Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results

by Lovett H. Weems, Jr. and Tom Berlin 

If our congregations are faithful, does it matter if their work is fruitful? Lovett H. Weems Jr. and Tom Berlin answer this question in their new book, Bearing Fruit. We are called, they write, to both. The text includes a report on the Bible’ call to fruitfulness, the story of one congregation’s fruitful journey and recipes to move congregations and committees toward fruitfulness.

Fruitful does not equal success. Weems and Berlin define fruitful as advancing, “God’s reign on earth.” (p. xvi) The Bible uses fruit and fruitful 180 times. They write fruitfulness is an 1) an aspect of God’s character, 2) about God’s expanding reign, 3) something that “gives rise to healthy relationships, sound vocational decisions, and a stewardship of goals and possessions that bless generation after generation,” (p. 4) and 4) finally, it is about justice, “the expectation of God that all people will find resources to enjoy life.” (p. 7) To be fruitful we need to identify our intentions and take actions to accomplish them. God, as in all harvests, is responsible for success.

As an example of fruitfulness, the book shares the story of Berlin’s experience at Floris United Methodist Church near Washington, D. C. The journey toward fruitfulness started by looking a the congregation’s 100 year old history and using it as a jumping off point to identify a “God-sized vision” for the congregation. When Berlin arrived Floris worshipped 300. Ten years later this grew to 1,000 people. Besides relocating to a new space and adding services and ministries, the congregation seeded a mission to help orphan children in Sierra Leone. The orphanage now serves 250 children through its residential, foster care, and support-a-child program. What is more because of Floris’ fruitfulness, the children receive ongoing support not only from Floris, but also twelve other congregations.

If we agree with Weems and Berlin that congregations are called to be faithful and fruitful, we need to identify specifically what it is we seek to accomplish. Not so much because of the result but because “defining the purpose or outcome for every activity is that the desired outcome can shape every aspect of planning and execution of an activity.” (p. xv) This is an area where Bearing Fruit excels. Reading it will provide action ideas to help your congregation move to fruitfulness. Doing the exercises will help you to refine your work by looking anew at your mission, values and vision. It will help you to explore your ministries and determine outcomes that are consistent with them. You will make manifest “the why” behind what you do. That is, the fruit you hope to create.

One tool is the “so that” question. Bearing Fruit shares the story of how 100 Vacation Church School (VCS) workshop participants struggled to explain why they held the program each summer. They were asked to fill in this blank, “Next summer our church will have a vacation church school so that… They grappled with the answer. Finally, after moving participants into small groups, one group answered—“so that the children of our church will come to know and love God more and that we will reach children in the community with God’s love whom we have not reached before.” (p. 22) The work proposed requires all of us to think—intensely.

The struggle of the 100 VCS leaders demonstrates it won’t be easy. My background working as a Youth Staffer with the Lutheran Church confirms this. In that year, I met with countless youth groups across Florida, played crazy warm-up get-to-know you games before asking the youth to consider why it was important to have a youth group. It took 45 minutes to an hour to help them find solid answers. From this experience and many others as a consultant for the last 17 years, most people will find these exercises tough work. Most of us never think about the “so that” behind our congregational efforts.

It is not likely to be easy, but it is likely to be worthwhile. During the struggle, a clearer understanding of the ministries at hands emerges. Answering the “so that” question and other exercises supports and improves program decision-making. Do we market this VCS outside the congregation? Yes, because our “so that” identifies that we intend to reach new children. The answers to “so that” and other tasks enhance the value of the work for both laity and clergy. Outcomes empower leaders. A focus on outcomes places issues in proper perspective and often reduces small-concern-conflicts. If the goal of your VCS program is to help children to know and love God, you select your words and actions accordingly. At the beginning of the day, you stress less about collecting craft supplies. Instead you focus on welcoming the children. At day’s end, your more satisfied with your efforts, because you know they supported the outcome the VCS Team seeks to accomplish. Knowing your outcome supports the growth of thoughtful, intentional participation. It requires deep thinking. It asks people to examine the work of the congregation and grapple with meaning. Finally the activities, remind us of God and to be aware of God as we work, which we can forget in the hustle of congregational life.  

In your congregation, when might you use the materials suggested in Bearing Fruit? 

  1. As part of strategic planning process when you want to use the resulting plan and not let it gather gray dust bunnies.  

  2. When you “hit the wall” as a congregation, when energy lags and a collective contagious ennui abounds.  

  3. When you must “prune” activities to obtain adequate resources to nurture more important ones.   

  4. Before beginning new programs to ascertain God’s purpose for the work and its fit with your congregation mission.  

  5. When a major goal has been met, like adding a new building, and people ask, “What’s next?”  

  6. When the congregation or leadership senses God’s calling them to be more and/or  

  7. During transitions, when people are more open to a deeper look at the congregation and its role in the community. 

Bearing Fruit is not a complete encyclopedia on the process of bearing fruit. As difficult as identifying mission, values, history and a God size vision are, execution of the VCS and the “seasons of growing” still lie ahead. In the case of VCS, how exactly will you help children to know and love God more? What will you actually do? Once you know the outcome, how can you move from this vision to the harvest? While identification of the outcome sought is critical, faithful execution is still harder—perhaps the subject for a follow up book. For now, Bearing Fruit helps us to understand and to begin our work well “so that we will simply get started” (p. 63). 

