January 11, 2023

Pruning: How Do We Know What to Stop? – Episode 279 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

pruning how do we know what to stop

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Pruning: How to Slim Down Your Ministry in 2023 (Part 2)

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In 2023, we’re challenging churches to use this new year as an opportunity to get healthy again by embracing the Biblical principle of pruning. 

After all, our work with 500+ churches has shown that stuck churches have more ministries. Stuck churches and more events. Stuck churches have more staff. Stuck churches have more people in meetings rather than engaging the mission. If we always add but never prune, we will get out of shape and our ministry will not be healthy.


Pruning is not an easy topic—all too often, for fear of making insiders unhappy, churches opt to hold onto ministry programs even if those programs are not producing health and reaching more people.

However, the research is clear: encouraging people to engage in more programs and church activity doesn’t produce spiritual growth. If we’re truly in the disciple-making business, then adding more programs and events is actually working against church health. 

In this episode, Amy and I will get super practical on the steps churches must take in order to identify the programs and events they need to prune in 2023. We’ll cover:

  • The four key reasons churches become over-programmed
  • What to clarify BEFORE you begin pruning
  • The first three key steps of the pruning process
The research is clear: engaging in more programs and activity doesn’t produce spiritual growth. If we’re in the disciple-making business, then adding more programs and events is actually working against church health. [episode 279] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Your team needs to find agreement on why you exist as a church and where you are specifically trying to go in the future before you figure out how you intend to get there. [episode 279] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Many churches start over-programming because they’ve never clarified their strategy to reach new people and their strategy to help people become more like Jesus. [episode 279] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet If your church is always adding but never pruning, it's time to shed some of the extra programming and events that may be holding your ministry back from experiencing the Kingdom impact that God has for your church. [episode 279] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet
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This Episode is Sponsored by BELAY:

Poorly managed church finances can hurt a pastor’s ability to lead church members and reach the local community. To help you figure out where to start, BELAY is offering its resource, 4 Costly Financial Mistakes for Churches, to our listeners for free to help you identify the four biggest things that wreck churches when it comes to their finances—and what you can do to avoid them. To learn more, visit belaysolutions.com

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Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. As we kick off 2023, The Unstuck Group is challenging churches to use the new year as an opportunity to get healthy again. And on this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy are sharing how to identify what you might need to stop doing, and then communicate the changes clearly and effectively. Before we get there, though, if you’re new to the podcast, head over to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, you’re gonna get resources to go along with each week’s episode, including our Leader Conversation Guide, bonus resources, and access to our podcast resource archive. Again, that’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Now, before we get into today’s conversation, here’s a word from Tony.

Tony (00:51):

No matter what organization you lead, finances are paramount to your success, and church finances aren’t any different. Poorly managed church finances can hurt a pastor’s ability to lead church members and to reach the local community. After all, very little will wreck the movement of God more than weak financial policies and workflows. Thankfully, it’s much easier to make changes now before your church is in the headlines than to try to reestablish those relationships after you’ve been through a costly financial misstep. And that’s where our friends at Belay can help. Belay, a modern church staffing organization with fractional US-based accounting and virtual assistant services, has helped busy church leaders do just that for more than a decade. To help you figure out where to start, Belay is offering its resource “Four Costly Financial Mistakes for Churches” to our listeners, for free, to help you identify the four biggest things we see wreck churches when it comes to their finances and what you can do to avoid them. Just text “unstuck”, that’s “u-n-s-t-u-c-k” to 55123 to get back to growing your church with Belay.

Amy (02:08):

Well, Tony, last week we launched the 2023 Unstuck Church Get Healthy Again Challenge. And before we talk more about pruning and what churches need to stop doing, you mentioned four easy steps for churches to get healthy in 2023. Will you highlight those steps for us again?

