Paul Clever

Published January 2012

Farmer and founder of new monastic order
Farm, Food and Faith: Living Out the Gospel

Paul Clever admits that what he's doing is a little crazy, starting a new monastic order and living off the land in Athens, Ohio. He also admits that he has found no better way to practice his faith than by combining the life of prayer, mission, beauty and commitment.

“I am one of those difficult people that cannot make sense of the world unless they are tangibly connected to the things that sustain us, both sacred and mundane.”

Clever often cites a Wendell Berry quote that says what we do and what we consume “are questions of the highest and gravest religious significance. In answering them we practice, or do not practice our religion.”

Clever and his wife, Sarah, integrate their faith into the everyday acts of living, and they are providing space for others to join them. The Clevers are founders of the Common Friars at the Good Earth Farm, located in the hills of southern Ohio. It is there, with a garden and their chickens, pigs, cows, sheep and a goat, that they are attempting to create a small-scale, sustainable, community farm that takes care of the land, those who work it, and those who are in need.

Clever said the primary goal for the farm, started in 2008, is to provide healthy food to the needy and to provide a place of education and retreat for visitors. It is a way for them to "reconnect ourselves and others to the very fibers that sustain us—soil, plants, animals, and each other. And, in so doing we believe that a sense of joy is restored to our work, to our lives and to our meals."

Clever, a 2009 Fellow in the Episcopal Church Foundation's (ECF) Fellowship Partners Program, said the financial support provided through that program has been "crucial" to his ministry and the development of the new monastic order.

"It has had a tremendous impact," Clever said. "I didn't anticipate that I would get that fellowship, and when I heard I got it, it was such overwhelming news.

"At that time we'd come on months when we couldn't pay utility bills." Clever said. "Somehow we always made it through, but the fellowship gave us breathing room to develop this ministry. When we were just starting out, we needed a lot of flexibility to try different things to see what would stick. The trust of the fellowship program, where you could try different things, that was crucial for us, going from month six to going on three years."

The purposes of the Common Friars and the Good Earth Farm dovetail. Clever points out that affordable, organic, local produce is an environmental issue as well as a food justice issue because food doesn't have to travel across the country on trucks powered by polluting diesel fuel, and farmers, wildlife and consumers are not harmed by toxic residue left by chemical fertilizers on fruits and vegetables.

This year the farm donated 10,000 pounds of food to local food pantries and soup kitchens. Additionally, the farm feeds lunch and dinner to about 50 people a week, including volunteers and the four people who now live there as part of the Common Friars, an emerging order that Clever describes as being "united in our understanding of gospel poverty, joy, and hospitality. Like the Taize community we want to be a parable of community, a sign of the Kingdom of God."

Clever said one of the Common Friars is a postulant, and he, his wife and a third Friar are novices.

"People come in as postulants and live here a while and discern where God is calling them," Clever said. "We've had as many as 10 living here. Most people were here at least a year; some as long as two years."

Additionally, this year they had some 500 volunteers and about eight visiting groups that camped out on the grounds and participated in the Order's life of prayer, work and study.

The Common Friars, Clever wrote in the Fall 2011 issue of the Anglican Theological Review, "are developing a unique course of formation where the friars grow in the material arts of connection; farming, cooking and building; as well as the disciplines of prayer, theological study, and spiritual companionship. It is our hope that this formation prepares us to meet the overwhelming need for connection, the need to make sense of how we live in this world, how we make use of our hands, how we find God amid so much darkness, and how we transform ourselves and our communities to something closer to the kingdom of God."

Clever wrote: "Prophetic ministry means that we go out and be the church in the world. It also means that we invite people into our lives. In both cases we share our charisms of poverty, joy, and hospitality and the gifts of our continual formation: work, worship, study, and rest. "

Clever's ministry is a perfect example of what the Transformational Ministry Track of ECF's Fellowship Partnership Program is trying to do, to partner with people "engaged in ministries at the community or congregational level that will change individuals, groups or communities in positive ways, impacting their ability to see and use God's gifts, bringing them into a closer relationship with God."

"That track fits the work that we are doing here and the questions we are trying to ask," Clever said. "They really targeted those doing field work, and we're a fairly literal example. On a day-to-day basis, you're just farming a little bit of dirt and trying to live as a Christian. It didn't feel possible that we would get that big a spotlight. And that affirmation was a big boost to give confidence to what we do, to receive that kind of affirmation from church leaders across the country."

In addition to farming and working with volunteers, Clever has spent much time traveling and developing the friar’s rule of life. He has spoken extensively on food and faith, discipleship and commitment, the Eucharist and right livelihood. He also has written a series of articles for ECF Vital Practices called Faith on the Farm. More extensive information about the Common Friars can be found at Common Friars.

Clever notes that not everyone is called to live in a religious community.

"There are a lot of other ways to be Christian in this world," he said. "One thing that seems to be the case in some religious communities is that they coming from a more evangelical background. They want to live in the ancient traditions of the church but to keep the institution of the church at arm's length. I was interested in being a unique unit of the church, to be part of the institutional church but also to be different from it."

Clever said local parishes and his diocese, including the bishop, have been very supportive of his ministry, which continues to grow and evolve.

"I think we're in our adolescence, not our infancy," he said. "We have a seed of something that is starting to bear fruit. It's a challenging state."