The Field of Pastoral Ministry: Eugene Peterson on the congregation as topsoil [Under the Unpredictable Plant 4]

I recently re-read Eugene Peterson’s classic book on pastoral ministry based in the life of Jonah, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992). There is so much in this book, but I am merely sharing a few pieces that have stuck out powerfully to me in this particular season of time.

Where Peterson earlier discusses spiritual growth through the lens of organic farming, he carries on later to compare the congregation to topsoil. Drawing upon the rich agrarian writings of Wendell Berry, Peterson opens a view on the congregation through agrarian imagery. While shepherd is one of the literal meanings of pastor, the agrarian image is found through Scripture as well, most notably in Paul’s description of his ministry in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9.

The parallel with my parish could not be more exact. I substitute my pastoral vocabulary for Berry’s agricultural and find Berry urging me to be mindful of my congregation, in reverence before it. These are souls, divinely worked-on souls, whom the Spirit is shaping for eternal habitations. Long before I arrive on the scene, the Spirit is at work. I must fit into what is going on. I have no idea yet what is taking place here; I must study the contours, understand the weather, know what kind of crops grow in this climate, be in awe of the complex intricacies between past and present, between the people in the parish and those outside. 

Wendell Berry has taught me a lot about topsoil. I had never paid any attention to it before. I was amazed to find that this dirt under my feet, which I treat like dirt, is a treasure — millions of organisms constantly interacting, a constant cycle of death and resurrection, the source of most of the world’s food. There are a few people who respect and nourish and protect the topsoil. There are many others who rapaciously strip-mine it. Still others are merely careless, and out of ignorance expose it to wind and water erosion….

Berry says that ‘in talking about topsoil, it is hard to avoid the language of religion.’ Congregation is the topsoil in pastoral work. This is the material substance in which all the Spirit’s work takes place — these people, assembled in worship, dispersed in blessing. They are so ordinary, so unobtrusively there; it is easy to take them for granted, quit seeing the interactive energies, and become so preoccupied in building my theological roads, mission constructs, and parking lot curricula that I start treating this precious congregational topsoil as something dead and inert, to be rearranged to suit my vision, and then to bulldoze whatever isn’t immediately useful to the sidelines where it won’t interfere with my projects. But this is the field of pastoral work, just as it is, teeming with energy, nutrients, mixing death and life. I cannot manufacture it, but I can protect it. I can nourish it. I can refrain from polluting or violating it. But mostly, like the farmer with his topsoil, I must respect and honor and reverence it, be in awe before the vast mysteries contained in its unassuming ordinariness.

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 133-135.

Other posts in this series:

One thought on “The Field of Pastoral Ministry: Eugene Peterson on the congregation as topsoil [Under the Unpredictable Plant 4]

  1. I appreciate this so much. Pastors/shepherds have lost their place and forgot their “WHY”. Maybe they never knew it in the first place!
    Hallelujah! to those who value, care and understand their congregation/people.
    I have seen and been a part of too many congregations in my 63 years of church life, that manipulate the soil, creating a synthetic christian in order to suit themselves (the flesh).
    May I recommend another genius book, from Eugene? You may have already read it …”As Kingfishers Catch Fire”. It is his last masterpiece.

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