It is an interesting time in the life of the Williams family apple orchard. Our 35 acres of trees in the hills of western North Carolina are going through two major transitions. The orchard has been leased to the Henderson family for the past 25 years. The arrangement has worked well, and it is now time for a younger generation to take over. The second major transition is the uprooting of old trees and the planting of new ones.
Transitioning to a new generation can be a nightmare. Whereas in the past a person’s word and a handshake were good enough for an agreement, today it is often much more complicated. A younger generation is concerned about fair market prices, risk of liability and a multitude of other legalities. Thankfully, in our case, our two families had a heart-level discussion about all the concerns, and the handshake won out over the multi-page document produced by a high-priced lawyer.
The younger Henderson caretaker has decided that the best long-range strategy is to re-invest in the orchard. There are nearly 2500 varieties of apples grown in the U.S., but for our market, only a few are consistently in demand. So the young Mr. Henderson is faced with a challenge on two fronts. There are some varieties in the orchard that are not profitable, and there are also five acres of Golden Delicious trees that are too old to produce quality apples. So Mr. Henderson took drastic action. He brought in the backhoe, dug out the five acres of trees, pushed them together into a huge brush pile and ignited a major bonfire.
As I watch my friend work with these challenges, I find some interesting parallels with my other job. I am employed by my denomination to help coordinate our plans to prepare for the future.
Like an orchard, a church goes through various seasons as it bears fruit. Like farming, this is a multi-layered process requiring wisdom, patience and faith. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul likened the church to a field that had to be tended by workers through the stages of preparing the soil, planting, weeding and eventually harvesting. My apple-farming experience has taught me some lessons that I can apply to the ever-changing seasons of our church.
Like trees, individuals and congregations go through various phases in their lives. Some are newly planted, needing extra care and attention in the first stages of growth. Then there are the years when they are mature and bear much fruit. But there are also times when even the most vigorous tree or the most robust of people begin to get old and less productive. Pastors who could formerly lead two or three congregations, and seemed to be a never-failing source of energy and ideas, begin to slow down. The spirit may still be willing, but the flesh becomes weak. This is part of the natural cycle of life.
However, my orchard and churches analogy can only go so far. Pastors and congregations are not trees and orchards, to be used until the time comes to dispose of them. We cannot administer a church with a backhoe and a bonfire. There are feelings and emotions to be considered. None of us likes to be reminded that we may be past our prime. So although the process of aging and renewal in church life is inevitable, it must be done with sensitivity, love and due caution.
This is not just my challenge. It concerns all of us who are joined in fellowship. None of us are bushes that “flourish and are cast into the fire.” We are members one of another, and we owe each other a duty of care. The old must serve the young, and vice versa.
Let me then share the challenge with you, and ask for your prayers and concern. On the one hand, we are looking for young people who display leadership qualities, and most of all a desire to go deeper in ministry. This is why we have a Pastoral Internship program. It holds great promise for developing a “young orchard” of future pastors. However, just as young trees require special attention in their early years of growth if they are to grow straight and strong, these young leaders require good care from skilled and patient mentors who can help them grow into the best pastors the Lord desires them to be. Part of my job is to assist in the process of matching interns with the best-qualified mentoring pastors available.
Apple trees have to be strategically placed within an orchard, with self-pollinating trees close to non-pollinating trees so that apples will be produced by all varieties. And we need to place our interns with congregations who are alive and active, so that the intern can grow in a positive atmosphere among experienced and motivated Christians.
Another challenge we face is the growing number of pastors who are nearing retirement age. This reality can easily sneak up on you. Most people do not like to admit they are getting old, and the transition to a less prominent role can be especially hard for men and women who have given many years in dedicated service and commitment. Unlike old trees, elderly Christians are not “taking up valuable space.” Those years of experience are still useful, even though the physical frame may need a change of pace.
Some of our pastors have already made this transition. We are learning from them, and one of our challenges is to harness their experience to help the rest of us as we reach retirement age.
Like an orchard, a church cannot just be left to itself if it is to continue to bear fruit. It looks like our family orchard is in safe hands for the next few years. I pray that we can work together so we can say the same about our church.