Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Pain of Pruning

This time of year is beautiful in my part of the world. Pollen clouds aside, spring is a lovely time in Decatur. Unlike the southern part of our state, the Tennessee Valley genuinely experiences a season with cool nights and warm days, steady rains, and blossoms that linger. One of my favorite spring chores is limbing up the crepe myrtle that guards the front of our house.

It's nothing drastic and only takes a few minutes. I select those lower branches that have become heavy enough to droop into the walkway and cut them back (always to the "V," as D. D. Martin taught me). Also, those branches that have begun to cross their neighbors and will eventually become an impediment to the growth of the tree are discarded. All told, a dozen or so cuts are made, but the end result is pleasant. We still have an unfolded green canopy that stretches to the sky, but it seems a little cleaner and healthier.

Contrast that with the crepe myrtles that I pass by on my way to work every day. Clearly cut by a chainsaw, they begin the season of spring as nothing but bare stumps standing guard along the side of an industrial building. This horticultural disaster is called "crepe murder," and it is widespread. I've seen how beautiful crepe myrtles can be. I've driven down a half-mile-long driveway arched across by grand trees older than my parents. To stumps like these makes one weep (picture from

Pruning isn't just to make way for new growth. It's supposed to help the plant bear more fruit.

In Sunday's gospel lesson (John 15:1-8), we hear Jesus say, "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." Sometimes pruning is about starting over--clearing a spot for tender new shoots to grow--like a hacked-almost-to-death crepe myrtle. More often, though, it's about helping consolidate a plant's resources so that it can produce more fruit.

I'm not preaching on Sunday, but I'm letting Jesus' words preach to me. There's a lesson here about church growth. In order for churches to bear fruit for God's kingdom, they must be pruned. Certain ministries must be cut away. New opportunities should be encouraged. Less fruitful endeavors should be curtailed. Resources like staff attention and budgeted funds need to be reallocated. That sort of pruning can be painful, but that pain can be eased through targeted pruning.

Church leaders aren't usually called to bring out a chainsaw and hack the church back to stumps. Sure, new growth will spring from that and, given enough time, it's possible for the whole tree to come back--new and fruitful. But old crepe myrtles bear the scars of such radical pruning, and churches do, too. Pruning is artful. Pruning is selective. Pruning is always about enabling fruitfulness.

If the only joy in pruning is found in slicing off a branch, the result isn't going to be good. The pruning is supposed to be painful, but it's a pain that is accepted (and even valued) because the gardeners have their sight set on new fruitfulness. Jesus' words aren't condemnatory. They are life-giving. They might sting a little bit, but they lead to a new kind of fruitfulness. How might we help congregations see the fruitfulness of pruning back of less-fruitful ministries--not as a death but as a means to new life?

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