Faced with a problem of gourd disposal last Halloween, my leadership and I decided to do the organic thing. We cleaned up the mess from our jack-o-lantern carvings by dumping eight pumpkins’ worth of slimy seeds into our flower beds to compost over winter.
It was no real surprise, then, when students returned to campus last week to find pumpkin vines growing around the deck. The good soil around our buildings coupled with an unusually wet summer created near perfect conditions for the plants to grow. It was a parable right before our eyes. Some fell on good soil, and produced a great harvest.
All of which has me wishing that the United Methodist Church counted volunteer pumpkins as “fruit” when it judges our ministry. Or that they would at least apply similar principles to it.
To be clear, I am not ashamed when I count at Wesley the kind of “fruits”—attendance figures, budgets, buildings, etc—that my denomination is obsessed with. We have a respectable number of students involved with us, and we make a profound impact on their lives. I can also document the ways in which we reach beyond our walls into service both in our neighborhood and in surrounding regions.
But it’s never enough, or so it seems. Regardless of our ministry settings, we UM pastors are constantly harassed to produce more people, more money, more programs. I don’t think that’s unique to clergy, either. “More” is the great American goal, and “production” our great virtue.
When I think of the parable of the sower (Matthew 13), however, I can’t help but notice how backwards this compulsion to quantify our efforts is. In the story, a farmer scatters seeds. Some of them grow, many of them do not. At issue is not the skill of the farmer, but the state of the soil. Perhaps the farmer should have been more careful where he planted. But Jesus wasn’t arguing for better demographic research or more strategic planning. He was showing us how the kingdom of God operates.
The hypothetical farmer has no control over the harvest. All he can do is drop the seeds where he’s standing. The rest is up the soil.
Last year, my wife and I had a tomato plant appear in the flower bed beside our house. It grew from some long forgotten seed that neither of us planted intentionally, but it produced an unexpected harvest that gave us tomatoes into early November.
We were not so conceited as to take credit for those tomatoes, any more than my students and I could take credit for the pumpkins at Wesley. Both the tomatoes and the pumpkin vines are volunteer plants. Once we spotted them, we watered them. But we did not cultivate them. They just found good soil, and so they grew.
Perhaps this is a good reminder in a world that values results over process, and in a church that follows suit. The credit we can take for any success is usually smaller than we like to believe, and the blame we can ascribe to ourselves or others for failures gets similarly overestimated. The truth is, like Paul writes to the Corinthians, that one plants and another waters and another harvests. But the entire process—including our individual parts in it—belongs ultimately to God.