9. Pruning for Growth

April 3rd, 2012

While teaching in a congregation, I recounted scriptures about fruitfulness: vines, branches, seedtime, harvest, soils, vineyards, trees, fruits. The Bible is replete with stories that highlight how 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 listing agricultural metaphors, someone shouted, “Don’t forget pruning!

She was absolutely correct. Biblical images of branches and fruit are incomplete without pruning. What do we do with ministries that have served their time and are no longer fruitful?

Peter Drucker urges us to practice planned abandonment. Planned abandonment involves intentionally closing down work that no longer contributes to the mission. The purpose of any non-profit organization is the changed life. A strategy of planned abandonment means we allow ministries that no longer shape lives in significant ways to fade from view and cease to continue, even though these ministries served the mission of the church fruitfully at an earlier time and deserve our respect and appreciation.

One of the most difficult tasks of leadership is deciding what not to do. As we start new initiatives, are there also ministries 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 in the current context?

A layperson told me that in his business they teach four keys for strategic planning: more, better, different, less. Their goal is to do more of what works well, to do better at what serves acceptably but that can be improved, to do different by welcoming new ideas, and to do less of what is not working. If it’s not bearing fruit, stop doing it.

Before you accuse me of sounding harsh, listen to these words of Jesus: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit” (John 15:1-2 NRSV). As leaders of congregations, we make decisions every day that express implicit value and direction. Practicing planned abandonment involves learning to say No to the things that demand our time but that are not critical to our purpose so that we can say Yes to the things that are essential.

Congregationally, practicing planned abandonment means ending ministries that no longer bear fruit, are no longer sustainable, or that do not serve the present context. This is difficult to do. Congregations find it easier to start new ministries than to end unfruitful ones.

Denominationally, reducing the size and complexity of our operations is even more difficult. Most of those making decisions have been the beneficiaries of the way things are. Sometimes we feel disloyal to mentors and those who modeled ministry for us when we stop doing things that they poured themselves into. Or suggesting change feels like criticism or judgment against those who have done ministry in the form we propose to change. And sometimes we feel guilty about ending something that many people still value.

But every system, approach, and strategy that no longer serves the present context actually replaced a previous system, approach, and strategy. Endings are as essential as beginnings. Endings are just harder than beginnings.

The Call to Action proposes to streamline, unify, and align general agencies. Some view this as a threat to connectionalism, and yet connectionalism existed as a distinctive quality of Methodism nearly 200 years before any general board ever existed. Connectionalism in early American Methodism involved a nationwide network of class leaders, circuit stewards, book stewards, exhorters, local preachers, circuit riders, and presiding elders. All of these sustained a way of life, formed the conditions for life-changing maturation in Christ. Our organizational systems were a means of cooperating with the Holy Spirit in our growth in grace and service to the world in Christ’s name. Nearly all those innovations, which served their times so effectively, have long since ceased to be. They were replaced by other ministries that served for a different era, until they also ceased to be. Does anyone really think our current systems ought to function the same way fifty years from now as they do today? Even such immutable structures as the Council of Bishops and the Judicial Council came into being as recently as the 1930s . Like all organizational innovations, they had a time when they began, and they may have a time when they no longer serve the mission. (Please, don’t tell anyone I actually said that!)

For two weeks at General Conference, our church will be like a ship in the dock. We have the opportunity to carefully unload some cargo. We have time to balance the load and plan for what we need for the next part of our voyage together. We can decide strategically what to take with us and what to leave behind. If we do not take this opportunity, then when we set sail and face stormy seas, we may find ourselves tossing crates over willy nilly, with no priority or sense of balance. If we don’t unload some things now, we will likely unload them later in less favorable conditions. Practice planned abandonment.


When has your congregation, or your conference, successfully pruned ministries in order to focus more clearly on priorities? What made it work? What made it difficult?

Why is it so hard for a church or conference to decide to stop doing something, or to stop doing something the way it has always been done?

Explore John 15:1-11.

For more about endings and beginnings, read Managing Transitions by William Bridges. For a positive word on the hard topic of closing churches, check out Legacy Churches by Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond.

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