No sooner had I written the article “Time for New Trees” than it seemed the Lord had another series of lessons for me to learn from my family orchard.
You may have noticed that McDonald’s has sliced apples on its menu for side items. This has helped increase the demand for apples, which is good news for those who grow them.
You will recall that our agreement with the tenant was based on trust and a handshake. Now I had the challenging task of meeting with him to discuss some possible changes to the agreement. I was afraid it would be a difficult conversation, but it turned into a pleasant conversation. Our tenant realized that he was overextended in his present operation, and it made sense to release our orchard. So I was free to explore a new direction for the orchard.
There were several growers interested, and several ideas were offered. One grower wanted us to consider planting berries instead of apples. Another proposed turning the orchard into a completely organic operation—an interesting concept, but impossible due to neighboring farms. A third candidate, Mr. Nix, wanted to grow packing apples instead of the current strategy of growing processing apples. (Packing apples are the shiny, perfectly shaped apples you buy at the supermarket; processing apples are turned into juice, applesauce and baby food.)
The Williams family met to consider all the possibilities and unanimously agreed that we wanted to return the orchard to the days when our father and grandfather grew packing apples. Arrangements were made to meet with Mr. Nix and his orchard manager.
My two brothers and I walked the orchard with the new potential renter. Together we examined the varieties of trees and their present condition. Mr. Nix pointed out that many of the trees had become misshapen due to faulty pruning. He demonstrated how they would repair the trees by making some major cuts high up in the trees to allow sunlight to get in. He showed how they would redirect limbs by cutting out a small slice of wood at the base of the limb, stretching them out, and tautly tying them to the trunk of the tree. These better practices may have seemed drastic, but they would lead to a more productive orchard that would grow a better quality fruit.
As our new tenant talked, I began to see parallels with my other job—a minister of the gospel, asked by my denomination to coordinate plans for our future. I remembered the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:11-13:
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.
Paul indicates that there are different qualities of work even as it relates to ministry. As I reflect and look inward, I ask myself if I am building with straw or precious stones. Or, using my orchard as an analogy, does my ministry produce processing apples or packing apples? The good news is that the foundation of my ministry, like my trees, is strong and will endure anything. But what am I building on that structure? Quality and attention to good practices matter.
My brothers and I were impressed with Mr. Nix’s knowledge and experience. He explained what varieties of apples he would plant in the open spaces. He pointed out the need to plant a cover crop that would properly prepare the soil for the future planting of trees. He said he would plant the new trees in the opposite direction from where we had them in the past. His logic was to allow better air circulation to lessen the effect of frost forming on the blooms and young fruit. I’d never thought of that.
This new caretaker is a highly educated apple grower who continues to discover better methods. He doesn’t settle for the status quo. He has traveled to other apple-growing areas to observe how other successful growers operate. Mr. Nix is a life-long learner in the art and science of growing quality apples.
This positive step forward gives me great hope for an improved orchard that will become one of the top apple-growing operations in Western North Carolina. I see a close parallel with our denomination and our desire to move past the status quo. I have taken many educational trips outside, which allowed me to work with a huge cross-section of evangelical churches, and see various ways of doing effective ministry as believers serve under the leadership of the Spirit. I have also been challenged to learn how to relate to various groups in the community where I serve and move well beyond the confines of the church world.
My journey back into seminary helped me see how other Christian leaders are at work to grow spiritual fruit within the people they serve. I was part of a group of 11 students studying Congregational Growth and Development. Out of 11 students, five different denominations with their particular styles and distinctives were represented. This was a mixed group—including four women, seven African-Americans, four Caucasians, and one pastor from Haiti. Our discussions went deep into the difficulties of doing ministry in the 21st century, and we thoroughly evaluated the material from our textbooks. We are all seeking better methods and practices for making more followers of Jesus.
We in GCI can learn from and with our brothers and sisters within the Body of Christ as we prepare for the future. It is vital that we are open to learning from others and being courageous enough to try new things.
I am deeply thankful for my heritage and ongoing involvement in the life of the apple orchard. I thank God for Mr. Nix and the future work he will do for my family’s farm. And I thank him also for the rich lesson he has shown me as it relates to my call to ministry. Jesus often used the natural world to teach his servants what they needed to know as his disciples. Seems like he still does.