Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a friend of mine who lived in Grand Canyon Village, Arizona. He was the guidance counselor for the Grand Canyon Unified School District. He and his wife had moved from Ohio to Arizona after he graduated with his masters degree to start the job of being a school counselor. He and I were close friends. He and his wife were some of my youth ministry leaders on Wednesday nights and they taught our Junior High Sunday School class. When they left our church, I felt like I had lost my best friend and brother. About a year into their stay in Arizona, he called me with some disturbing news. In short, he told me that his wife had left him. After we hung up the phone, I talked with my wife and felt compelled to go out and stay with him for a while and I booked my trip. Much of the trip was just spent talking about what happened. I did my best to just be a listening ear and to do what I could to walk with my friend through this tough situation. We prayed together… a lot, laughed a lot and just spent some time together. On one of the last days I was there, he asked me if I’d like to go on a hike. He and some of his friends planned a hike through the Coconino National Forrest outside of Flagstaff. I didn’t know what I was in for. A few days before we walked down into the Grand Canyon, but this was different.
As we started our hike, the weather was pleasant and warm. As we made our way up, we had to stop a few different times to layer up. It wasn’t too long until we made it past the timber line and there was absolutely zero vegetation and the air was more thin than I was used to breathing. The view was amazing. As we made it to the top of the mountain, some 12,000 feet above sea level, we noticed there was a storm moving in. We quickly took some pictures (for proof that we made it!) and began the 10 mile decent. It’s crazy what you notice on the way down that you didn’t see going up. As we neared the foothills, I looked out into a clearing and saw a beautiful stand of Aspen trees. I never noticed them when we started. The stand was very tall and thick. The way they were growing looked as if someone had planted them there in the specific location making sure the trees has some boundaries.
Several years went by and I was talking with a dendrologist (someone who has an in depth knowledge of trees) about specific trees. He mentioned that Aspen trees grow through root sprouts or “suckers”. Basically, their root system sprouts a new tree… or clumps of trees. These trees grow from one another creating a very “tightly woven” root structure. This root structure gives added strength to the relatively soft trunk of the tree. Because of their root system, they are rarely uprooted due to wind or storms. However, if a forrest fire moves through, their root system is able to help them reproduce new growth rather than solely relying on seeds to be formed and dropped from a standing tree so that it can be planted to sprout and grow.
As I began to look into how the Aspen trees grow, I noticed that they don’t have a long lifespan compared to other trees. According to the U.S. Forrest Service, “Aspen are medium-sized deciduous trees, commonly 20 to 80 feet in height, and 3 to 18 inches diameter. Trees more than 80 feet tall and larger than 24 inches diameter are occasionally found… Aspen trees usually do not live more than 150 years, though they may persist more than 200 years.” When you compare that to an oak tree that can live some 300-600 years and have the potential to grow to 9 feet in width, the Aspen really isn’t all that impressive in it’s visible size. But its root system is special.
I can’t help but think about pastors in ministry and relate them to the stand of Aspen I saw when I visited Arizona. The average tenure of a pastor in the United States is anywhere from 5-7 years. Many pastors don’t feel like they are connected with a “root system”. In a 2018 study from Pastoral Care Inc. they noted that 27% of pastors report not having anyone to turn to for help in a crisis situation. 70% of pastors do not have someone they consider to be a close friend. 84% of pastors desire to have close fellowship with someone they can trust and confide with. 66% of churches have no lay counseling support. And, 1 out of every 10 pastors will actually retire as a pastor.
In my lifetime as a pastors son, a youth pastor and now being on staff with my father, I have realized that these numbers are somewhat shockingly true. There have been times even for me where I just wanted someone I could talk to, confide in, be honest with and just share my heart. But the reality is that most of the people I would do that with are the people in which I am ministering to/with in the church I am/was serving. And, when you bear your heart with the people you serve, you run the risk of scaring them, cause them to leave the church or you simply tie the noose that is tailored to your own neck.
I believe that what God is doing in my heart and how He wants to establish Restoration Farm, is simply, to establish a root system for the men and women in ministry. I believe that when we work together to support one another, the whole Church and the Kingdom of God wins. If the root system is healthy and linked, the whole “stand” of Pastors is healthy, cared for and supported. Part of the dream that God has given us is to connect pastors to other pastors, retired pastors, counselors and missionaries who have served or are serving in a similar role. Each pastor involved starts to build a root system that nourishes and strengthens the other so that when a “fire” or “storm” blows through, it is harder for the other to give up, “die” or be overcome by their circumstance. Our dream is to use Restoration Farm as the common ground to bring pastors together for healing, support, conversation, counseling and building relationships that keep pastors following their call. I also believe that Satan wants nothing more than the opposite of what I have listed above. Will it be easy? No. Will it come without struggle? Definitely not. Is it necessary? Undoubtedly! Just look at the statistics.
You may be wondering what happened to my friend and his wife. I am extremely happy to say that God has done an amazing work and a miracle in their lives. They got back together several months after I spent time with him. They realized the best thing for their marriage was to move away from Arizona. He got a new position in Texas and since moving there they have gotten involved in serving at their local church, they have 3 kids and God is blessing their marriage! God is good!
God, as I sit and think about the many times that it would have been easy for me to give up and go a different direction, I am so glad I didn’t. You have had your hand on my life in a real way and I cannot deny your grace and mercy. But today, Lord, there are pastors out there who do not have a support system like I had. They have no one to talk to or confide in and they feel like they are alone. They feel like they are doing the best they can and it doesn’t seem like it’s enough. I pray that they find your strength in their weakness. I pray that as you continue to lay out the vision and dream of Restoration Farm in mine and Tiffany’s hearts, you make a way for it to become a reality. I have no idea how you will do it, but I know you will. I know your people will be better served if their pastors have a way to become more like a stand of Aspen, rooted together in You. Thank you for this dream. Thank you for giving us this vision. May it be used to strengthen and build your Kingdom. Amen