November 14, 2017

Pruning: Biblical Practices that Healthy Businesses Embrace and Stuck Churches Avoid


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Though I primarily work with churches, I do have the opportunity from time to time to provide consulting and coaching to business leaders. It struck me recently that the healthy businesses I serve practice many Biblical principles. At the same time, many stuck churches I engage with are unwilling to embrace these same Biblical principles.

I’ll use the next several articles to highlight some of these Biblical principles that healthy businesses embrace and stuck churches avoid, but let me begin with what I consider to be the most obvious example. It’s the Biblical principle of pruning.

We see this principle described in many passages in the Bible, but let me highlight a couple. First let’s take a look at what happens when pruning isn’t practiced.

“I will make it a wild place where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not hoed, a place overgrown with briers and thorns.” (Isaiah 5:6, NLT)

When we don’t practice pruning, eventually the briers and the thorns take over. Businesses get this, and that’s why they routinely prune. If they don’t, they know their business will lose focus. The business will be overgrown with a multitude of products and services, vision creep and underperforming people. That lack of focus will ultimately impact the business’s bottom line.

At the same time, the Bible explains what proactive pruning looks like:

“He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.” (John 15:2, NLT)

Sometimes churches I serve are experiencing plateau and decline and they will explain this away as a “season of pruning.” From the verse listed above, though, we can identify a few specific differences between pruning and unhealthy decline.

Specifically, Biblical pruning has these three characteristics:

  1. It’s intentional.

    “He cuts…” Someone is intentionally cutting off branches. Initially, the size of the plant is reduced, but it’s because the gardener has intentionally cut off branches. If you are experiencing decline as a church, but it isn’t the result of intentional action you’ve taken, it isn’t pruning. It’s just decline.

  2. Both unhealthy and healthy branches are cut back.

    For the pruning to be effective, we have to cut back the dead and unhealthy branches, but we also must cut back the good things that might prevent us from experiencing the most fruit. Churches rarely are willing to cut back the good ministries that are producing some fruit even though they could be preventing the church from maximizing its potential health and impact.

  3. It eventually produces more fruit.

    Every healthy organization knows the power of pruning or getting focused in the short-run to produce long-term results. But if your church is plateaued or declining, and that extends from months to years without new health and fruit, it’s not pruning. 

I’ve seen healthy businesses prune in three specific ways. First, they routinely prune their long-term vision. Then, they drop aspects of their vision that may produce some results but prevent the business from maximizing returns. The mission of the business doesn’t change. There’s ongoing agreement for “why” the business exists. What periodically gets pruned, though, is where the business is going in the future. Healthy businesses maintain a big, clear and focused vision. Sometimes parts of that vision get pruned.

Secondly, healthy businesses make it a practice of pruning products and services. They will eliminate products or services that either don’t produce an appropriate profit margin, or they’ll eliminate profitable offerings that pull from the products or services that generate the highest return. If they can’t become best-in-class with a specific product or service, they drop it to focus on those offerings that will produce the greatest returns.

Additionally, healthy businesses routinely prune staff. It’s not that these staff don’t produce results or they aren’t good people, it’s just that businesses know that not all staff members who got them where they are will be able to grow with the business in the future. Sometimes businesses have to release good people in order to build great teams. It’s part of the pruning principle that all healthy businesses practice.

If it’s a Biblical principle, why don’t all churches practice it?

I believe, in many cases, it’s primarily because of fear. Pastors and other church leaders are afraid to prune because they know that people in their churches like the portions of the vision, the ministry programs or the people that may need to be pruned. Even if the pruning will ultimately help the church produce more fruit in the long-run, leaders are unwilling to do it because of the fear of how people will respond. They fear that people will leave the church and that giving will decline.

You know what? They’re right. Pruning in the church, if done right, will always cause some people to leave the church and with them will go the money those people contribute. Always. Some of those people will be good people. Some of the giving will be good money. It will always happen. You can’t practice Biblical pruning and not cut back vision, ministry programs or people. And when you do that, you will always lose some good people and some good money in the short-run.

Here’s what I can promise you, though: it’s not possible to grow a healthy church and ignore core Biblical principles, including the practice of pruning. Healthy, thriving churches have learned that periodically you have to prune.

Let me get more specific. In The Unstuck Church, I write about three life-cycle phases of churches in plateau or decline. These include churches that are in the “maintenance” phase, the “preservation” phase and the “life support” phase. What I’ve learned after serving hundreds of churches is that it’s impossible for a church to move from long-term plateau and decline to experiencing sustained health and growth without going through an intentional pruning process.

In other words, healthy churches will not maximize the fruit that they could bear without practicing the biblical principle of pruning. At the same time, I know that pruning is difficult. It takes leadership. It takes courage.

But that’s another reason why healthy businesses practice the Biblical principle of pruning while stuck churches do not.

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