Deadheading the Church!

Yesterday afternoon I noticed that our pansy bed looked pretty bleak. Too many of the blooms had disappeared and stared forming bulging seed pods. My mother taught me years ago that unless you pinched off the dead heads then all the pansy’s efforts and energy would go into self-preservation. Pansies want to make seeds to propagate new pansies, but my mother wanted more blooms, not more pansies! If you let the plants spend all of their nutrients in forming seed pods there would be no new flowers.

This is an interesting analogy for my Monday morning thoughts about the United Methodist Church, Pope Benedict’s upcoming resignation, and the church at large. How much of our energy is spent in preserving the institution or producing blooms? I’m headed tomorrow to the General Commission on Religion Race where I serve as a Director and member of the Executive Committee. We have listened carefully to the findings of the United Methodist Church’s Call to Action: that we need younger people, more diverse people, and more people. To accomplish this do we do what we have been doing and preserve a valued history, or do we reach beyond our legislated responsibilities of monitoring the past? This is the crux: monitor the past or resource the future! Will we proactively focus on assisting annual conferences and local churches so that they produce fruitful diversity?

In my Monday morning devotions I usually try to focus on the next Sunday’s Gospel lesson from the lectionary. This coming Sunday’s text is Luke 13:1-9 about the fig tree in the vineyard that is about to be uprooted for lack of fruit. For three years the landowner has been looking for fruit and it hasn’t produced. It has been using up valuable nutrients for the surrounding grapes, too. However, the vineyard worker’s argument for patience won out over the landowner’s desire for figs. The fig tree was given another year’s extension with the proviso that there would be plenty of digging and fertilization to produce figs, or “Up she goes!”

I know that this is a parable with implied meanings that aren’t even close to being literal. Jesus answered the people’s ponderings of why there were sudden deaths in Luke 13:1-5 with this fig tree/vineyard answer. Jesus uses this parable to say that unless we bear fruit we’ll be uprooted and die, too. In other words, his answer sidestepped questions of why sudden tragedies occur and turned philosophical pondering into action. It was as if he were saying, “Everybody is going to die, but is everybody ready? Time is running out on your usefulness!”

But is this all that there is to the parable? My mind has been whirring like a top this morning! I never noticed before that this is a fig tree in a vineyard full of grapes! The vineyard worker knows grapes, not figs. Fig trees don’t get deadheaded or pruned; grapes do. Why would anyone want a fig tree in a vineyard anyway? Was its purpose to provide snacks for the vineyard workers? Am I thinking too literally? Probably, but I never noticed that this was a parable about cross-cultural appointments!

Ah! We’ll I am a District Superintendent and I know the hard work of cross-cultural/multi-cultural appointment making. One of the best ones in our Annual Conference is occurring because we spent a year preparing everything, and it has taken five years of digging and fertilizing to see a great return on our efforts.

We get the results that we work for. If we want flowers instead of ungerminated pansy seeds, we have to deadhead the vampire pods that are sucking the life out of making blooms. In the church we often avoid the difficult tasks of discipleship assuming with false hope that things will turn out okay if we just passively wait things out. That kind of inertia preserves the institution, but doesn’t bear fruit. Oh, we can make excuses about not being planted where we’re supposed to be; i.e., with other fig trees in an orchard tended by someone who understands in ins and outs of fig trees, or we can bloom where we’re planted, even in a vineyard surrounded by grapes that are raisins in the making!

I often think that we would rather preserve the institution; i.e., the fig tree, the vineyard, the pansies, the papacy, and the church than dig around, add effort for change and upset the status quo! We would rather focus on what we know which are grapes than deal with an opportunity to branch out, pun intended, into fig production. God help us if we are so myopic that we miss the fact that this world has more opportunities than we can imagine if we are willing to diversify and broaden our thinking!

Wouldn’t the Roman Catholic Church do well to address its male-only priesthood? Will the Roman Catholic Church use this critical time as an opportunity for change, or spend its energy preserving the institution? There are huge questions that the United Methodist Church must answer, too. Can we solve spiritual problems with structural solutions? How do we profess to have open hearts, doors, and minds yet find ourselves fractured by both liberal and literal fundamentalism that leaves no room for compromise? Are we arguing among ourselves more than we’re making disciples? Every general church agency, every local church and every Christian has a question to answer: What are we here for – to produce more pansies/new churches, or to produce more new blooms/disciples? What do you think the answer is, deadhead or not?

fig tree

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17 thoughts on “Deadheading the Church!

  1. What a wonderful insight you have on this parable of the fig tree. I’m saving it for our bible study group that is currently studying Luke.
    Interestingly, last year I planted two grape vines and four fig trees in the same area since both (cross-cultural) required full sun (Son) to be productive. I also just deadheaded, or pruned, the grape vines so that I would have new growth (disciples) this year, but I saved the clippings (remembering the Saints) and they are being rooted for more vines (renewal). Your thoughts are contagious. So yes, we need to both deadhead for more blooms and save a few seeds for the future. God bless.

  2. Amen to your posting… I praise the LORD that there are still leaders within the UMC like you. I pray that God will wake up the the Hierarchy within the UMC before it is too late.

