The Importance of Pruning

October 2, 2018
The Rev. Canon Heather L. Melton, Staff Officer for the United Thank Offering

I’ve been thinking a lot about pruning recently. Perhaps because I have begun tackling some long neglected trees in our yard, or perhaps because I’ve been invited into some great conversations with folks who are passionately and deeply engaged with “pruning” in their churches or within their own lives. I think pruning is a great way to talk about gratitude as well, but sometimes it is a painful way, as it might acknowledge that change is necessary.

Let me start with my trees. Long neglected, these trees have developed quite the contingent of root suckers. One tree is actually two trees that grew together, while the other has so many suckers it looks like a bush. I decided I couldn’t take it any longer and went after it all with clippers and twine (to re-train some branches). The smaller tree, the one I want to talk with you all about, ended up with a reverse mohawk look. The middle of the tree was a dead branch that, once removed, left a large gap. I pruned out the remaining dead branches and tied up smaller branches to redirect them up instead of down, but the gap remained. I decided to start cutting out the root suckers to find the trunk of the tree when I realized three of the suckers were growing beautifully straight into the gap. I decided to leave them to see what they might accomplish. If you were to look at this tree, you might think, “Heather, cut that thing down.” At some point I might, but right now, I want to see what it does when it has enough light, water, and focus. This tree is a lot like many congregations in The Episcopal Church and similar to many of the churches that come seeking UTO funding.

Many congregations find themselves doing something simply because they have always done it. For example, I worked with a church that had a rummage sale. They had been doing it for decades. As the congregation declined, there were few folks to help, but they kept doing it. Revenue from the event decreased, but they attributed that to having fewer people to make the event work, not to the shifting landscapes of their community and generational changes in purchasing. At the end of the event, one parishioner came to me and told me that she had kept track of her hours and how much her table sold. She made less then 25 cents an hour. She said, “Next year, I’m just writing a check.” Not everything that we’ve always done as a congregation or a community needs to remain. Sometimes, we need to prune away what is dead or what is dying so something new can take its place. Pruning can sometimes be really frightening (like ending up with a tree sporting a reverse mohawk), or it can threaten things we think are true about ourselves, which would call us into self-examination as a person, church, or community. And yet, pruning is the very thing that could give new life, especially if we do it with gratitude.

My tree reminded me of many of the UTO grant sites – congregations that cut out the dead and saw the shoots of new life. These brave leaders tend the new life found within another organization. They hold the space for something new in the midst of, or in spite of, the fears of the congregation or community. They look at what is there, take a deep breath, and give thanks for the new dream God is growing in the midst of the old one. One of the things I love about the grant process is that UTO will only fund new things, new expansions, new life. For 128 years, the result of personal thanksgivings has become these beautiful shoots of new life in congregations, dioceses, and ministries – 5,259 ministries to be exact, some still with us while others have been pruned away for something new to take their place. Resurrection and new life, that’s what UTO has funded for so many congregations and communities.

There’s more to UTO than just grants. The goal of UTO is to support every Episcopalian in adopting a personal spiritual discipline of gratitude – to find ways to stop and notice the good things that are happening, give thanks, and make a small thank offering to God for the blessing encountered. Gratitude, for me at least, has become a powerful pruning tool. Gratitude has helped me cut away those things that aren’t life-giving or that are toxic to my well-being. Gratitude has helped me push back against my own internal grumbling … like, I don’t want to do laundry today, but I do really love when all of the clothes are clean and put away and am grateful to have clean clothes. Perhaps most importantly, gratitude has given me space to let new things grow and thrive. Four years ago, I would never have believed that I would run three times a week and enjoy it. Gratitude, like pruning, isn’t a cure-all, but it is a really powerful tool for self-care, self-reflection, and the creation and maintenance of good boundaries.

So, this month, I invite you to join me and consider ways to do some pruning in your life, in your congregation, or in your community. As you go about your day, consider: Are you grateful or grumbling? Is there a way to prune, rethink, or do something new? Think about those things that you’re doing because you’ve always done them. Are they traditions that bring joy and gratitude or are they holding you back from the new dream God has for you? I hope that, if you do engage with some pruning this fall and find yourself with a reverse mohawk that you will also see the new things God was already doing in the midst of what had died, just waiting for you to see it, water it, and give it light.

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