How Does Your Church Approach Biblical Pruning?
It’s nobody’s favorite activity — but unstuck churches tackle pruning with courage. Unfocused churches have competing events, programs and ministries that pull them in all different directions. They ignore this biblical principle in practice, while at the same time, they often try to reframe unhealthy decline as pruning. (It’s not the same thing.)
In this episode, Amy and I discuss three areas that both healthy and unhealthy churches need to prune:
In this episode, we’re talking about:
The difference between pruning and church decline.
3 areas of ministry you need to prune regularly for the health of the church.
How often pruning needs to take place.
Join the Conversation:
So, we know this topic isn’t something people enjoy. But we just see it so clearly in the churches we serve: The healthy ones prune, and the stuck ones don’t. How does your church approach biblical pruning? Comment on this post or share on social media using the hashtag #unstuckchurch.
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Amy Anderson: Hey everyone. Thanks for joining in on this week’s unstuck church podcast. I’m Amy Anderson and I’m here with Tony Morgan. Each week we share a conversation our teams been having about getting churches unstuck, and today we’re talking about pruning and Tony, this is a conversation we’ve had a lot lately. In fact, you’ve been writing about biblical practices that healthy businesses embrace and stuck churches avoid. And number one on your list was pruning. Why is it so important that Churches Prune?
Tony Morgan: Yeah. Well, uh, number one, I hate to get all Bible on you, um, but, uh, scripture has a lot to say on this topic and um, uh, the, uh, verse in Isaiah, this is Isaiah [inaudible]. This is particularly challenging, I think for us both in our ministry but also in our personal lives, I think to think about the priority of periodically pruning that verse says this, I will make it a wild place where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not a place overgrown with briars and thorns. And that does not sound like a healthy place for us to be interpersonal lives and for churches to be in as well. And, uh, like I said, the irony of this is that businesses, healthy businesses have recognized for a long time that pruning, they don’t call it pruning. They may call it getting focused or a just eliminating or something along those lines.
Tony Morgan: But it’s actually a biblical practice pruning a that they’ve adopted and that many churches avoid. And when that happens, we don’t actually see over an overgrown garden with briars and thorns. What we see is a church that loses focus, it’s overgrown with ministry programs and competing events on the calendar. It’s vision creep that happens in churches where the ministry’s being pulled in many different directions and frankly to it’s a place where many times underperforming staff leaders are left in positions of ministry that it’s harmful for the church. And I would actually challenge maybe not most helpful for those individuals as well. Uh, and as you can imagine in all of these areas, particularly when they are added to each other and it’s a compounding effect, the church has health overall is impacted by that when pruning doesn’t take place.
Amy Anderson: Sure. You know, some churches find themselves in declined there. They’re losing attendance and you know, will heal, will hear them explain it away as that God’s pruning their church. But what’s the difference between unhealthy decline and healthy pruning?
Tony Morgan: Yeah. So yeah, it’s uh, it’s, I find it interesting sometimes to go into churches and they’ve been declining and sometimes for a long time and they’ll try to explain it away as well. That’s just God pruning at our church. But again, reading from scripture, it doesn’t sound like pruning to me. And a good example is this is John Fifteen to a. It says he cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit. He prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. And so I think what this, what this verse points to a, it helps us understand what healthy pruning looks like. And so for one example, the very beginning of that verse says he cuts off every branch. In other words, there’s an intentional action that’s taking place. And so that’s one difference between healthy pruning and just general decline that might be happening in our churches is healthy pruning is actually intentional work or doing something intentionally that is reducing something in order for our church to be healthy again, in the long run.
Tony Morgan: A second thing, when we look at this verse, we seem there’s a pruning that happens not only around the unhealthy branches that aren’t producing fruit, but actually this verse suggests that periodically we need to cut back even healthy branches so that the plant produces more fruit. And again, in churches, many times we struggle pruning anything or anything, um, but it would be to cut something that, where people were actually meeting Jesus and taking steps of faith because one, you know, you’ve heard the excuse, if one person comes to Christ through this, then isn’t it a value for our ministry to continue to offer it? And um, my answer to that is maybe not a because anything and everything that we do as a church, it takes people’s time. It takes financial resources, it takes prayer focus, it takes a communications focus, takes leadership. It takes volunteer engagement.
Tony Morgan: And so everything we do as a church is polling resources, limited resources, and it may be that some things that are producing fruit, we need to cut back in order for us to see the overall impact and health of the church continued to grow. So that’s a second characteristic of healthy pruning is we’re both pruning unhealthy branches and we’re periodically actually pruning healthy branches to. And then finally we look at this verse and we see a third characteristic of healthy pruning it. And it’s this at the very end of the verse it says, so, uh, they will produce even more, in other words, pruning should produce more fruit. And what that means is if your ministry or Church has been ex experiencing decline and that decline goes from months to years and you don’t eventually see new fruit, it wasn’t pruning, it was just decline.
Tony Morgan: And so these are three characteristics that might help us discern is, are we going through a season of pruning as a church? And many healthy churches do a. by the way, that’s, that’s, that’s very common. Are we going through a season of pruning or is this just a period of decline? And of course, if it’s declined, my hope and prayer is that enough leaders would sense the urgency of that. That we can’t just continue to operate, to engage ministry like we are today. Uh, we’re going to have to make some intentional changes which will include some pruning in order for us to be healthy again.
Amy Anderson: So, Tony, what would your thought be when they say like what should churches prune if they are feeling that they need to do some level of assessment and do some pruning, what should they prune or where should they look?
