Education & Formation with an emphasis on Spiritual Formation & Mission.

In her spare time, you can find her attending The Moth for the great storytelling, and exploring the natural wonders of the PNW.


Image by: Amber Slate
Used with permission
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