May 2, Easter 5B (John 15:1–8)
The vine branch doesn’t put “make grapes” on its to-do list. It just makes them.
My church wasn’t growing. I was serving a recently merged church in my first solo appointment as a United Methodist pastor, and the church was supposed to be growing. I had been appointed to this “turnaround” congregation, told it needed me because I was creative and energetic. They said I had potential to make this church bear fruit, and I believed them. My church was supposed to be growing, but it wasn’t.
I had participated in a two-year program on congregational development put on by my annual conference. Every month a different visionary leader armed with a PalmPilot on one hip and a cell phone on the other (this was the early 2000s), with cowboy swagger that was both bravado and “Aw shucks, was God faithful,” was paraded in front of us with the same story. He—they were almost all men—would tell us with a mix of self-effacing stories and hushed intensity about the strategies he’d implemented to turn around his faltering congregation. The message was always the same: if we did the right things and implemented the right strategy, God would be faithful and our ministry would bear fruit.
I had tried many of their ideas. Sometimes my church went along with me, and sometimes I ventured out on my own. I’d taken visitors mugs stuffed with packets of hot chocolate, tea, and a cheery note inviting them back to worship. I’d encouraged members to bring friends. I’d held neighborhood movie nights. I got known in the community through my involvement organizing for better schools.