By Eddie Pipkin

Recently touring Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia, I was perusing the bonsai exhibit, enchanted by this diminutive crape myrtle in the picture.  I knew that the art and technique of bonsai was based on patience and a meticulous attention to detail.  But I was astonished to see that this two-foot specimen of lagerstroemia indica (for all you botanists), first became a part of their collection in 1944!  While World War II was still raging, it began its “training,” as they say in bonsai circles: horticulturists lovingly tended every branch and bloom, pruning with great care and deciding with careful thought which branches would grow strong.  They thought decades ahead as to what form the mature tree would take, and the result is a living masterpiece of beauty and form.

Ah, were it so with local churches!

We ministry leaders too often operate like a chainsaw crew, ripping out whole ministry landscapes whenever we change leadership, trampling the beautiful things that are already planted to replace them with some bold new latest idea in gardening.

What if we took a longer view?  What if we turned our efforts to the careful cultivation of long-range goals?  What if we developed patience, embracing the power of small changes directed towards a clear eventual outcome, snipping here and trimming there, and celebrating the little blooms of success along the way?  There is something richly rewarding about the results of consistently applied, patiently focused effort: it’s like the difference between the tomato you grow in your own backyard and the disappointing mass-produced tomato you buy on sale at the grocery store.

Of course, this is deeply rooted biblical thinking (pardon the pun).  A thorough reading of the Old and New Testaments clearly confirms God’s status as a long-range planner.  Jesus patiently cared for and developed his small team of core followers, helping them discover their unique strengths and even the ways their personal brokenness could be used for something beautiful.

In order to employ “bonsai thinking,” it’s good to be guided by some basic principles:

  • We have to have some idea where we are going. There are plenty of local congregations who still have no clear vision in place.  There are also plenty who think they do, but really don’t   Even when they’ve done the work of visioning (listening groups, focus sessions, surveys, leadership planning marathons), they come out of the other end of the process with a collection of action points and no coherent sense of their goal or destination.  A bonsai tree presents an instructive metaphor: the gardener has a general sense of the qualities and characteristics for which they are planning, but they can also be flexible and adaptive in getting there (and ultimately producing something surprisingly beautiful in unanticipated ways).
  • It’s an organic, responsive process, this process of maturity. The flexibility comes from carefully observing the characteristics of a particular tree and nurturing its best and most interesting attributes.  The gardener is not attempting to force the tree to be something it isn’t, but is bringing out its most beautiful qualities.  For many congregations this would be a radical approach to ministry.  Often leadership has a rigid expectation of what ministry will look like that it then forces on people, wedging them into roles and modes that don’t fit those people’s gifts and passions.  “Bonsai thinking” prayerfully matches form to purpose.  Some branches may need to be gently trimmed.  Some will thrive given room to grow.  But they are all part of a beautiful whole.
  • We must practice patience. This is a long-term process.  Sure, there are short-term goals to be pursued and celebrated, but we are cultivating ministry – and those who serve in ministry – for lifelong impact.  We embrace the beautifully circular aspect in which ministry work achieves good in the world while also achieving good for those who devote themselves in service to it.  The key to overcoming the frustration of seemingly slow progress is to remember where you’re headed and think of each decision and each event as a steady step forward.

Here are some strategies for living out these principles of “bonsai thinking”:

  • The 5/25 rule. Warren Buffet is credited with this revelatory insight into focusing on what really matters (the heart of “bonsai thinking”).  If you are short on time as you’re reading this, go directly now to this YouTube version of the story or check out this narrative version from Business Insider.  For those of us who struggle to keep our personal work or our ministry efforts on track, this insight is a game-changer.  Know what matters most.  Focus on that like a laser.
  • Use the right tools. Practitioners of bonsai don’t use an axe (which might give you pause to wonder why so many ministry leaders are eagerly grinding theirs).  Bonsai-ers don’t even use crude garden shears.  They have precisely crafted implements which are employed for specific needs.  Our leadership techniques, training strategies, and planning approaches should not be one-size-fits all.  We should be using a wide palette of techniques to meet different ministry needs and guide different individuals in their discipleship and leadership journeys.
  • Develop leadership. And the development of leadership (which we will use our full palette of techniques to nurture in the pursuit of maximum health and productivity) is the critical cultivation of ministry branches.  It is the core of our work.  We pay close attention to each branch, taking seriously the work of pruning (if those branches are overextended or heading in the wrong directing) and fertilizing (ensuring a bountiful harvest, empowering them to grow in ways that benefit them individually while benefitting the overall ministry).
  • Hide it under a bushel: NO! Communicate what you are doing.    Reinforce.  Your “bonsai thinking” is not a secret plan between you and God.  It’s not manipulative, and it’s not too complicated for people to understand.  Make them partners at every step of the process, laying out the vision for where this growth is headed, and carefully – and repeatedly, because we’ve all done church communications – explaining every Master Gardener move.  Help people see the big picture.  Share your tools with them.  Help everyone understand exactly what’s happening.
  • Step back, sit down, and see what you see. Understand the underlying purpose of the craft of bonsai.  It is meant to be contemplative, restful, and a celebration of the harmony of nature and humanity.  Be discipled about a routine in which you and your team step back regularly from the ministry to take a wider perspective, appreciating what has been accomplished, naming the blessings that have resulted, and contemplating each step that helped you arrive there.  Share the wisdom of your journey and preserve that wisdom for future gardeners.  Give thanks to God.

What’s your current ministry environment?  Do you find yourself constantly spraying weed killer and replanting perennials in a quest to impress the neighbors?  Or are you and your team employing “bonsai thinking”: taking a measured approach to carefully cultivate something beautiful in its own unique way?