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Laying Fallow

Fallow. Some rights reserved (CC BY-SA-NC 3.0) by LMP+I’m blessed to live in an agricultural community. We’re surrounded by farmers, just about everyone I know has a small vegetable garden, we could, if we chose, live off of what is grown within a few miles. As such, I’m blessed to live among folks who know and appreciate growing cycles. We eat – in abundance – what is in harvest at that time: asparagus is early spring but not in the fall, carrots in late summer but not earlier, zucchini anytime there’s not snow. We’re also fairly creative at using what’s in overabundance, finding ways to preserve or share somehow use so nothing goes to waste.

Knowing these cycles also means we know what it means to be fallow. It’s an agriculturally-based term, which has started seeping into other areas of society. Fallow, according to Miriam-Webster dictionary, is “cultivated land that is allowed to lie idle during the growing season.” Intentionally prepared, then given a time of rest to restore its fertility. The term goes back to before the 12th century, and highlights the need for rest and restoration not as a lazy period, but as a time for renewal. It ensures that the land will not become depleted. It’s a time to get ready for the future, to ensure that the earth will be better equipped to support the coming growth.

Admittedly, living in Canada, the onslaught of winter snows demands that at least some period of fallow happens each year. Yet there are often fields in the summer months lying fallow, during the growing season, so that they can benefit from the demands of growth. Many farmers and gardeners use crop rotations to optimize the potential of the soil, and include a fallow time.

It’s a tried and true methodology. It benefits the soil for long term use and support, it benefits the future growth. It’s a good thing. We could learn from it.

Yet in the church, as in our personal lives much of the time, we do not engage the principle of laying fallow. We are constantly in a “must do, must grow” mentality that can be exhausting. It exhausts the individuals, the congregation, the community. And once exhausted, it takes a lot more to bring something back to life and energy than had it been nurtured along the way.

We do a LOT in our churches. There are countless ministries happening all the time, much of it happening ‘behind the scenes.’ These ministries are ensuring ongoing health of a congregation, but they may be depleting the resources of the community. Volunteer’s energies may be decreasing, burn out may be creeping in, maybe what was exciting 5 years ago is no longer fulfilling, perhaps the demographics of the parish have changed so the ministries are no longer as valid/appreciated/used as they once were.

I wonder if the church might benefit from examining it’s ministries from time to time. Not in periods of change (like seeking new leadership) where there is already stress and distinct need, but in the times of calm, of normalcy. Perhaps some of the efforts to growth are not as successful as they once were, and the reasons have never been examined. Perhaps some of the efforts are seeing significant increase in participation, depth, etc., and those successes should be considered as well. Maybe these ministries need a fallow time if they are to be fruitful in the future; an intentional period to rest and restore.

Maybe this will mean that the people exercising this ministry take individual fallow time and someone else takes over; maybe the entire ministry takes fallow time and all are able to examine it. Maybe a time of intentional rest wherein a community can focus on their ministries as a whole, and then discern what is giving life and what is depleting. Some ministries may be embraced with gusto, some may be ready to be ended. Whatever we do, we should be doing it because we feel called to it as a way of giving God glory within our communities.

Perhaps the cold winter months are a good time to consider laying fallow. The weather drives us inside physically, we can also go inside ourselves spiritually into a time of discernment and reflection, of intentional rest and restoration, of laying fallow. For the benefit of the present and the future, so we don’t exhaust ourselves with high expectations and so we are better prepared to receive and support what will come in the future. God willing the church can recognize that it does not need to be constantly growing, that we all need a rest, and enjoy a fallow time knowing that it is in fact preparing for a sustained future.

About Laura Marie Piotrowicz

I’m a high-energy priest, now serving in the Diocese of Niagara, catching glimpses of the kingdom in daily life. I consider church to be a verb, and I’m passionate about prayer, eco-theology, and social justice. I love travel, reading, canoeing, camping, gardening and cooking, playing with my dogs, and drinking good coffee.

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6 Responses to Laying Fallow

  1. Basic ‘sabbath’ sense! 🙂

  2. Yet more than, and different from, sabbath. Even during sabbaticals in the church we’re required to have a growth (educational) component… To fallow is a unique concept.

  3. Amen ! For church life I think this is a great metaphor. Thanks ! For those of us in rural ministry our congregations are already somewhat tuned to the idea of seasons of production and rest. Perhaps we can encourage our urban colleagues to see fallow seasons in ministry as a benefit.
    But fallow practices are varied, complex and nuanced. Working fallow land too much contributes to erosion, but leaving it completely may give weeds an advantage. Chemical-fallow seems likely to be bad for the bigger picture in the long run. etc. Sadly the pressure of industrial capitalism (in which the “bottom line” does not yet to account for all the assets taken from the earth ) is forcing many farmers to abandon fallow practices and crop land continuously just to feed their families.

  4. Fallow is indeed complex – but worth it in the long run. Many farmers in this region are also abandoning the practice in efforts to keep sufficient crop yields coming in to meet industrial (unrealistic and unsustainable) demands. However, the land cannot support that for long.
    I think in church-land we need to be aware of that too – we need to figure out a nuanced system that works for us – not necessarily what works for our neighbours – and utilize it. Let each ministry have a fallow time, don’t just shut them all down at once.
    And I think fallow time is more than just sabbath thinking – even on our sabbaticals we have growth expectations (what did you read/learn/write/do/&c.). Maybe part of our discernment in our parishes can be on how and when a true restorative rest can be applied to our situations. It can be scary to see things lying fallow, or to embrace it as a possibility – but we need to face that fear with faith and hope for a stronger future.

  5. Amen again! Practicing fallow principle in church ministries might even be a step toward restoring the practice in relationship to the land. I suspect the “growth expectations” that you mention for professional so-called sabbatical leave indicates how strong the temptation is to subvert the theology of fallow from the benefits you cite, toward a goal of improved or alternate production. The biblical sabbatical seems, at least in part, to be about trusting that God can provide even when we stop, as you say, “depleting resources” to provide for ourselves. ( ). It is win/win. The land (or the ministry) rests but faith grows in the un-depletable resource of God’s grace.

    • The trust is, I think, the hard part. And yet, it’s what we’re called to… no one said following God would be easy!
      Thanks, Dell, for the added links. They’ve helped me in my reflections 🙂
      In a practical sense, I think the idea of ministries lying fallow becomes fearful when we think that it all has to happen simultaneously. Agriculturally, it’s one area at a time, rotationally – there’s always somewhere else in it’s growth phase.

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