Some seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil . . . and when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away . . . Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:4-8)
Given only the health of the soil, nothing that dies is dead for very long.” -Wendell Berry
I’m not much of a gardener. Every year I plant a garden on a tiny plot of clay and rock next to the garage. Every year I weed and water it. And every year, I watch nervously to see whether my spindly plants will manage to provide our family with a few forkfuls of fresh vegetables before the early-fall frost kills them off.
My father, on the other hand, is a master gardener. His carefully fenced garden is the centerpiece of a beautiful orchard and berry patch planted over 35 years ago. Pears, apples, blueberries and grapes accent the vegetable garden in the center. As he spades and tills, Dad’s hands cake with dark, beautiful dirt, and in the spring asparagus, lettuce and Swiss chard fairly leap from his nutrient-rich soil. And therein lies the key. For all his experience, hard work and expertise, the biggest difference between Dad’s bumper crops and my measly ones isn’t the gardener; it’s the soil. You don’t need to be a botanist to know what Jesus’ parable reminds us — that seeds planted in rocky soil wither away while those planted in good soil produce abundance.
Watering, weeding and weather: many factors contribute to producing a harvest. But the key to growing strong plants is good soil. Just so, many factors converge to create healthy faith communities, but above all else, trust is the soil in which communities grow. Congregations routinely, sometimes spectacularly, overcome financial deficits. Deficits of trust are harder to surmount and create chronic, sometimes terminal problems that destroy life rather than create it.
A dear colleague once served as pastor a congregation that had 24 pastors in its 120-year history. The longest tenured served 11 years, the last three had combined to serve five. My colleague lasted nine months. The congregation had a history of pastors who behaved badly and taught the congregation not to trust. Incoming pastors quickly learned that their job was to avoid stepping out of line and that dozens of eyes were watching, just waiting for them to slip up. These pastors also learned not to trust. The result was a rocky mix of fear, guilt and blame, and predictably the church became dusty and barren until nothing would grow.
The congregation I serve is like the soil in my dad’s garden. Generations of good ministers — some quite young — taught the church that its leaders were worth trusting and that the pastor’s study was a safe place. The congregation, in turn, showed those pastors the love and forgiveness their sermons proclaimed, fertilizing a mutuality of trust that became a seedbed for new growth and abundant life.
Like soil, trust can be improved or it can be eroded. Gardening practices enrich the soil that brings forth beautiful gardens. When my father first looked at the plot that was to become his garden, it was nothing but a small rise in middle of a 22-acre tangle of thorn bushes and tulip poplars. With a brushhog and a chainsaw, he commenced the undertaking that would give rhythm to the rest of his life: removing the bad by extracting stumps, picking rocks, pulling weeds; augmenting the good by ensuring compost, sunlight, and fresh, clean water.
Cultivating trust is remarkably similar: removing the bad by offering confession, asking forgiveness and assuring absolution, augmenting the good by speaking truthfully, listening generously and sharing laughter, tears and strawberry shortcake. Halfway through his forth decade of cultivation, my father has transformed a wild, overgrown mess into a beautiful orchard and garden, and he has done it all in the rocky, clay-laden soil of the Allegheny foothills. The work of nurturing trust in congregations is equally transformative.
A woman wanders into a church full of strangers. Strangers become pewmates when a voice invites her to “sit with me.” Pewmates become acquaintances over coffee after worship. Acquaintances become friends through mission trips and Bible studies. And friends become sisters through the crucible of grief, as one trembling hand holds another and barely audible prayers are whispered through tears. Trust is fertilized as disciples in pulpits and in pews love one another through blessings and disappointments — acknowledging mistakes, offering and receiving apologies and refusing to poison the soil through shaming, misconduct or gossip.
It takes years to cultivate deep trust within a faith community and only a few hours to pollute it. But for congregations seeking to grow in faith and number there is no substitute. Without the supple soil of trust, nothing truly abundant can live.
Scott Hauser is pastor and head of staff at First Presbyterian Church in Clarion, Pennsylvania.