Growing a Church and Growing a Farm: Lessons from farmers for church planters

“Can this old farmer really teach me practical lessons about church planting?” That question has been in my mind ever since I met Muncey.  He does not gush forth with academic information that I am used to reading about in books. Instead, he recalls his years of working with cows ever since he was a boy smaller than a newborn calf.

 

“I feel more comfortable working with cows than with people,” Muncey said with half a smile sneaking out from under his mustache one day. To watch him move among the cows, you would almost think that he was one of them – like he understood their habits, needs, and even their language.

 

Muncey’s words come out very slow and deliberate like molasses dripping from a long-necked bottle. When words start to come out, though, I have learned to take note. Those words are worth catching for later use. Like the time I first had cows arrive on my land.

 

I have some acreage and looked around at my neighbors who all had cows grazing their land. I thought, “What a great idea – let the cows cut my grass for me! That could save me a lot of time and money instead mowing the grass.” So, I visited a local ranch that described the ranching startup process. They made it sound so easy and natural. The rancher walked my land and pointed out the best places for cows to enter and graze. After we placed a water line on the ground and plopped down a water tank, I was ready to go! That was when Muncey dropped his first bit of wisdom on me that I can’t shake. His words stick with me like a piece of chewing gum stuck on the bottom of my shoe.

 

“Don’t get more cows that you can handle,” he said.

 

That seemed like a good piece of advice. It was the next part though that still haunts me,

 

“Bigger is not always better. This herd should be the right size based on the size of the land.”

 

That sounded logical enough. At least at first. I purchased three cows to graze the land. That was easy. It was enjoyable. I am not sure how to describe the pleasure of watching cows move into a pasture, lower their heads, and eat away at the grass before them. Like feeding hungry boys at dinner, their heads are lowered and no words are spoken – only occasional grunts.

 

Gradually, the cows did what they were supposed to do – have baby cows. The herd increased to 14 cows in a few years. We have been selling some of the cows as they mature – people love to eat all-grass fed beef (and we equally love to sell it to them). That is when Muncey’s words came back to me.

 

I recalled his advice, “Bigger is not always better. This herd should be the right size based on the size of the land.”

 

It turns out that my 14 Acres is designed to hold 14 cows. Farmers call this the “stocking rate” and the common advice for this type of land and weather is to have no more than one cow per acre. If you have more than that, then the cows will not get enough grass to eat. They will overgraze the land, and the grass will not grow back fast enough. In time, the grass will face a slow death, and this will affect the cow’s health. In short, this is an ecosystem that is designed for a certain amount of cows to cooperate with the size of the land that we have. If I remain within that limit, then the ecosystem will flourish. In short, both the cows and the grass will work together just fine. If not, the farmer is frustrated at trying to produce too much and the cows are unhappy at being herded through a system that is not designed for them.

 

I can’t help but think of the church plants that I have been a part of, both past and present. Have I tried to get more cows than I can handle? Have I tried to build a church based on how many people I can spiritually nourish and care for OR Is my aspiration for the church size based on someone else’s number for what constitutes a “good church plant.” For some reason, the gold standard for many church planters is the Sunday attendance.

 

At a recent gathering of church planters, one person asked me, “How many people are you running on Sundays?” I was about to say 14 (based on the head of cattle that I run through my grass). He was really asking, though, how many attend the church on Sunday in order to see how “successful” the church plant is. Is this really the best measure for the success of a church plant. I think about Muncey who is trying to teach me about the ecosystem of a farm. The farmer can only work with so many cows on his land to allow the cows to flourish.

 

The nagging thought that Muncey placed in my head is, “Bigger is not always better. The herd should be the right size based on the size of the land.”

 

Maybe a bigger church is not necessarily better. Perhaps a better question to ask is, “Am I handling the right size of people that is the right size of my leadership?” There are some church planters that have the management skills to handle a large number of people. They are able to develop an ecosystem that can “run a lot of people” on Sunday without causing damage to the people or the church leadership. On the other hand, there are other church planters that are more suited for a smaller number of people. When they stay within that limit, the church flourishes and the church planter retains health and wholeness.

 

The problem comes when church planters try to get a bigger herd than their leadership can handle. The simple fact is that cows take time each day. Sometimes they wander to the next farm, overturn the water feeder, or deliver calves on the coldest day of the year. If the herd is too large, I simply cannot handle them well. People need care as well. They may wander to the next church, misunderstand one another, or develop problems at the most inconvenient times. If the number of people I am caring for is too large, I can get frustrated. The church members are not cared for and they don’t flourish as they should. In short, the ecosystem is upset because the stocking rate is too high.

 

I can’t remember the first time I met Munsey. He often has long pauses before he speaks. I think he is saying the words in his mind before he lets them escape. If I didn’t know better, I would say that he is like a Jethro to a Moses – he provides practical and timely advice when needed. We do well to heed his advice.

 

Muncey understands how to work with cows as much as church planters know how to work with people. Both a farm and church are ecosystems that work with large living organisms. While some herds (in the farm and church) are bigger than others, there are some principles from the farm that we can learn from. If not, church planters run the risk of doing harm to themselves and others under their care. So place a piece of Fescue in your mouth, and listen to Muncey one more time,

 

“Don’t strive for more people than you can handle.

Bigger is not always better.

The church should be the right size based on the right size of the leadership.”

 

Wise learners will ask themselves,

 

What amount of people can I provide proper spiritual care?

Who else in the church plant can also promote flourishing for the people in your care?

If I am frustrated at the size of my church, is this based on my expectations for spiritual care or someone else’s expectations for how many you are running on Sunday?