Tony (02:24):

Yeah, so we talked last week. First thing, you need to find an accountability partner. You need somebody that’s not on your team. So that could be another pastor, another friend in ministry. Could be The Unstuck Group, I don’t know. But find somebody that can hold you accountable to the next steps that you need to take. Secondly, you need to know your current vital signs. You know, frankly, it’s like getting on the scales and then getting in the gym. We need to know where we’re starting so that we have a clear picture of that, kind of the before picture, if you will, of ministry before we start to take some steps forward. Number three, we need to engage the right exercises. We need to build those core muscles. And specifically, we mentioned clarifying who you’re focused on reaching, defining your reach strategy. How are you gonna reach more people? Defining your spiritual formation strategy, building those culture shaping behaviors on your staff team so that that begins to get reflected in the culture of your church. Confirming your 2023 priorities. All of these are examples of the right exercises that we need to be practicing in order to build those core muscles so we build a foundation for health in our ministry. And then number four, we need to focus on what we need to stop doing or maybe what we need to shed in order to grow our mission impact as a ministry. And as I mentioned last week, if you continue to add more and more and never prune, you’re going to get unhealthy, and stuck churches, they tend to have more ministries. Stuck churches have more events on their calendars. Stuck churches have more staff. Stuck churches have more people in meetings rather than engaging the mission. And if we’re always adding but never pruning, we will get out of shape and our ministry will not be healthy.

Amy (04:19):

Thanks for that summary. And Tony, as we continue this conversation around pruning, why do you think churches tend to become over-programmed in the first place?

Tony (04:28):

Amy, that’s a good question, especially since the research would indicate that having more programming does not produce more discipleship. It actually makes spiritual formation a challenge for churches. And we know that encouraging people to engage in more programs and church activity, it just, it doesn’t produce spiritual growth. If we’re in the disciple making business, as I believe we are, then adding more ministry programs and events is actually working against church health, and it’s working against spiritual formation. But you asked, you know, why is it that churches become over-programmed? I mean, four things come to mind. First, churches, they just don’t have a strategy. So many churches, they have a mission statement and they know why they exist. They may even have a vision for where they’re going in the future. They know where they believe God has called their ministry to be in the future. But what they don’t have is a strategy for how to see that vision get accomplished. And so without clearly defining a strategy, churches naturally gravitate back to what they’ve always done. And part of that is just adding new programs to accomplish new vision. So with every iteration of new vision, more gets added, but nothing ever gets subtracted, you know? Secondly, I think churches become over-programmed because they tend to become more insider focused over time. And this isn’t just a problem for maybe older, traditional churches. This is an issue for every church, I would say, that’s existed for more than 10 or 15 years. Before long, the people inside the church become a higher priority than reaching those outside the church. And it’s completely understandable. I mean, the insiders pay the bills, there could be a fear of making insiders unhappy. And because of that, churches tend to hold on to ministry programs, even those programs that aren’t currently producing health and reaching more people. And that’s because every program that a church has, it is connected to a person that’s been involved in that ministry, and who very likely also financially supports that ministry.

Amy (06:48):

Tony, as you were talking about these first two, that they become insider focused and that they don’t have a strategy. I even think sometimes they don’t have a plan. Like what results do we want to see?

Tony (06:59):

That’s right.

Amy (07:00):

You know, as we’re doing the ministry, and so they aren’t even really evaluating the various ministries they have. But what’s number three, Tony?

Tony (07:07):

Yeah. The third reason is it’s just easier for a church to add a program than it is to redefine the strategy. So let me give you an example. Churches that are reaching many young adults aren’t doing that through a young adults program. They aren’t hiring a young adult director and then starting a separate young adults gathering. Instead, they’re reaching a lot of young adults because everything that they do in their ministry strategy, including their weekend services, their small groups, their serving opportunities, family ministries, and everything in between is done with young adults in mind. To take that approach, you have to define who you’re trying to reach. And your whole ministry strategy needs to reflect that focus, and that takes work, and it’s going to require some changes in some of those key ministry areas. And those changes, of course, may offend some people that are already a part of the church, and that’s why churches tend to take the easy way out. So rather than kind of redefining their ministry strategy to reach young adults, churches avoid those big changes. Instead, they might just try to add a young adult program. And unfortunately, those added programs don’t tend to accomplish the results that we’re trying to accomplish. And then lastly, I think the fourth reason why churches over program is they’re not united and unified around their strategy and aligned as a team. And because of that, well, ministry silos, they begin to develop. So each ministry, of course, is part of the same church, but every ministry becomes separate in these situations. Over time, these ministries start to compete with each other for space, for money, leadership and volunteers. And the primary way ministries compete with each other, though, is for people’s attention. So every program and every ministry, every event requires promotion. And the more programs and events there are, the more promotions there are, and the more competition starts to exist between ministries. But what we’ve seen is that churches with a unified strategy prioritize how to use space, how to invest their financial resources, how to leverage leadership, how to engage volunteers. And that means promotions are then prioritized as well. So they’re thinking about reaching more people and helping those people take their next steps toward Christ. And everyone is pulling in the same direction. So instead of every ministry kind of protecting their programs and their events, these churches that are aligned decide which programs and events are most needed to effectively fulfill their strategy.

