“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” – John 15:1-2
This time of year, in wine country, the vines stand naked and exposed like twisted sticks arranged in rows. A newcomer to the area might wonder in alarm if the vines have died. Indeed, they look dead! The strong, supple branches that once held the leaves and grapes have given their fruit to the harvest and dropped all their leaves. The sap has traveled down into the trunk, and the once graceful branches have hardened into brown canes. Now, it’s time to cut back the old wood. Skilled workers with sharp, clean pruning shears hand cut every cane, dropping them in piles between the rows. Today, the canes are gathered, ground and recycled as mulch, but in years past, the canes were piled high in an open field and burned.
Pruning is not a random slashing of the canes. Rather every cane is carefully inspected and cut at a point appropriate for that cane. Vines that are supported by a trellis system generally have branches that are trained out from the trunk in a “T” shape. The branches that form the top of the T are called cordons, and each cordon has numerous spurs. Spurs are basically the stumps that remain from years of pruning. All the fruiting canes come from healthy spurs, and careful vineyard workers make sure each spur produces only two canes. During pruning season, one of the spent canes is cut completely off and the other is cut in such a way as to leave only two nodes. In the spring, the two nodes will burst forth with tiny tendrils and leaves to become the new canes on which the fruit will grow. For now, the nodes are barely visible little lumps on the bit of cane sticking up from the spur.
The pruning details I have described are certainly simplified (and maybe already more than you wanted to know about pruning!), but let’s focus on a couple of principles that apply to our lives as leaders.
Pruning is not a random slashing of the canes. Rather every cane is carefully inspected and cut at a point appropriate for that cane.
In the vineyard, pruning happens every year. And, so it is with leaders. We must submit to a process of pruning on a regular basis for sustained fruitfulness over the life of our leadership. If we do not cut out the dead wood of activities that are no longer fruitful, or allow God to prune out character traits that hinder us, and habits that divert our energy, the next harvest of our leadership will be less fruitful instead of more fruitful. And, as in the vineyard, it seems pruning often comes shortly after a significant harvest.
This may seem trivial, but, a few years back, I allowed God to prune back my travel schedule. I had spent many years traveling extensively and interacting with significant leaders across the country. It had been a fruitful season—and a fun one!—but God was redirecting me. The cane that had previously produced great fruit was cut off. I felt dead. Useless. Exposed. I had to endure a season of waiting, wondering if there would ever be fruit on my branches again. In the midst of that season, I moved to wine country where I was able to observe the stark vines in winter and the rhythm of pruning. As I got a little closer to the wound of the pruning shears, I noticed the two little buds that remained as tiny signs of hope that are invisible to the casual observer. Buried in the dead wood of that season, I began to pay attention to the traces of hope which remained, almost imperceptibly, but there, nonetheless. In due time, the next season burst forth, but not until the work of winter was accomplished.
In the vineyard, pruning happens every year. And, so it is with leaders. We must submit to a process of pruning on a regular basis for sustained fruitfulness over the life of our leadership.
As leaders, not only do we submit ourselves, personally, to the pruning process, but as we look around at the context in which we lead, we must regularly ask the question, “What needs to be pruned to promote greater fruitfulness in the next season?” Pruning is not optional. It is a necessary part of the rhythm of work and leadership, an unavoidable piece of the cycle of fruitfulness in any organization. The simple act of cutting something out absolutely makes room and creates hope for a new harvest. Acknowledging the emptiness, and paying attention to hope carries us into the next season. Spring always follows winter.
Friends, pruning looks harsh and feels like death, but, done correctly, provides the best environment for a rich harvest. As leaders, we must courageously embrace the rhythm of winter pruning. In the end, the biggest mistake novice gardeners make is to not pruning harshly enough. The older the vine, the harder it must be pruned to produce quality fruit in the next season. As we mature in our leadership we can anticipate God’s loving pruning to be that of a master gardener. God knows exactly when to prune our lives and how much needs to be pruned to produce the greatest Kingdom harvest.
Susie Lipps is Fuller’s Bay Area director for Strategic Engagement. She is an entrepreneur, most recently launching Conversations in the Vineyard, which marries two of her passions: leadership and vineyards. Susie loves good coffee, good wine, and the great conversations that inevitably accompany them.