It was a Friday morning, and our neighbor had a tree company remove brush from her backyard. Noticing some dead branches on one of several hundred foot tall trees that grace our backyard, she suggested that we might want to use the tree service as well.
Fascinated by the height and stateliness of our trees, I asked the supervisor what kind of trees we have. One is a silver maple. The other tree with the dead branches fifty feet above the ground is a shag bark hickory tree, and the big green capsules that keep falling on our roof contain hickory nuts inside. He said that our trees are likely eighty to a hundred years old and that like everything that lives on this earth, they have a lifecycle. That’s why during violent thunderstorms some of these big old trees, weakened by age, topple over and die. More than one church member had a big tree crash through their roof this summer during violent storms.
The trunk of a tree contains a tree ring that records its growth and life history. The rings will tell you whether and when there were fires, too much or too little rain, windstorms, or infestations. Tree rings also reveal if something grew against the tree or if the tree competed against other trees for space, soil, and light.
Trees are a renewable natural resource that can last for generations. Yet, at times old trees need to be removed so that new trees can grow. It’s all part of the natural recycling of the forest, especially with the onset of fall weather when deciduous trees lose their leaves.
Some trees just can’t wait. A few brilliant splashes of red dot the landscape while most trees hang on to life as long as possible before surrendering their leaves in a blaze of glory. The letting go of autumn is but a prelude to the death of winter, which leads to the resurrection of new life in the spring. The lifecycle of nature is but a metaphor for the mystery of the seasons of our own lives and gratitude for rebirth and renewal.
Everything that lives has a lifecycle. The author of Psalm 90 writes that the span of our human lives is seventy years; eighty if we are strong. According to a recent study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, women live longer than men in the U.S.: 81 for women and 76 for men. However, the gap has been closing in recent years, perhaps because fewer women are treated for high blood pressure and cholesterol. Men’s lifespans have increased by 4.6 years since 1989, but women’s lifespans have only increased 2.7 years.
In addition, people living in the south are a full decade behind coastal California in life expectancy. Evidence is clear that high life expectancies correspond with healthier lifestyles, higher incomes and education levels, and access to healthcare. When we live as whole, healthy, and vital individuals and continually reinvent ourselves as we pass through different life stages, we generally enjoy a longer, more fulfilled existence.
Did you know that churches have a lifecycle as well? Drawing upon patterns of growth and decline in congregations of all denominations, George Bullard describes ten distinct periods in a congregation’s life, along with four key factors that determine where a church is in its lifecycle. Like human lifecycles, churches grow in stages through birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood.
At the beginning of a congregation’s life, vision (Where are we going?) is most important. In the upside of a church’s life, relationships (Who is going with us?) then become critical, followed by programs (How do we get there?), and finally, structure (What do we control?). In a mature congregation vision, relationships, programs, and structure align and work in concert to effectively fulfill the church’s mission, make disciples, and change the world through ministry and outreach.
A new congregation today can reach its peak in seven years, after which the roller coaster of congregational life will move downward through maturity, empty nest, retirement, old age, and finally, death. The first thing to go in a church is vision. When we drift along, simply maintaining but with no direction or goals, we’ll gradually lose relationships and programs until only the empty shell of structure remains. However, just as human beings can reinvent ourselves at any stage of our lives, so congregations continually have the opportunity to create a new life cycle through adaptive and systemic change.
The rapid pace of change in our world today only accelerates the downward spiral of churches that refuse to face the reality of their decline. According to Paul Borden in his book, Direct Hit, when congregations reach their peak they can only stay there for three to five years until they either decline or create a new lifecycle.
Realizing that even healthy churches need to reinvent themselves every five to seven years to remain vital, it’s especially amazing how many one hundred to two hundred year old congregations are still doing effective ministry. Almost every congregation can reverse the decline of “retirement” and “old age” in churches.
The secrets of a new lifecycle:
- A compelling and unique vision for God’s preferred future for the congregation that creates urgency as well as anticipation and hope
- Mission, core values, and relationships that determine ministry and structure, not the reverse
- A deliberate commitment to focus outward on reaching new people rather than an insistence on managing buildings and image
- A culture of faith formation, honest self-reflection, and continuous improvement
- Developing and empowering lay leaders who are not afraid to be reborn and have the courage to be creative
- A willingness to die to whatever holds us back from making disciples, transforming lives and institutions, and growing the kingdom of God
I am glad that our neighbor suggested we cut off the branches of the old shag bark hickory tree. Free from that dead weight, may our tree become healthy again and focus its energies on producing more hickory nuts. I just might use them for baking a hickory nut cake like my mother used to make from the hickory trees in my childhood backyard. I am also grateful that even though we humans can’t fully reverse the aging process in our own lives, we, along with our congregations, can continually reinvent ourselves and enter into new lifecycles of growth, fruit-bearing, and kingdom-building.
Where is your church in its lifecycle? What reality does your “tree ring” reveal? Are you in your infancy, adolescence, or adulthood? Or are you past your peak and headed down toward old age? The good news is that it’s almost never too late to regain your health and create a new lifecycle. All you need is a burning in your collective heart, a conscious decision to grow and change, a fresh vision and a plan for getting there, and the willingness to let the Holy Spirit unleash its power. Lifecycles: they’re not just for trees.