Have you ever pruned a tree? Have you had the privilege of raising a fruit tree from a mere “stick with roots in the ground” to fruit bearing on to maturity with a well-coiffed top? If you have, there is emotion you are registering in your body when you read these next words…you know it is not easy. If you haven’t, please believe those who have. It is especially not easy in these years of drought or too much rain paired with blights or in these years of winters’ ends marked with early warmth and then bitter cold. In the past ten years, this farmer has known one year of good yield from multiple fruit crops. Even without the realities of climate change, raising fruit trees takes work. Planting with intentionality as to the size of the canopy and the space needed between each planting, good fertile soil, the presence of detritus from neighboring forests to foster mycelium systems below the surface, the protection of the base in winter months to prevent girdling by rabbits or other mammals, and regular intentional pruning.
We often associate growth with adjectives like thriving, transformative, generative and sustainable. If we want Christian institutions and Christian communities to be signs of God’s reign, surely, they will be marked by consistent growth, won’t they? In John’s Gospel (15:1-2), Jesus evokes the image of pruning for Christian life, and this practice is crucial for organizations as well. Pruning involves getting rid of those aspects that are broken, are sinful, have died or no longer advance an institution’s mission. Jesus talks about the wheat that in falling to the ground eventually bears much fruit (John 12:24). Too many individual organizations cling desperately to a life that has already run its course, when they might be able to be re-purposed for new life in the broader ecosystem. Churches are included in this statement. Jesus’ image of pruning also suggests that we may need to remove some things that are otherwise healthy for the sake of even greater faithfulness and effectiveness. Healthy rosebushes need to be pruned for the sake of even greater growth, beauty and creativity. So also, with institutions.
As a pastor who works primarily with churches in transition, which I also like to refer to as periods of transformation, I frequently hear from congregations that if they could find the right pastor to lead them, their troubles would disappear. The belief being that effective leadership will result in organizational growth and well-being. This is true only in certain situations. Pastors will only be as effective as the faith community and the systems it preserves allow them to be. Even the most enthusiastic, adept, transformational leaders can be blocked in their efforts to lead by a system and circle of people who refuse to arrive at a common vision and mission, hold onto past practices that are no longer enabling the mission, protect individual members and their perspectives over the whole body, and/or preserve the financial and physical assets of the organization while depleting the energy and goodwill of the membership. The practice of assessing the organization and the participation of the membership in it seems to be a practice that is far more difficult than evaluating staff and finding blame in their actions or inaction.
Yet, regular self-evaluation is critical for communities of faith to thrive. When the whole church seeks to maintain and create new ministries that are in line with the mission and vision of the congregation and that are meeting the wider community on the pavement of the sidewalks and streets, it becomes much easier to lovingly prune away what is no longer serving to spread the word and love of God. Pruning doesn’t just relate to our ministries, however. It relates to structure, policies and procedures, bylaws, and staffing. Regular assessment allows a church to ensure ministry is being empowered at all levels of the congregation’s life. When self-evaluation and pruning are routinely practiced change becomes an exciting and welcomed aspect of a faith community’s life and the people of the church are more ready to embrace the new opportunities God is placing in front of them.