A friend recently had surgery and we wanted to send flowers as she recuperated.
My wife, Kathy, asked: “What do you think? A bouquet of flowers or a plant?”
Knowing this friend has a new house and could later use the plant in the landscape, we decided on a beautiful azalea, in the hopes that they would enjoy it for many years to come.
That exchange reminded me of other thoughts and conversations having to do with healthy churches and ministers.
I recently was talking about a national religious organization and the person I was talking with said with a grimace, “I think that group is a cut flower.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’m afraid they’ve peaked and the future for them is going to be one of slow decline,” he responded.
Ouch. My mind went immediately to a wonderful book from a few years ago by Bob Dale.
In “Cultivating Perennial Churches,” Dale makes the case that healthy congregations have more in common with perennial plants than annuals.
He does a great job unpacking that metaphor and offering case studies of perennial churches.
Most home gardeners have learned that planting perennial flowers means you will plant once and enjoy years of sustained growth and color with proper care and feeding.
Annuals, while often brighter and more prolific, are a one-season plant that must be replaced each year.
While they certainly have their place in the garden, they are best used as accents to the plants that will reappear each year.
When it comes to churches and other religious bodies, our goal is to create viability, sustainability and long-lasting impact for the work of the gospel.
On our best days, we are more focused on perennial growth than “flash in the pan” or one-season growth.
Thus, one prevailing metaphor for any religious body, congregation or Christ-follower to consider carefully is the long-term implications and impacts of all that we do.
Building a great church, organization or life is a perennial proposition; it will not be accomplished in one season.
When someone describes a ministry, church or minister as a “cut flower,” it means that they have become cut off from the source of their sustenance and face a dire future of decline and irrelevance.
Cut flowers are beautiful for a few days, but eventually are tossed aside as their attractiveness fades.
Many churches and organizations have lost contact with their reason for being. They have become obsessed with their internal politics or programming and face the prospect of becoming irrelevant in the life of their community.
Gradually, they find people drifting away as the lack of a compelling missional vision breeds boredom and apathy.
The cure for such drifting is an intentional season of reconnecting with the founding vision and mission of the church, organization or person.
Once we re-establish our why (reason for being here), we are ready to delve into a vast array of options related to what we do and how we do those things.
Perennial churches and groups are those that are grounded and rooted in a clear and understandable mission. Their very DNA drives them to think long-term rather than short-term.
They position themselves to survive the seasonal challenges, they endure the droughts and floods, they know that every winter gives way to spring in one form or another.
To accomplish this, healthy churches, organizations and Christians feed and care for the parts of them that are below the surface: relationships, foundational teachings and theology, Christ-centeredness, leader humility, healthy structures, integrity, honesty, proper motivations, transparency, clear boundaries and so on.
In doing so, they provide the proper nutrients for long-term growth and sustainability.
I can only hope that our friend will enjoy her plant long after her body has healed and her health crisis has passed.
In fact, I like to think that many years from now, when that azalea is blooming on a spring morning, she will be reminded of the love and support from others in her time of need.
In the same way, my hope and dream for churches and organizations are that we will endure the ups and downs of life in such a way that we bear a consistent witness of faithfulness and vitality across many decades and even centuries of life.
In the landscape beds around our home are six young dogwood trees. Each of them was planted as one of our six grandchildren was born. A seventh will be going in this winter!
My hope is that in the future, when those perennial trees are mature and providing their annual show of blossoms and beauty, we will be reminded of the great joy and excitement that Kathryn, Liam, Virginia, Margaret, Zoe and Bates brought to our lives.
The cut flowers will be long gone, but the perennials will endure. Thank God.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.