Tony Morgan: Yeah, so let me give you a few few areas that may need attention in. The first is just generally the vision for where the church is going. And um, by the way, I’m a big proponent of big, clear vision, a big bold vision. And that’s a good thing because you’ve heard me talk about this in the past. Amy, a big clear vision is going to rally people that’s going to rally their prayer is going to rally their time, it’s going to rally their, their financial resources. It’s part of what helps keep, keep everyone pulling in the same direction. It’s part of a healthy church, but sometimes we learn as we live out the vision, that aspects of the vision. I’m really pull from the things we’re, we’re seeing guide. Have the biggest impact in people’s lives and in our, in our congregation. And so periodically I think it’s actually helpful for us to prune the overall vision.
Tony Morgan: Uh, so, uh, it sounds a little bit counter intuitive because you may have heard teaching in the past where when it comes to mission and vision, you kind of establish that once for the long haul, that may be the case with your mission, why you exist as a church. But I actually think vision has to be refreshed every, every few years. Uh, and so part of the pruning that you may need to do has to do with where are we going as a church? Where do we believe God’s calling us to in the future, in another area of pruning, maybe more obvious. It has to do with all of the ministry programming and events that our church churches are offering. And again, the goal here is ultimately for our church to produce more fruit, to see more people coming to a relationship with Jesus and for more people to be taking steps toward Jesus and getting on mission.
Tony Morgan: Um, and in order for that to happen, the Bible tells us periodically we have to prune, we have to, we have to reduce the programs, the ministries that we’re trying to engage and some of that pruning will be more obvious where we see we’re investing resources and getting absolutely no return. There aren’t people coming to Christ and people aren’t taking steps toward Christ Ah, and those, that, those areas of pruning are gonna are gonna be rather while they’re going to be easier to make a, the more challenging decisions and where I really want to encourage churches to look as those areas of ministry that are producing some fruit, but relative to the other things were engaged in as a church. It’s not the best investment of our time and treasure. And so I’m looking at if we cut back some, some of these good ministries where there’s some life change happening.
Tony Morgan: If we cut back here and we’re able to kind of reallocate that focus a, that prayer effort, our time, our leadership, our volunteer engagement into things that God’s really blessing and where we’re seeing a lot of life change. What might that mean to the overall health of the church? So that’s another area where we may need to prune. And then the third, this is probably the most challenging, but it’s the area of the people that are involved in our ministry and that, yeah, I know. And uh, it’s challenging because particularly in churches that are experiencing growth, um, the people that are with us and actually great contributors to ministry in the early years of the church as churches grow, sometimes people’s leadership capacity in ministry capacity doesn’t grow with it. And it’s not that they’re bad people and that they don’t love Jesus and don’t love the church is just that for the paid role that we need to help the church move for where it is to where God’s calling us in the future.
Tony Morgan: Periodically as people respond or don’t respond to coaching and development, periodically we have to do some pruning around people. And it’s challenging a, here’s where I would encourage you though, um, you should coach you sh, you should communicate. This is what the win looks like in the role. And you should coach to that when you should give everyone the opportunity to grow to that new level of leadership and ministry capacity that’s required, um, but we just have to acknowledge everyone is not going to develop in that way and periodically we have to make some tough calls and we have to prune in order for the body of Christ of Christ as a whole to be healthier. Another aspect of this, amy, and, and you’ve seen this as well, and churches we’ve worked with is through the years sometimes churches continue to add staff. And over time the culture of the church shifts from lay people, volunteers engaging the ministry to this expectation that we have staff to do the Ministry of the church. And sometimes pruning is necessary around people in order to get back to that place where it’s not the staff’s responsibility to do ministry. We actually need to shift that responsibility to the volunteer is a lay people in our church, which I think, uh, my interpret to be really the biblical model for how God designed the church anyways. So those are three areas that require pruning, pruning our vision, pruning ministry programs or events, and then periodically pruning people as well.
Tony Morgan: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think it’s going to be different for different churches in different ministries within the church, but I would just challenge at least once a year we’re having this conversation to step back and again in one of our previous conversations and we talked about the big three questions, why do we exist? Where are we going in the future, how are we going to get there once a year? It’s good to step back and look at those questions and when you get to the third question, how are we going to get there? I think it necessitates talking about this pruning, this biblical practice of pruning.
Amy Anderson: Yeah, I’ve heard you say it before. Really when you get to programs and events, they are all just strategies to help get to your vision for the future, so to evaluate those and decide if they are the best strategy or if they need to be pruned if they need to be replaced. Makes a lot of sense.
Amy Anderson: Hey Tony, I’m any other final thoughts on this,
Tony Morgan: this topic of pruning? Yeah, amy, this is going to be a challenge I know for church leaders, but I want to talk to those that are leading churches. It’s a that are either in a kind of a maintenance mode on the, on the right side of the lifecycle that we’ve talked about in the past or in that preservation season, and it’s this. If you find that your church has plateaued or declining, in other words, it’s stock. Here’s the challenge. I’ve never seen a church move from that, that phase of decline or plateau and get to health without going through pruning. I’ve never seen it happen. So, uh, yes, you need to look at why does your church exists? Where is it going in the future? But you’re going to have to look at pruning in order for your church to find health again. Well said.
Amy Anderson: Well Tony, on that, nobody want to thank you for all your insights today. And I also want to say thanks to all of our listeners for joining us for this week’s conversation about getting churches unstuck. So we hope you’ll tune in again, be sure to subscribe on itunes, Google play, or wherever you get your podcast so you don’t miss an episode and we’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. So join the conversation on social media using the Hashtag on stuck church. And finally you can learn more about how the unstuck group helped churches get unstuck at the end.