Amy (09:52):

Man, I think you’re spot on, Tony, but I’m guessing there’s some folks who maybe are frustrated and maybe even a bit angry with this, especially if they believe their ministry is actually helping people take their next steps towards Jesus.

Tony (10:05):

Yeah. I mean, I hope so, Amy, because my aim isn’t to share information on this podcast that will make you feel good. I actually want to prompt a reaction when we’re talking about topics like this. So if that’s you, if you’re a little bit bent outta shape as you’re listening to me talk about the need for pruning. If you maybe disagree with my perspective and your churches figured out how to offer more programs, more events, and you’re still helping more people take their next steps towards Christ, if that’s working for you, well, you should continue doing that. If you are adding all kinds of programs and activities, and it’s leading to spiritual growth, you’re seeing people cross the line of faith, you’re seeing more baptisms, you’re seeing more new people connecting to your ministry, and your church is healthy and growing. If complexity is working for you, don’t stop. Get more complex. But, if on the other hand, your action is, oh goodness, Tony’s reading my mail, I do hope that you will commit to the “2023 Get Healthy Again Challenge.” It’s time to try a different strategy. It’s time to simplify. It’s time to maybe shed some of that extra programming, those extra events that may be holding your ministry back from experiencing the kingdom impact that God has for your church.

Amy (11:30):

Well, Tony, let’s get on the solution side of this challenge. Let’s assume there’s a pastor or church leader listening and they agree that it’s time to stop doing some things. How would you coach pastors to begin this pruning process to stop various programs and events?

Tony (11:46):

Yeah, Amy, why don’t we begin by talking about maybe some of the pre-work before you actually start the pruning process. So, by the way, please don’t stop ministry programs and events until you’ve completed the pre-work that we’re about ready to discuss. And that really does begin with building consensus among your leadership, your ministry leadership. And that could begin with your lay leaders or staff leaders, depending on the size and structure of your church. But you need to begin by finding agreement with your ministry leaders, that your current ministry programming is complex, and that it really does need to become more focused. And if your team isn’t feeling the pain yet, it’s going to be difficult to find consensus around this. But keep in mind, it would be highly unusual for everyone in leadership to agree that you’re having an over programming problem. The longer ministry silos exist in a church, the higher the likelihood that some ministry leaders will work to protect their ministry programs, regardless of the complexity challenge that it’s creating for the overall health of the church. So first we need to begin to build that consensus among leaders. Secondly though, we need to clarify what’s at the foundation of our ministry. So this is basic stuff, but we need to confirm this foundation like confirming our mission. So your team needs to find agreement about why is it that you exist as a church and where are you specifically trying to go in the future before you figure out how you intend to get there. So in other words, the why preceeds the how. If you begin stopping ministry programs without establishing why you’re making those changes, your effort is certainly going to fail. Secondly, you need to determine who you’re trying to reach. I mean, it’s impossible to confirm the right mix of programming if you don’t have agreement on who it is that you’re trying to reach in your ministry. So who is it? Who are the people you’re hoping will become new disciples of Jesus? In other words, the who preceeds how as well.

Amy (14:01):

I would guess, Tony, you probably wanna coach them that you can’t say you wanna reach everyone, right?

Tony (14:06):

That’s right. That’s right. And you know, that’s a process obviously, Amy, that we engage with every church we’ve served. And mainly it’s just because what we’ve seen is when churches try to do a bit of everything to try to reach everyone, that leads to complexity, which then means they’re not going to be as effective carrying out the mission God’s called us to. Lastly then you need to establish both your reach strategy and your spiritual formation path. So how is it that you’re going to help new people move from where they are to where God wants them to be? And what we’ve seen is that many churches start over programming because they’ve never really clarified their strategy to reach new people and their strategy to help people become more like Jesus. And by the way, as a side note here, if you have people on your team pulling against the why, if they’re pulling against who it is that you should be reaching, and if they’re pulling against how it is that you’re going to accomplish that through your reach strategy and your spiritual formation path, if those people are pulling against you in these three areas, they are probably the wrong people to be in leadership in the ministry of your church.

