Every now and then someone will ask me about my favorite writers. Almost always, the first name that comes to mind is Wendell Berry. And most of the time, when I say his name I get a look of confusion, like, who is Wendell Berry?
Wendell Berry is a conservationist, farmer, essayist, novelist, professor of English and poet. He was born in 1934 in Henry County, Kentucky where he now lives on a farm. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky in 1956. In 1958, he received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, which is just down the road from where I live. Berry has taught at Stanford and many other universities. He’s the author of more than 40 books. He’s won numerous awards and honors. Although he has written many nonfiction books, my favorites are his fictional Port William series. The New York Times has called Berry the “prophet of rural America.”
I first learned about Wendell Berry from fellow pastor, Eugene Peterson, who writes, “Wendell Berry is a writer from whom I have learned much of my pastoral theology. Berry is a farmer in Kentucky. On this farm, besides plowing fields, planting crops, and working horses, he writes novels and poems and essays. The importance of place is a recurrent theme — place embraced and loved, understood and honored. Whenever Berry writes the word ‘farm,’ I substitute ‘parish’: the sentence works for me every time” (Under the Unpredictable Plant).
Make no mistake, Berry is a farmer and not a pastor, although he does attend a Baptist church. I like Berry as a guide to being a pastor because of this commitment to place. Berry’s character Jayber Crow says, “To feel at home in a place, you have to have some prospect of staying there.” Berry committed to staying on the farm. Somewhere along the way I decided that I needed to do the same — commit to a particular church over the long haul (almost 27 years now). God knows there have been times I tried to leave, but now I would just like to pastor like Wendell Berry farms.
We live in what Berry calls the culture of “the one-night stands,” and pastors are often no different. I realize that God sometimes calls us to move to another church, but many of us will admit that occasionally we move because we’re climbing the evangelical success ladder. Furthermore, to really know how to love, serve and disciple a particular group of people takes awhile. You can’t just take what works somewhere else and use it in your church any more than you can use New England farming methods in California. The soil is just different.
So I encourage you to pick up a Wendell Berry book and give it a read. Whether you are a pastor, a writer or just a lover of good literature you will enjoy Wendell Berry. I suggest you start with Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter or A Place in Time.