Plants and Pruning

Posted on June 20, 2010

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A few weeks before my vacation starts I look for a church to visit. The journey to this year’s choice went like this:

I am a prayer-partner with the International Justice Mission. When praying for IJM HQ they asked for prayers as a senior leader was to speak at a church in my area of New Jersey. That got my attention.

I met for lunch with a church planter friend. We discussed his plans and I listened to his analysis of the area. He mentioned to me the fastest growing area in his NJ county.

I met for lunch a month later with another friend who is a fellow-Episcopalian who gave me a tour of his town. As we walked he mentioned the fastest growing area in his NJ county.

Both friends pointed to the same area.

I googled the church’s website.

The name is not unique but clever, highlighting the place God has called them and their proximity to a major crossing of the Delaware right on their doorstep.

Did Google Maps. The church plant is in the same area where my two friends pointed – the fastest growing area in New Jersey.

It is a not-quite five year old plant. That’s significant. They’re about to pass the sustainability barrier for a plant.

I read the FAQs on the staff. They read the same books I do.

Click, click and click…

I’ll be heading out today to Crossbridge Community Church in Swedesboro, NJ.

Attended a meeting with our Bishop two weeks ago.

Heard of Episcopal churches in our Diocese who had no money left to pay their bills in the summer. One he discussed in detail had exhausted their endowment. They used it funding their day-to-day operations. They were meeting with the Bishop after a church service celebrating a spend of 225K on a capital improvement to their tower.

Went to ordination of 6 priests yesterday. Half had no post to employ them. NJ Episcopal churches are not closing or combining, they are reducing their posts to part-time, then supply, then… Death.

Lots of hand-wringing in the meeting among clergy. Laments on the death-grip congregations had with their buildings. Their buildings were literally killing them.

I brought up a different direction: church planting. Gave list of denominations who had specific strategies and processes that had turned the plant success rate from 4 out of 5 failing to 3 out of 4 succeeding. Explained what I had learned from my colleagues and friends in that world. We could learn a lot. Stimulate new ideas, new directions…

Response? “I knew of a church plant back when I was in the South. It didn’t work.” “The Lutherans did a plant but it didn’t go anywhere.” Answer: “But this is happening HERE and NOW. Other denominations are being effective in our local area. What do they know that we don’t know?”

Response? “My area is projected to revive once the new light-rail line is finished. If we sell the building you’ll wish you kept it 10 years from now.”  Answer: “Ten years is two life-times in ministry today! The average stay of a pastor is 5 years or less. What makes you think you will last 10 and still have any lesser task then in what you have now?”

I understand the reaction.

To lead a congregation into personal renewal means a pastor is sawing the branch he/she is sitting on.

When the Holy Spirit seizes a people and they grow into a Christ-centered body they realize that if the church they attended burnt down today, their life in Christ would go on without much of a hiccup. As a person goes from exploring Christ to being Christ-centered, the operational life of ministry focused in doing liturgies in buildings that need maintenance, buildings that bring identity and purpose, slowly evaporates.

How do we, as pastors, define ourselves then?

Our vision as pastors are “collared” (pun intended) by our fears. Seems congregations are not the only ones who have a death-grip on their buildings.

Every summer I do a pruning of my books. I scan the shelves and ask myself if I have read/used a volume in the last 5 years. If the answer is “NO”, I flip the book spine-downward. Then off the shelf and on to whatever flea-market I can find. It’s not that they’re badly written or researched. Something else is going on.

I started doing this back in 1992 after several boxes of books finally caught up with me in the UK after seven years in my parent’s cellar. I had left behind what I thought were essential books for my return. When I opened the boxes, I discovered that I had no interest in two-thirds of the books I was sure were “essential”.

Learned a deep truth: I was not the same person. The books were instruments not ends in themselves. They had shaped me, but they no longer defined me.

Confession: One or two books survive the pruning – sentimental reasons. Three books survive that go right back to my teen years. I can’t seem to let go of how they used to define me.

Tougher question: Who defines me? The God who created me? The Savior who died for me? The King who commissioned me? Or… me?

Sentiment kills.