Amy (15:23):

And maybe I assume that after you’ve done this pre-work, Tony, now you’re ready to begin the pruning process.

Tony (15:29):

Well, Amy, not yet. Not quite yet, but you are ready to start talking with leaders about what might be pruned. And I say that because the actual stopping process needs to be done with a lot of intentionality. And it may not even involve a full stop. And I’ll explain that in a moment. But yes, now is a good time to start talking with your leaders about what should be pruned. And I recommend you approach it this way. First, begin letting your ministry teams recommend programs and event reductions first. In other words, don’t start at the top and work down. Kind of start with the frontline ministries first and encourage them to identify what are the programs and events that maybe we should stop doing. And the reason I say that is it will always be easier to reduce programming within a specific ministry before you try to eliminate programming across the board. So first, have, have your ministry team list all their programs. For example, children’s ministry might include, well, there’s children’s church. There’s Sunday school. We have awana. We have a children’s choir. We have parent training. We do children’s baptisms. We have Vacation Bible School. We have mom’s day out, parenting classes, family events, and so on. This would be a very complex children’s ministry, but Amy, you know, we’ve seen that. We’ve seen everything on that list, but list everything that you’re doing in children’s ministry, then take that full list and divide it in half based on the amount of life change that you’re seeing in kids and their parents. So take that full list divided in half, and then you should consider both the discipleship next steps that people are taking and the number of people who are being impacted by these ministries. You know, Amy, I’m going to assume that everything that a church is doing is producing some level of life change in some people. All you have to do at this point though is to split your full list so that the programming that’s leading to more life change is listed in one column and the balance of the programming is listed in the other column. So you’ll end up with two lists. And what I want you to do is take each list separately, and again, split both of those two lists in half. But this time consider the investment required. So what does it cost you as far as leadership investment, volunteer investment, financial investment, space in your buildings, promotional time? Kind of split the two columns in half with the things that require more investment in one half of each column and the things that require less investment in the other half. And by the time you complete this process, you should have four equal lists. One of those four lists includes ministry programs and events that are leading to less life change and require higher investment of resources. And these are the ministries that every team should either be recommending for pruning or making a strong case why continuing that ministry, that event, that program, helps the church accomplishes its mission. How does that big investment that’s not producing as much life change help you reach people who are trying to take their next steps towards Christ? And if you have ministry teams repeat this process every six months or maybe every year, you will eventually begin to winnow down your ministry programs and events to the ones that are producing the most life change for the greatest number of people.

Tony (19:30):

As we mentioned at the top of the podcast, our friends at Belay are offering a free copy of their resource, “Four Costly Financial Mistakes for Churches.” And that’s exclusive to our podcast listeners today. Belay’s modern church staffing solutions have been helping busy church leaders delegate important financial details for over a decade. Their fractional US-based contractors provide accounting and virtual assistant services to level up your church through the power of delegation. Just text “unstuck”, that’s U-N-S-T-U-C-K to 55123 to claim this exclusive offer and get back to growing your church with Belay.

Amy (20:13):

Well, the first step is to begin by letting the ministry teams recommend program and event reductions. So what’s the second step?

Tony (20:19):

The second step is to evaluate the remaining programming and events from the perspective of the entire church. So, I mean, as a leadership team, you really need to repeat the exercise that I just shared for you. Make those four lists again with everything that’s left over. But this time you’re going to be considering everything that you’re doing across the entire ministry. And again, this is a process that should be facilitated for the top, maybe eight or less, ministry leaders in your church. So this may be a mix of staff or lay leaders, depending on the size of your church. But I would encourage you, don’t let more than eight people get involved in this discussion because you’ll never find consensus. And the one caveat this time, though, is you’re going through the process is that you do not need to make each of the four list equal. Instead, you’ll take all those remaining ministry programs and plot them one by one in one of the four lists. Does this have higher life change and lower investment? That’ll be one list. Higher life change and higher investment. That’ll be another list. Lower life change and lower investment. That’ll be a third list. And then lastly, lower life change and higher investment. And Amy, to make it easy for you, we’ll try to include these labels in the show notes to kind of guide your conversation through this exercise. I still recommend that you start by asking, is the life change produced by this program higher or lower? Then ask the question, does this program require a higher or lower level of resource investment? And these questions hopefully will help you move quickly through all of the ministries, programs and events that you’re talking about. But my encouragement is, don’t overthink this. You’ll be surprised at how God will use the discernment in the room, of that wiring within your leaders, to bring unity through this process. And again, at a minimum, everything that lands in that group of lower life change but higher investment of resources list, those are the ministries and programs that you should be considering for pruning.

