143. Pruning

Recently while teaching in a congregation, I recounted many of the scriptures about fruitfulness. Vines, branches, seedtime, harvest, soils, vineyards, trees, fruits—the Bible is replete with stories that lift high the notion that God expects us to use what we have received to make a positive difference in the world around us. Fruitfulness points us toward the result, the impact, and the outcome of our work for God’s purposes and saves us from merely congratulating ourselves on our efforts, our hard work, or our inputs. Fruitfulness reminds us to ask ourselves, “Do our ministries really change lives and transform the world?”

While I was quickly listing agricultural metaphors, someone from the audience shouted out, “Don’t forget pruning!

She was absolutely correct. The biblical stories of plants and seeds and growth and vines and branches are incomplete without the idea of pruning. How do we deal with ministries that have served their time and are no longer fruitful?

Peter Drucker, the organizational guru who focused much of his professional energy on churches and non-profits in the later years of his career, offers this as one of his top lessons for church leaders: Practice planned abandonment. Planned abandonment involves intentionally closing down work that no longer contributes to the mission.

According to Drucker, the purpose of any non-profit organization is the changed life. If we are doing work and offering ministries that are no longer shaping lives in significant ways, perhaps we should stop doing them. As we create new initiatives and nourish more productive ministries, a strategy of planned abandonment means we also allow some work to fade from view and cease to continue.

As we initiate new ministries, consider revamping worship services, create more effective mission projects, and plan how to better reach people, are there also services, activities, and outreach ministries that we need to reduce or close down? How do we redirect staff time, volunteer energy, and financial resources toward the ministries that most help us fulfill our mission? These are tough questions. It’s hard to stop doing something that we’ve been doing for a long time, even when everyone questions its current usefulness.

One of the church members later told me he had never thought about planned abandonment in the church. In his business, however, they taught four key words for strategic planning: more, better, different, less. These words served as tools to guide their continual evaluation and priority planning. Their goal was to do more of what works very well; to do better at what serves acceptably well but can which could be improved; to do different by welcoming new ideas and initiatives; and to do less of what was not working. These are different words to express the same idea: If it’s not bearing fruit, stop doing it.

Before you accuse me of sounding too harsh, listen to what Jesus says on the subject: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9) Ouch!

Paul shares a similar notion in a gentler fashion when he talks about aspects of the spiritual life. He suggests that as we accept the new creation offered us in Christ, we starve the old nature and feed the new. As leaders of congregations, we implicitly make decisions every day that express value and direction. Our tasks are many, including worship preparation, pastoral care, staff management, administration, small group teaching, mission and outreach, personal prayer, visitor follow-up, ecumenical involvements, and many more.

Are there adjustments we should make that help us focus more effectively on our mission? What’s the one practice that, if we performed it with utmost consistency, effectiveness, and intentionality, would have the greatest positive effect on the ministry of our congregation? How can we give it more time and emphasis? And what is an aspect of our ministry we give time to regularly that brings little positive effect and has no visible impact? Can we collaborate with others to plan a path forward that grants release from it? How do we apply our resources to greatest effect? This is a question of stewardship.

One pastor of a larger congregation decided to have one lunch each week with a prospective member. The personal contact with more than 40 people each year allowed him to know the visitors and to invite them to further involvement. This simple practice, repeated with consistency and effectiveness, changed his ministry. Another pastor worked with her secretary to develop a weekly list of five people for the pastor to phone each Monday before she finished her day’s work. These were members and visitors, and the calls had no purpose other than to check in, offer prayer, and listen. This consistent practice earned her a level of trust that allowed her to propose bold initiatives without unnecessary resistance.

What single practice, repeated consistently, would strengthen your ministry? And what can you prune to make that practice possible?

Grace and peace,