While engaged in a conversation with some of my closest colleagues about the changes and challenges of pastoral ministry, Bill Wilson, Director of the Center for Healthy Churches, made a comment that summarized some thoughts that had been simmering in my mind.  He said, “Ministry in the 21st century is like growing potatoes on Mars.”

I immediately knew that Bill and I had read the same book: Andy Weir’s The Martian, the popular novel, and movie.

Intrigued by the fact that a school teacher from our town had made the cut on an early list of “contestants” vying to travel on the first passenger expedition to the red planet, my wife and I read the book shortly after publication.  I found myself immersed in Weir’s tale, but for a different reason than most readers.  While I suppose that some were thrilled with the science fiction and others were enamored with the whole space adventure theme, I was captivated by an inductive pastoral correlation.

Maybe it’s because I still thumb through my copy of Hauerwas and Willimon’s Resident Aliens.  Or maybe it is because the novel seems to be the antithesis of the Left Behind series.  Or perhaps it was merely because I tend to perceive and interpret life through pastoral eyes. Whatever my subconscious reasoning, I found the plight of American astronaut Mark Watney to be a lot like ministry in a post-modern, post-denominational world. Despite the frequent four-letter words, I found Watney’s predicament to be spiritually suggestive.

Without giving away the entire plot of the book, suffice it to say that Watney finds himself stranded on Mars, a dilemma no one has faced before. To survive, he must learn to grow potatoes on Mars, a feat that becomes a driving metaphor of Weir’s novel.  And he tackles his cosmic dilemma with a methodical and almost sacramental strategy: “I cut each potato into four pieces, making sure each piece had at least two eyes. The eyes are where they sprout from. I let them sit for a few hours to harden a bit, then planted them, well spaced apart, in the corner. Godspeed, little taters. My life depends on you.”

How does potato-growing on Mars relate to ministry? As I read the novel I gleaned these prophetic points for our current “alien” context:

  • Adjusting to a new landscape is not easy but it is necessary.  Address your current atmospheric conditions, not the atmosphere to which  you are accustomed.
  • Find creative ways to deal with your loneliness. Ministry can be isolating.  Be aware that you are not the first one or the only one to feel like you are “the only one.”
  • Maximize your resources.  Learn to ration and cultivate, utilizing all available assets.
  • Consult your intellect, intuition, and imagination to formulate your game plan.
  • Develop a sustainable strategy with built-in contingencies to help navigate the unexpected.
  • Anticipate obstacles and setbacks.  Learn to stay calm under pressure and to do good trouble-shooting.
  • Merge the best of expert advice and personal innovation to make contextual decisions.
  • Do not be afraid to take risks. As Watney argues, “Space is dangerous. It’s what we do here. If you want to play it safe all the time, go join an insurance company.”
  • Timing is crucial in making connections. Seize the moment when the window of opportunity opens.
  • Do your best work when you think that no one else is looking.  Be disciplined to do your job, believing that others are doing their job even when you are not in constant communication with them.
  • Remember there are forces at work that are bigger than you.
  • When you are tempted to give up, don’t!  After one near catastrophe Watney exclaims, “I guess you could call it a ‘failure,’ but I prefer the term ‘learning experience’.”

In case you haven’t noticed, church and ministry are entering a different season also. For some this is a slow realization. Like Watney’s awakening, “Blissful unconsciousness became foggy awareness which transitioned into painful reality.”

The challenges for church and ministry are daunting but not insurmountable. Effective ministry has always been challenging.  Innovation and discipline can produce a bumper crop, even in less than ideal circumstances. Take up your spade and bucket, and your imagination, and start cultivating.  The words of Thornton Wilder in Our Town ring clear: “Look at that moon. Potato weather for sure.”

Barry Howard
Barry Howard serves as pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta, and as a leadership coach with the Center for Healthy Churches.