Karen Eber Davis     Karen Eber Davis Consulting 
Sarasota, Florida 

Churches, Cultures, and Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities  

by Mark Lau Branson and Juan F. Martinez

How carefully should church officers, staff, and pastors have to think about ministry? I don’t pose this question technically, in the way that Heifitz and Linsky speak about “technical change” in Leadership on the Line. When I was a young pastor, technical change was in vogue for churches. It was easy to find programs promising great benefits, if you learned and applied certain skills and processes. Technical–based programs covered such pressing congregational topics as retaining new members, attracting more visitors, keeping your teenagers involved, increasing results for “stewardship (read “fund-raising”) campaigns, securing more Sunday school teachers, and so on.

Mark Lau Branson and Juan Martinez have not written a book about technical change. While certain kinds of technical skills clearly are mentioned, Churches, Cultures, & Leadership frames the need for change in terms congruent with Heifitz’s other category—namely, in being “adaptive.” These Fuller Seminary professors would argue that one of the most significant challenges for change in today’s American church concerns race and ethnicity. With this premise, the book unpacks a seemingly eclectic set of resources. Branson and Martinez believe that interplay between Bible study, theology, social science concepts, and group dynamics can stimulate congregations to discover the richness and transforming promise that cultural diversity offers.  

  The title of the book suggests the big bite that the authors ask their readers to chew. There is a lot of discussion here about culture and cultures, about the various lenses one can use to analyze the complexities that inhabit even the most seemingly simple of congregations. Such lenses are drawn here from 20th-century thinkers but especially from ways in which sociology and cultural anthropology explain the many nuances of being human. Paolo Friere’s concept of praxis as a way to strengthen marginalized communities (p. 41) forms part of the book’s foundation. Jurgen Habermas’ work is even more extensively employed. Branson explains how Habermas’ notions of “lifeworld,” “world concepts,” and “communicative competence (pp. 98-101; 190ff.)” provide a way to understand, and even work through, crosscultural struggles.

One of the benefits of the book, however, is that it does not ride just one pony. Throughout the middle five chapters, Branson and Martinez demonstrate over and over again how cognitive research on a variety of human characteristics yields insights useful to congregational ministry. These discussions include language, social relations, self-perception, and thinking processes—among others. Use of the social sciences in ministerial education has been slow in coming, but I laud Branson and Martinez in their judicious (and sometimes a bit compact) presentation of a number of fitting theoretical frameworks. In particular, their selection compellingly serves their aims to de-mystify and encourage community formation across traditional ethnic boundaries.

It is in this “secular” part of the conversation that some pastors—and many lay church officers, I suspect—would grow timid. They might object to its intellectual challenge, although the book never leaves specialized terms and concepts hanging in midair. More unfortunately, perhaps, church readers might wish for salvation by technique (but see above), or—just as misguidedly—a theological sound bite that will preach. Without explicitly saying so, Branson and Martinez never give in to the one-trick pony temptation that seems to plague so many books written today for churches. Theirs truly is an approach that crosses disciplines while maintaining focus on the life of congregational ministry.  

In other words, what drives the authors’ interest is in how conceptual resources (both secular and theological) can help American church people begin to understand more deeply why some of their well-meaning efforts fail or are misplaced. Branson and Martinez argue that single-culture congregations can be explained historically but cannot be justified biblically. In a society that is still dominated (though only for a few more decades) by communities with origins in Europe, ethnic groups from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and elswhere still experience other-ness. Using the book’s five-step process of “practical theology” (chapter 1), readers possess a revealing resource for sifting through unexamined contexts, theological biases,  stories, and histories. This process is designed to function as communal, spiritual discernment of the congregation’s renewed sense of purpose and direction. For these authors, it is a divine mandate, grounded in Scriptural witness, which calls churches to reflect and express the world’s racial and ethnic complexion.  

Exercises included throughout the book allow readers to explore both biblical/theological challenges and the revelatorystrength of sociocultural  perspectives for themselves. The authors make their theological claims (i.e., normative language) about the church as missional, without excuse or rhetoric. These frame the book but do not dominate the discussion. It is the careful way in which Branson and Martinez use descriptive language, guiding the readers to its application in their own ministry settings, that characterizes the presentation.  

Because their desired outcome is adaptive leadership, the book spells out in its last two chapters what all of this talk about “intercultural churches” can look like. Branson’s chapter on “Leading Change (10)” is probably the least original discussion in the book: its lists of “the work of leaders” contain many points that are made by organizational and other religious writers about change processes. Hence, Martinez’s chapter (11), the final one, provides an appropriate conclusion to the book, in identifying practices that support and express the authors’ goals. These practices revolve around discussions of sharing cultural narratives, rereading U.S. history, multicultural Bible study, a multicultural spirituality process, worship life, and decision-making. Too, because this work is adaptive rather than technical, Branson and Martinez emphasize that all of it will require creativity and contextual sensitivity to engage effectively (see p. 231). A number of figures and tables, along with some theological discussion in the Appendix and Bible studies sprinkled throughout, also make this book one for use “on the ground (to use one of Branson’s phrases).”  

So, how carefully should church officers, staff, and pastors have to think about ministry? Churches, Cultures, & Leadership has a ready audience in theological education. This does not mean, however, that Branson and Martinez want Alban Institute members to ignore their book! As the American population continues to ring itself around metropolitan areas—with all of their growing diversities—, this book could become a welcome and most useful church resource, for many years to come. 

George B. Thompson, Jr. is a field consultant with the Alban Institute and professor of Leadership and Ministry Practice at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia.