"Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit." John 15:2
My dad was a Presbyterian minister. When he retired on disability my parents moved into the Woods Home, a lovely home gifted by a wealthy banker for retired Presbyterian ministers. The home was divided into three apartments. Rev. and Mrs. Byers lived in one of the other apartments. In their 90's, they had lived there for over 30 years. One day, in spite of his weak heart, my dad started pruning an overgrown cherry tree on the property. Rev. Byers, who had planted the tree when he first arrived, saw him, and came storming out of his apartment, shuffling his feet inches at a time, with his canes, two of them, one in each hand raised over his head in protest, shouting, "You can't do that, you'll kill it!" I think what he meant was, that's my baby, don't touch it! Only it had been a long time since Rev. Byers had been able to tend to such chores and the tree was sorely in need of attention. My dad, gifted with people skills, climbed down the ladder, calmed him down, and explained that the tree needed pruned, and that it would bear more fruit in the next harvest. It did to Rev. Byers' delight! And he thank my dad for it. This family story is a metaphor for what the church at every level is experiencing. Like the cherry tree which a wise older colleague had planted, the church needs pruning.
I wonder what the writer of the Fourth Gospel had in mind when sharing Jesus teaching, "Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit." I wonder what the Johannine Community was facing at the close of the first century which brought this teaching to mind? Earlier Luke and the Apostle Paul chronicled the early church's outreach to the Gentile community, and the push back they faced. Peter and Paul had "to come down the ladder" and explain why they preached to and baptized those with whom the Torah forbade them to associate. This text points to the discerning nature of the church and the constant growing edge the gospel demands.
The corporate world calls pruning strategic planning. The Presbytery Leadership Team, with whom I serve, calls it strategic visioning discernment. It's not so much what we want, but discerning what God wants. Asking the questions, who are we now? What is our mission, calling, purpose? What is God doing in the neighborhood(s)? What does the fulfillment of that look like? How can we join God in it? What tangible steps can we take to join God in bringing that vision into reality?
The Presbytery Leadership Team and the General Assembly 2020 Vision Commission both reported to the Presbytery of Lake Michigan at its September 9th meeting. Visiting General Assembly Co-Moderator Rev. Denise Anderson, and Becca Snedeker Myers, a College of Wooster student and member of the General Assembly's 2020 Vision Commission invites our input to visioning the future shape of the PC(USA). Presbyterians believe we best discern the mind of Christ together. Please look for an accompanying article in our E-Bulletin on how you can provide your responses to questions, and insights for their discernment. Likewise, Elder Tedd Oyler, representing the Presbytery Leadership Team, reported identified core values, a revised mission statement and a new vision statement based on those core values. He invited a Presbytery-wide dialogue on how to live into the vision via multiple area gatherings, and online or mailed in surveys. We invite and encourage your input.
We pray and trust by the power of the Holy Spirit at work among us to form clear goals, SMART objectives (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-oriented), and strategies to fulfill them. Please look for an accompanying e-bulletin article "Presbytery Strategic Visioning" for these statements, questions for reflection, for the dates and places of the area gatherings, and for online links and address for your input.
I suspect there are at least four reactions to this: Cynicism "Here we go again." Impatience "Finally!" Panic "OMG, change is coming!" Anger "Not on my watch!" Like Rev. Byers, we may find ourselves looking out our window and rushing to protect our baby, our dream, our life-long work, protesting, "You're going to kill it." We are committed that this ministry plan will not sit on the shelf, but will guide our planning, focus our resources, and inspire our life together.
There is an urgency to this task! From my perspective, I see the church at every level both recognizing the call for adaptive change, AND a nostalgic clinging with metaphorical shaking canes to familiar processes and procedures. I see over-stressed church leaders straining to fulfill old expectations like the plate spinners on the old TV variety shows. I see the bodies of committee members cringe, who are asked to think about adding one more thing. I see pastors get crucified for daring to let go of formerly expected duties, and empowering others. I hear a chorus of cries for new members to come save the church, as if we don't already have a savior. I see young leaders, who also are supposed to save the church, scorched by the heat of reactivity to change. I see gifted new members ignored and rebuffed by the old guard with the litany, "We don't do it that way." I also see new folks projecting their previous church experiences onto their new church and new pastor. I see the media slander the church by lumping its diversity into an unloving, exclusive, judgmental version of the church, foreign to most of us. I see the ranks of the "nones" and the "dones" grow, believing that is what the church is. I see us shrink from the responsibility of making our own witness for fear of offending someone! I see Nominating Committees struggling to fill institutional slots. I see an increasing number of congregations who can no longer afford a full time pastor--16 in our Presbytery at last count. The Presbyterian Outlook reports that half of our denomination's active pastors will be of retirement age in just a few years. All of which urgently calls for adaptive change.
On the brighter side, I see dynamic leaders and vital congregations making a difference in their communities. I see people, young and old, longing to make a difference increasing literacy, decreasing gun violence and human trafficking, serving the poor, welcoming refugees, standing with undocumented persons, recognizing their white privilege, confessing their complicity with policies which benefit them and oppress others, and ADDRESSING CLIMATE CHANGE! I see church leaders taking a stand, offending members who pay their salaries, joining in protests, getting arrested for the sake of the gospel! I see us joining others across denominational and religious lines to form coalitions for common causes. And I see the General Assembly entities, Synod and Presbyteries refocusing on God's mission at the local level.
Pruning is not easy! Being pruned implies some outside agent looping off precious limbs. Yet there is a participatory spiritual practice of letting go! Self examination, confession, repentance, and letting go are major elements of the spiritual journey. We must come to terms with the past, with our egos, pride in what we once built, with our grief of what we once knew the church to be, and let go of measuring success by the past. Otherwise, our self righteousness becomes a toxic, deadly anchor to God's mission. Success must instead be measured by fidelity to God's mission. The purpose of pruning is health, fruitfulness and faithfulness. Faithfulness is measured by discerning, visioning and joining in God's activity in the world.
Leaders are charged to lead. Leadership can be dictatorial, functioning in closed systems, or through more open processes and systems. Sometimes, like my dad, we move ahead and start pruning. We can also come down the ladder and explain and envision the future together. The General Assembly's 2020 Vision Commission and our Presbytery's Leadership Team are coming down that ladder, opening up the system and inviting your participation. Please join the dialogue!
For more on open and closed systems read David Jones' article "Open" & "closed" systems in the Presbyterian Outlook, July 10, 2017 here: http://pres-outlook.org/?s=Open+%26+Closed+Systems
David once served a neighboring church to mine on Long Island.
Yours in Christ,
Postscript: My dad, a consummate gardener, died 15 months later while planting tomatoes in the garden. I was 19 years old.