The life of a religious minister is a curious one, seemingly unique in human society. Whether a rabbi, priest, roshi, bishop, elder, imam, reverend, or any other title, these women and men around the world form an integral part of cultures and communities. But why? Their daily tasks and contributions to society are fundamentally different from bankers, baristas, factory workers and cabbies. Yet they fit in so seamlessly, often holding positions of reverence.
The dedication of clergymen and women is remarkable. Their paths usually begin with years of study on philosophy, divinity and their particular faith traditions, often secluded in a university or seminary. When they do re-emerge into the world as full-fledged clergy, they accept roles that many in our society would rather avoid: caring for the sick, burying the dead, and praying for the needs of an entire congregation. We also look to them as paragons of moral living, expecting more of them than we tend to expect of ourselves. They accept this role willingly as well.
Certainly, there are also enjoyable tasks for our ministers. They lead the sacred celebrations of new birth and of marriage. They are trusted as confidants and advisors in their congregations. They get to speak daily about the blessings that come from communing with the divine.
But in a world where so much is measured in dollars and cents, how do we value our ministers? What is the economic value of a prayer? Or of a visit to a scared and confused child recovering from brain surgery? Or of a shoulder offered in comfort to a grieving widow?
Yes, the life of a religious minister is curious indeed. We do not demand that they prove their economic worth. We do not shop around, looking for the best religious “bargain.” Instead, we voluntarily support our faith leaders, both financially and otherwise, when we find that they enrich our lives in fundamental and powerful ways.
Which leads me to a question. Is there another profession in our society that is, or perhaps should be, treated with the same respect and appreciation that we usually afford our religious ministers? I say yes, and it is another ancient profession: the farmer.
For thousands of years, humans were intimately connected to the Earth. Farming was a common practice, and people understood the rhythmic cycles of nature. With rich soil, plentiful sunshine, abundant water, and patient care, a farmer could hope for a bountiful harvest. Then, with freshly grown food in hand, the farmer would trade his bounty with the local community.
Still today, our communities rely upon farmers to provide our daily sustenance. They help meet our physical needs, just as ministers help meet our spiritual needs. Where ministers build community around faith, farmers build community around food. I am sure that all of us have experienced this truth: love, joy, laughter and fellowship grow stronger when shared around a table with others.
Unfortunately, the system has changed from what it once was. Farming has become an industrial system, vast reaching and at massive scale. Much of what we eat is grown hundreds of miles away by people we will never meet. We usually do not know the “where” or “how” or “when” of our food. Industrial food systems have made the process of getting food into our kitchens much more corporate than personal.
Imagine if our ministers operated in a similar way. Are you in need of spiritual guidance on how to reconcile with a spouse? “Faith, Incorporated” has just what you need – a downloadable sermon right to your laptop on marriage and forgiveness. Have you lost a loved one and need help with the burial? “Rent-a-Minister, LLC” can FaceTime a complete stranger right to the graveside! And remember that poor child recovering from surgery? Just pop in Reverend John Doe’s DVD series titled “Get Well Soon, Child.”
I do not believe that any community of faith would accept such a system. It would turn religion into a commoditized good. All of a sudden, it would become easy to put a price tag on that downloadable sermon, FaceTime chat or DVD series. And the quality of such ministry would certainly be inferior to the personal connection to clergymen and women who dedicate their lives to their congregations.
Is our food not the same? It is certainly commoditized. People tend to care more about the price tag of food rather than the quality (and for some, that is out of necessity, highlighting the concurrent challenge of poverty). As for that quality? I will take what I can buy from the farmers’ market over the grocery store any day.
So what is the answer? That is a complicated question. Our current food system has evolved over many decades, and it is unlikely to undergo a rapid shift in the short term. Such a rapid shift could even shock the system and threaten food security for even more people than the 800 million currently suffering from malnutrition.
Maybe, however, we can start viewing our local, small scale farmers differently. What if we stopped thinking of them and their crops as more expensive options in our ordinary food system? What if we instead started thinking of them as men and women dedicated to providing their local communities with nourishment, health, and joy?
If we did that, I would say we would be treating them more like religious ministers. And that would be a good thing.
By John A. Lanier, Executive Director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation