September 23, 2014

It was a beautiful day, and I was tired of the lawn mower getting caught. So I decided it was time to take on the dreaded task of pruning. I don’t mind the cutting if there’s someone behind me picking up and bagging all the branches. But there was no one but me, and this task was past due. 

I had planted three summer wine bushes at the corners of my house five years ago. The bush in the front of the house got an annual pruning because it would start blocking the garage door. The two in the back I pretty much let go unchecked until this year when mowing around them became a challenge. So here was my surprise: At first glance, the backyard bushes were big and thriving. But when I started pruning, one in particular had many, many dead branches on the inside. I had to cut and cut in order to get the dead branches out and shape the healthy parts back into place. And when I went to work on the front bush, the one that gets the annual pruning, it was the thickest, healthiest bush of the three. The first year I pruned it, I remember thinking had I gone too far and this bush might not come back. But I quickly learned the bush could tolerate quite a bit of pruning, and what this most recent experience reinforced was that not only did the pruning not harm the bush but it, in fact, was good for the bush.

As I was pruning my bushes, I got to thinking about pruning within our churches. The longer any organization exists, the more it collects activities and programs and good ideas that develop a life of their own and somehow become sacred cows that cannot be let go of. And while they were all started with good intention and purpose, over time, they can become a drain on the organization’s resources and energy and may no longer support its mission. Highly effective churches are constantly evaluating their ministries and engaging in judicious pruning.

Henry Cloud wrote a wonderful book called Necessary Endings in which he describes three types of pruning:

• If an initiative is siphoning off resources that could go to something with more promise, it is pruned.

• If an endeavor is sick and not going to get well, it is pruned.

• If it’s clear that something is already dead, it is pruned.

These types of pruning are easy to name in concept but much harder to put into practice. I can’t count the number of times I have personally experienced or heard recounted me to the angst related to the annual dinner, bazaar, rummage sale, or other event and the plea made over and over for workers and leaders. Every year, it is struggle to find people to pull the event off, and never is there is a conversation about just letting the event go. “Because we have always done it” is not a good enough reason for continuing it. We need to be asking deeper questions: Is this ministry helping us accomplish the primary mission of our church? Do we have passion and energy for this ministry? Is this the best use of people’s time, money, and energy, given all that we could or should be doing? 

Cloud says that there is a natural human reluctance to prune. I can testify to that. We don’t want to do harm, so we are cautious in pruning. We get attached to things the way they are. We know there will be clean-up required. We are not always sure of what is healthy and what is dead.

Cloud says our ability to engage in pruning is enhanced when we:

Accept lifecycles and seasons. I remember a church that had done a children’s musical every year for its Christmas program. It was a great way to teach the Christmas story and allow the children to grow in their gifts and abilities, and the congregation loved it. But there came a time when there weren’t enough children to pull off the musical, and it was time to let it go. The church pruned and created a new multi-generational, interactive Christmas program that was very different from what had been but filled with new energy and passion.

Accept that life produces too much life. Put a group of people in a room, and you will generate more good ideas than they can implement. The longer an organization exists, the more ministries it starts—but if it never ends those that have become ineffective, it winds up having too few resources and too little energy to go around. We can’t do everything, and as Voltaire and, more recently, author Jim Collins said, “good is the enemy of great.” One of the helpful practices I developed over the years was asking myself: What are the core ministries that are essential to accomplishing our mission? How do I make sure I infuse the best resources into those areas, even if it means not funding something that may be healthy but isn’t essential? 

Accept that incurable sickness and evil exist. This is tough for Christians because we believe nothing and no one is beyond God’s redeeming power. And yet, for people to be changed, they need to be open to change. Sometimes a ministry needs to end because we do not have healthy leaders leading it. Sometimes the ministry has taken trajectories that lead it away from health and wholeness. If either of these situations occurs, we need to see it, name it, and start pruning so the sickness does not spread.

Pruning is for a purpose. To prune, we need to know what we are trying to get to. We need to know how to evaluate what is worth keeping or letting go. We need to have a clear understanding of who and what God is calling us, as a church, to be and do. Then, our ability to say “no” to those things that pull us away from that mission and vision becomes much easier, because we do it so we can say “yes” to those things that will give life.

Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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