The peonies are spent. The fragrant blossoms morphed from pink in their earliest stages, to palest blush in full flower, to sad brown mop heads. And so I did the necessary thing. I deadheaded them, lopping off the flower heads. I’m no gardener (that’s my spouse’s gift) but I can cut off dead flower heads and do weeding.

This wasn’t simply an aesthetic exercise. Deadheading helps the plant to flourish. Without it, the plant will continue to send energy to the dead flower for seed production, but you want it to send the energy either to new flowers (not true of peonies) or to stronger root growth (true for my peonies.) There’s something meditative in this practice. It’s nice to see a clean flowerbed and know that you’ve done something to make the plant and the garden flourish.

Of course, clearing out a bed like this means you discover some things, like an invasive vine that needs to be yanked, or the beginnings of a volunteer sprout from a nearby tree, or a bamboo shoot. It’s like the “mission creep” that occurs when you do some project inside the house: in stripping some old wallpaper you find a spongy wall, indicating that there’s some water leaking from somewhere. A small project becomes a larger one, but finding a problem earlier is better than finding it later.

There’s a parallel process in ChurchWorld.

In some ways, it’s similar, in others it’s much more complex. Nevertheless, if you want a thriving church, it’s necessary.

I spent some time working with St. Swithen’s in the Swamp, a small suburban congregation with a mature demographic. In our first meeting, I noticed the exhaustion of the leaders. I had prepared for my first visit with them by looking at their website (we’ll talk about websites in a later post I more detail) and I was curious.

This little parish had a list of thirty different ministries. Some were annual events (yard sale) and some were ongoing (Altar Guild, Flower Guild, tutoring of neighborhood children.) Some were inward-facing – a grand tea party complete with fancy hats for Mother’s Day – and some were outward facing, such as the outdoor movie nights in the summer, where the whole neighborhood could come and watch a family-friendly movie projected on a big screen, and drink their sodas and eat popcorn.

Many of these ministries had been ongoing for decades. Their starting point may have been lost in the mists of time. Each was viewed as something that “had to continue.” But for some of them, it had become impossible to sustain them, to find volunteers, or to fund the associated costs.

The congregational studies expert Dr. George Bullard has said that to sustain all the ministries that many churches expect to offer, it would take 700 active members to do everything. St. Swithen’s, it goes without saying, did not have 700 active members. Nor did they have staff that could support a broad range of activities.

In big churches, there may be part- or full-time professional staff to support a broad range of ministries. But St. Swithen’s, like many small to midsize parishes, had a very limited staff: the Rector, the part-time office administrator, the part-time organist, and the part-time sexton. There were no assistant clergy persons, no Director of Christian Education, no Director of Outreach. All of the work of supporting these ministries was carried out by the priest and a squad of volunteers. A squad of volunteers who were mostly past retirement age, with the associated limitations that advancing maturity might bring. A squad of volunteers that was shrinking, with folks moving away, going on to the the Heavenly Banquet, no longer feeling strong enough to do what they had done in the past…this is a familiar story to many, I’d wager.

But the power of expectations was strong, so the shrinking group of leaders were doing EVERYTHING. It was a recipe for exhaustion, resentment, and mediocre action. Some folks had stopped coming to church, fearing they’d be asked to help out on something. This was not sustainable.

My initial conversation with the leadership was about hearing their hopes, needs, worries, aspirations. As is often the case, there was a sincere desire for growth. But it wasn’t about bringing new souls to Christ or to a deeper relationship with Christ. It was about finding people who could be financial supporters and…wait for it…VOLUNTEERS.

So we talked about the values they most cherished about their church family and the things they did well.

And then I said, “let’s look at this broad range of ministries. Which of them align with your values and your strengths? What are you called to accomplish here?”

It took more than one meeting to do this work, and that was a good thing, because our stories of how our ministries and our choices are tender ones, and getting from the “what” to the “why” sometimes takes some unpacking.

We talked about doing less things so that the things we did aligned with our purpose as a church and so that we could do them with  joy and full commitment. We prioritized which things were most important…

…and that led to an inevitable conversation.

“How do we tell people we’re not going to do the tea party/yard sale/Vacation Bible School anymore?” They’ll be heartbroken/angry/confused.”

“So how about the possibility that some might be relieved that you let that ministry go, that it has served its purpose? How about saying that an annual event might be once every two years, alternating with another big annual event? How about noting that having a particular identity as a church means you focus your efforts so the community around you knows what you’re about?”

And here’s the other positive of “deadheading” ministries: it makes room for something new. Like plants, if all the effort is put into keeping a dead blossom alive, there’s no energy left for new things to flower. Similarly, this is why we divide our irises when they get too dense – to make room to grow.

So it might make sense to develop a spiritual practice as church leadership, something that could be called an annual energy audit. What are the things we do that increase the energy of God in our church and community? What are the things that are a net drain? Where are we feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit?

An annual energy audit of your ministries might ask these questions:

  • What’s our “why?” Highest values, identity, whom we serve within and outside the walls…
  • (for each ministry) Does this ministry live into the “why?”
  • Has it outlived its usefulness in terms of living into what our church offers?
  • If it no longer works (a clue is being unable to get volunteers), can/should it be tweaked? Can/should it be allowed to lay fallow for a year or two? Is it time to say thank you to it and lay it down?
  • Is there space for new movement of the Holy Spirit?

An aside: there’s a difference between a personal ministry passion and something the church is sponsoring. If I have a passion for ministry to new emigres because I speak their language but it’s not in alignment with the focus and passion of my church in particular, it’s not my task to convince the parish otherwise. I can live into my personal ministry passion without expecting that the parish has to fund it or participate in it. Not every ministry must be under a church umbrella, and that’s okay.

Deadheading ministries is healthy garden maintenance. View it as meditative work, as discernment, rather than as a shrinking. Time to make space for growing, because God is always doing a new thing.

Blessings, friends! Do feel free to share your thoughts on this topic below…


Copyright © 2021 Mary Brennan Thorpe

3 thoughts on “Deadheading

  1. Absolutely on target Mary. The church I serve as part time Parish Administrator has not had a rector for a year now so I am the only staff member. With no one to guide them 75% of the new vestry that was appointed in January don’t understand the premise of Bless, Build or Bury. With the restrictions of Covid they haven’t gone out to recruit volunteer committee members so they each try to do everything themselves which means 5 months after they started they are exhausted and morale and finances continue to slump.



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