    LORD let the UMC be Your Church again not ours. You come and lead us. Touch, lead and bless all our leaders to be filled with Your Holy Spirit and to do and lead exactly how You desire them to lead. All for Your Kingdom and Your Glory. Father, as Tim has put it when talking about the pansies, “…pinched off the dead heads then all the pansy’s efforts and energy would go into self-preservation.” LORD, we don’t want to just have a show of flowers without prducing offspring, we need new seed so that we can propagate new disciples as well as expand Your Body, The Church. Do whatever needs to be done LORD. All for Your Glory and Kingdom. In Jesus’ Name…

  3. Thank you! As a gardener and a clergy, I really do understand the necessity of deadheading. Do it all the time. I also just wrote thoughts about the inability of the current Cardinals to choose a pope who might actually be able to change the institution because, to use your analogy, those very Cardinals probably need to be deadheaded. http://christythomas.com/2013/02/25/can-the-morally-twisted-vote-for-good/.

    The gospel must stay; the system is going to have to change radically.

    1. Christy, It is true that we often seek to preserve the institution and forget the mission. The Vatican is an example, but so are Protestants. We have to have adaptive leadership and solutions more than technical ones. Thanks and let’s keep deadheading! tim

  4. Came across this quote today by Thomas Hawkins from his book “Faithful Guides: Coaching Strategies for Church Leaders”:

    “Organizational transformation almost inevitably fails when top leaders refuse to alter their own behavior while simultaneously demanding that others within the organization change their attitudes, skills, and behaviors. It is difficult to insist that others remove the speck from their eye when you refuse to withdraw the log from your eye. Furthermore, the only persons over whom even the most powerful executives ultimately have control are themselves. The idea that they can make others change without fundamentally changing themselves is a serious flawed belief…Organizational change begins when leaders accept the challenge of deep personal change.

    “Second, when leaders take a personal stand to change themselves and how they lead, they automatically initiate powerful changes in the larger organizational environment around them. To change one part of the system is to change the whole system…Therefore, when they change themselves, their actions have a ripple effect throughout the whole organization.”

    As I read this, it connected with what you had written, Tim. Our UMC leaders talk about change, about thinking outside of the box, about vital congregations, and expect such from their pastors and congregations, but then stick pretty close to the status quo of process, procedure, and purpose.

    1. Jim, This love of the status quo isn’t about our top leaders as much as it’s about all of us. This is about a hankering that all humans have to be safe. My “deadheading” is not about our denominations leaders! It is about all of us investing in seeds or flowering – self preservation or blooming where you’re planted. Some people lay themselves aside, and some people are hoarders. Jesus calls us to get out of the boat we’re in! We may be a fig tree surrounded by grapevines, but BLOOM! Quit seeding out to no avail. Let’s keep pondering the text together! tim

      Sent from my iPad

      On Feb 25, 2013, at 4:14 PM, “A Potter’s View”

      1. I added a note to this comment on your Facebook page that I thought I also added here, and that was that what I wrote applied to all of us. It is easy to throw accusations at our denominational leaders (specifically and generally) and miss the point that I can, and have been, just as culpable – “It is difficult to insist that others remove the speck from their eye when you refuse to withdraw the log from your eye.” Doing so can, at times, be just a way of deflecting my own shortcomings or stubbornness or laziness or comfortableness.

        As I have been reflecting a lot on “church” and “the Church” and my call, gifts, and desires, this passage, which I preached on last week, has been very much stirring my soul. I’m just wondering where the manure will be coming from!

      2. Thanks, Jim, for the clarity and your faithfulness to the call!

        Sent from my iPhone

        On Feb 26, 2013, at 12:34 PM, “A Potter’s View”

  5. Perusing the comments, I agree that it’s easy to blame only the leadership when we have a denomination-wide cultural stagnation.

    All of us can probably find aspects of United Methodism that are out-dated; once perfectly suited to their contexts but now blooms desperately in need of deheading.

    But when the moment of actually changing arrives, I’m afraid most of us, from the top to the bottom, have an innate bias towards maintenance because: 1) we’ve invested our time and energy over the years and decades learning how to do church the way we’ve always done it (and by now, we’re pretty good at doing what we’ve always done), 2) transformational change to a transformational ministry certainly appears like it would take a lot more effort than cruising along, maintaining what we’ve currently got, and 3) up until now, the majority of us have been treated pretty well by the current system, even if the current denominational culture was created to meet the needs of a quickly-passing post WW2 context, and every day it feels more and more unsustainable.

    We’ve got a structure that has been good to most of us, it will take a lot of work to make the much-needed changes, and we’re much better equipped, professionally, to keep going back to the well of doing what we’ve always done. At least for now…

    1. Michael, Maybe what we need to beware in a church that says it wants to reach younger people, more diverse people, and more people is reseeding the same flowers or fig trees and actually start grafting and experimenting more with whole new hybrids – taking best of the old but intentionally creating a risky new venture!

      Sent from my iPhone

      On Feb 28, 2013, at 2:32 PM, “A Potter’s View”

      1. That does sound risky (& scary), but I believe it’s the way forward. I hope we (the UMC) have the courage, energy & stick-to-it-ive-ness to follow the Spirit’s leading, make a good start & see it through. Thanks Tim!

      2. Michael, Amen!

        Sent from my iPhone

        On Feb 28, 2013, at 11:39 PM, “A Potter’s View”

  6. Tim, I have been reading your comments for some time now and this one strikes to the challenge, not just of the United Methodist Church (which I love) but for all Christianity. I see it having application on how we just individuals whose sexual orientation is still being judged and condemned by writings which had little compassion and understanding of the complexity of human development. That men and women of all orientations are capable of living lives compatible with “Christian faith” is also part of the “fig tree in the grape field” analogy. I believe we must stop trying to control “from behind” and look to growing people in the variety images which are God. Thanks for your thoughtfulness.

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