Amy (22:38):

Good. Okay. Well, we’ve received recommendations from all the ministry teams now, and we’ve evaluated every program and event as a leadership team. What’s the final step, Tony?

Tony (22:48):

Well, the final step is then to actually prepare your pruning plan. So with everything that you’ve identified at either the ministry level or the all church level that is being considered for pruning place, those programs in one of three categories: we’re gonna stop this immediately, we’re gonna pause and maybe reevaluate at a future date, or we’re gonna pause and relaunch. You will of course want to use that pause and relaunch category very sparingly, but there’s certainly a place for refreshing and relaunching programs and events if they will eventually help you reach more people and help those folks take their next steps on the discipleship path. Now, before you communicate what you’re going to stop, here’s something else you may want to consider. It’s possible that there may be a better fit for the programs or events that you’re planning to prune. As examples, I’ve seen churches handoff ministries to individuals. I’ve seen them handoff ministries to individual small groups. I’ve also seen churches handoff ministries that they’re pruning to partner ministries in their community. I suggest this because sometimes a program or event should be continued because it’s having a kingdom impact and it’s a good fit with another individual’s God-given calling or another organization’s mission. In other words, just because it doesn’t fit your church’s ministry focus doesn’t mean it might not be a fit with another ministry.

Amy (24:26):

So, Tony, if churches consider that option of releasing a pruned program or event to another individual or ministry, are there any words of caution that go with that?

Tony (24:35):

Yeah. You need to remember a pruning is being done to gain focus around the church’s mission and ministry strategy. And it’s very difficult to prune if you’re still investing resources into a ministry that you’re handing off to somebody else. So if you’re committing to still continue, even though you’re giving it to another ministry or small group or another individual, you really can’t commit to providing any leadership, any help with raising up volunteers, any help with providing financial support or promotions. Just need to recognize that sometimes God gives an individual in our church a passion for a certain ministry because that’s part of their personal calling. That’s part of the calling God’s given that individual. However, it’s possible for somebody in our church to have a calling from God, but for that not to be a part of the mission that the God has called the church to. So let me just acknowledge that I know this isn’t an easy process. Again, the priority of the three steps that I talked through today, that’s very important. We need to go in that order. You need to do this as a team. That’s crucial. The leader team needs to be unified in this effort. And finally, you just need good facilitation around these types of conversations because they can be very challenging if you don’t help have somebody that’s helping you through this. And if you don’t have people on your team to facilitate this process, let us know. I mean, we may be able to help. Frankly, an outside perspective that’s a little more maybe emotionally disconnected can help foster clear thinking and that’s what’s best for gonna be what’s best for the overall health of your church.

Amy (26:30):

And I would probably just add, Tony, if in these discussions it does start to get emotional, it’s probably good to hit pause because you have to go back to establish why we’re actually having this conversation.

Tony (26:41):

There you go. Amy, you’re brilliant. Thank you. That’s very wise.

Amy (26:45):

Well, any final thoughts you have before we wrap up today?

Tony (26:47):

Well, even after we’ve talked about how to approach pruning and developing a pruning plan, you are still not ready to stop any programs or events. We’ll tackle that, the actual stopping, the actual pruning process, in next week’s episode. And I want to be able to help you communicate and appropriately celebrate the ministries that you’re planning on pruning. So make sure you come back next week so that you can hear the next episode. But in the meantime, I do hope you’ll commit to joining the 2023 Get Healthy Again Challenge. And if you need some help getting into shape, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at theunstuckgroup.com.

Sean (27:28):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. At The Unstuck Group, our goal is to help pastors grow healthy churches by guiding them to align vision, strategy, team, and action. In everything we do, our priority is to help churches help people meet and follow Jesus. If there’s any way we can serve you in your church, reach out to us today at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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