I learned the lesson early and the hard way.
Don't confuse activity with accomplishment.
I had been a pastor for just a few years. But good things were really starting to pop. Attendance in worship was growing and growing pretty quickly. We had gone from 100 people in worship to 200 and now were quickly approaching 300. With that came all kinds of other demands on me (I thought) for visiting new guests, starting more new member classes, figuring out the assimilation riddle, topping the great sermon last Sunday with a better great sermon this Sunday. Sprucing up the facility. I wanted to be sure every service and every gathering was "perfect" so that we made the best impression on everyone who came. I wanted to be sure everyone wanted to come back.
I was giving all I had. I was giving all my time and emotion to the ministry. I was giving all my energy to the ministry.
My wife didn't see me much except at church. My little daughter wondered why daddy was always angry.
I wasn't angry. I was intense. I needed to get back to the ministry.
Then one day it happened.
I realized all this activity was unsustainable. And worse, I started wondering what it was really accomplishing.
It was early in the new year, maybe 1991 or 1992. January or February. I had recently crunched the numbers for the previous year's statistics. I was feeling pretty good. We had grown by more than 60 people in weekly worship attendance. Easily the biggest growth spurt we had ever had at that church. But then I read an article about a church in a nearby city that had grown by more than 600 in weekly worship attendance in that same year. What?!
I remember thinking, how does that happen? I can't work any harder. I am giving everything I've got and more. I can't imagine what it would take to gain 600 in a year when it took all I had to gain 60.
In that moment of discouragement and realization I believe God gave me a gift. I suddenly realized that simply chasing higher attendance numbers wasn't capable of fulfilling me. It would only empty me out and leave me exhausted year after year. In that moment I realized that what mattered in ministry was not having higher attendance numbers than other churches, but seeing changed lives in human beings.
In other words, satisfaction wouldn't come from having a higher attendance number to gloat over once a year, but being able to tell the stories of changed lives year after year.
I remember that insight giving me a feeling of relief and freedom but also a sense of "oh-oh." I had created all these moving parts to attract people. Lives were being changed but not necessarily because of all the moving ministry parts. I had to start to look carefully at everything we were doing and start to tease out what was just activity and what was accomplishing our true goal: changed lives.
That's when I started to learn the next lesson:
Pruning produces fruit.
Pruning is very counter-intuitive. It doesn't immediately make sense to cut off healthy greenery in order to produce more fruit. But we have to decide. Do we want more greenery or do we want more fruit? We have to decide because the plant can only produce abundantly one or the other. It takes too much to produce both abundant greenery and abundant fruit.
In our lives it works the same way. We only have so much to give. Do you want lots of greenery, lots of activity, lots of moving parts or do you want lots of fruit? You can produce one or the other but you can't produce both.
That's Jesus' point in John 15 when He teaches on the vine and the branches. He is saying that the Father already has this question figured out. Fruit is what is desired so pruning is what is necessary.
Greenery exhausts you. Fruit multiplies you.
Prune off greenery and you focus the strength of your life into the production of fruit.
As someone once said, "Less is more." Whoever that was stole it from Jesus.
So what should I prune off?
Before we start chopping stuff out, we need to be clear about where the fruit actually comes from.
I learned that lesson the hard way, too, from a real apple tree.
When we first move to Michigan in 1989, our little house had a mature apple tree in the front yard. It was a beautiful tree. The trouble was it had been left to grow unpruned for several years. It had a wonderful shape and lots of greenery but very little fruit.
I didn't know much about apple trees, but I knew that they needed pruning to produce fruit. So one Saturday I commenced pruning.
Several hours later I had a whole pile of pruned branches lying on the ground and essentially a stump left for an apple tree. My wife came out and was horrified by what I had done. I assured her this was good for the production of fruit. She knew pruning was good for the production of fruit. She was not so sure that what I had done to the tree could properly be called "pruning". "Hacking to death" seemed to fit the present situation better.
As usual, she ended up being right. It was years before the poor tree recovered. And the next year, you know how many apples we got? I kid you not. One. We had one apple produced out of that poor tree.
l understood the general concept of pruning. I did not know how to prune. Pruning is not just hacking stuff off. It is knowing where the life of the tree is flowing from and focusing that flow of life so that the tree can produce abundant fruit.
So before we prune, where is your life flowing from? How has God already designed you to thrive? What brings you refreshment and strength? Who fills you with joy, insight, creativity, peace, patience, kindness, self-control? Don't prune those sources. Prioritize them.
What's on my list?
- Unhurried time with Jesus. (I talked about "unhurried time" in last week's blog.) Remember when Jesus said in John 15, "I am the vine and you are the branches"? The longer I am on the earth, the more I realize Jesus was spot-on with that insight (surprise, surprise). When I work, I work. But when I abide with Jesus, He works. Do the math on that one.
- Unhurried time with my spouse and kids. Spending unhurried time with them does not necessarily mean hours and hours. It does mean "unhurried" though. It is only in this way that I receive from them what the Father had in mind when He gave me them.
- Unhurried time with a few friends who are on the adventure, too.
These are the tap roots of my life-strength. When life is flowing through these sources, fruit is abundant and oncoming in my ministry. I am not exhausted. I am overflowing. I am fulfilled and fruitful. That's how God designed me. I don't prune these things. I prioritize them.
With that clarity, I can then begin to look at what takes life away from me. What are the sucker branches in my life that divert life and blur my focus? These then become candidates for pruning.
(By the way, when you are doing your own evaluating, be careful. Just because something is hard or even unpleasant doesn't mean it doesn't lead to life. Pruning is a discipline that requires maturity. Its goal is abundant fruit not just an easier schedule.)
"I don't have time for this!"
As we conclude this series of blogs, when I talk with people about time and pruning and prioritizing, at the end of the conversation they often summarize how they feel with a discouraged comment, "This all sounds great, but I don't have time for this."
It's the problem of time.
"I don't have time" for unhurried time. "I don't have time" for unhurried time with Jesus, my spouse, my children, a few close friends. "I don't have time" for refreshment. "I don't have time" for joining Jesus' mission. "I don't have time" for discipling. All I have time for is hurrying. All I have time for is being busy with activities. All I have time for is keeping up. All I have time for is exhaustion.
I'm starting to be old enough to call your bluff.
The problem isn't your time. The problem is your choices.
When you are tempted to say, "I don't have time for this!" Replace those words with these, "Then why do I have time?"
"Then why do I have time?"
Now listen to Jesus, your spouse and your kids. They already know the answer.