The Dangers of Disconnecting from Community: An Interview with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

By Becky Garrison 5-13-2010

Jonathan, you were quoted in a recent Christianity Today Web article about Church planters citing that you don't think that this phenomenon of former pastors becoming full-time conference speakers and authors is a good thing. Why?

I just published a book called The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. I didn't write the book with pastors who're leaving for book tours on my mind, but I'm sympathetic with the article's point. There's something wrong when we just assume that success means leaving the places we come from. I'm a product of mobile culture. I live and breathe it. And I know the challenges these guys are facing. Every little church I've ever been part of, including the one I grew up in, knew the good preachers wouldn't stay long. They'd get an offer at a bigger church about the time they started thinking about putting their kids through college. And they'd be gone. I reckon this is what happens with book deals and speaking gigs too. Though it's not just about money. Often it's about "influence." Someone who has something to say reasons that they can be more effective by saying it in more than one place. Mobile culture doesn't really give us many resources for saying what our limits are. Why not try to do 20 cities in fifteen days? In the promise of stability, the monastic tradition has an answer to that question. The reason to put down roots is growth -- both our own and for our communities. I love what Amma Syncletica said: The mother bird can't give the gift of life to her chicks unless she practices stability by sitting on her eggs. Surely there's wisdom for the pastoral life in that.

I have noticed in my research that when an author/speaker starts going out on tour and loses touch with their community, their work starts to lose that authentic and original voice that made their initial work so exciting. How do you suggest that those in the public spotlight avoid falling into this all too common trap?

This is exactly what my editor told me a few years ago when I wrote a chapter of my book God's Economy on a "writing retreat." She said, "Something's missing here. It's missing the energy of the other chapters." I admitted I'd be duped. I thought a quiet spot by a lake would help my writing. But I'm not a nature writer. I write out of the hectic mess and beloved community that is my neighborhood. For me, it's been helpful to have a community to set my limits. I travel away from home four days a month to talk about the things I write. Given all that's going on, that feels like a lot some months. But it also means saying no to a lot. Still, when I say no, I can tell people, "My community says if I'm gone any more, I won't really be a part of the life I write about. So I need to stay."

When I interviewed Shane Claiborne for a podcast I will be launching in July, we talked about how he is cutting back on his speaking schedule so he can focus more on his community. How do you balance your prolific writing and speaking career with remaining connected to your community?

Limits on travel help. But I've also learned a rhythm to work from the monastic tradition that mirrors the best of what I've learned from writers. I get up early in the morning, and I write til my kids wake up. Some days that's an hour -- some days it's three or four. But after writing in those precious early morning hours, I'm off to parenting, then to prayer. Most of my days fill up with stuff at home and at church and in the neighborhood. Sometimes I'm tempted to think I could write more and write better if I had some cushy academic chair that "protected" my time. But the truth is, that's not where my writing comes from. Like Antony who saw in a vision a monk going into his cell to pray and coming out to plait rope again, I find my rhythm between living life in community and sitting down again to write about it.

I see a distinction between, say, N.T. Wright retiring as bishop after decades of service and a thirty or forty-something man who founded a church plant or an artists' collective deciding to leave this group to pursue a solo author/speaker career after their initial book(s) got a fair amount of buzz. Your thoughts?

Like Bishop Wright's recent decision to retire early, I think Eugene Petersen's decision to leave his pastorate was based on a discernment process in which he and others agreed that he had done the work he could do in that place. That's not the same thing as deciding to hit the road because some other place seems more exciting or effective or interesting. These guys aren't going through a midlife crisis. They're more like the mother bird who, after her chicks hatch, has good reason to scurry about, tending the fruit of stability.

portrait-becky-garrisonFollow Becky Garrison's travels on Twitter @JesusDied4This.

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