When we moved into our house nearly 12 years ago, I was introduced to a tree that I had only been mildly aware of in the past, the Bradford Pear tree. We had five of them on our property when we first moved in. The branches of the tree spread out far and they grew fairly tall. Aesthetically, they looked pleasing to the eye, but looks can be deceiving.
When Spring came around, the tree would bloom and the blooms would smell like someone had let air out of the tires of their car. They stunk. The blossoms would fall all over the ground and make a mess of the yard.
As the years went by and we experienced some significant storms in our area, I became more aware of the structure of the tree (once an engineer, always an engineer). The trunk of the tree remained fairly short while the branches extended far out. The problem with this structure is that the branches can’t handle excessive stress, when the winds flow and the rains and snows fall, they grow weaker and weaker until they finally succumb to the weight and collapse.
Our first Bradford Pear tree broke in the middle of a storm late at night. The next morning, as we were leaving very early for a trip up north, we drove down the street to encounter our tree blocking off one lane of the road. In my haste to remove the tree, I threw my back out and was miserable for the ride north and the first few days of our trip. Needless to say, we had the tree removed.
Years later, just after a storm, our second Bradford Pear tree fell over, nearly hitting the house. We proactively removed the rest of it with its brother tree which was right next to it, thankful that it hadn’t done more damage.
Our final tree lost a branch onto the front of our van, scratching it slightly but not as bad as it could have been. We had the rest of the tree removed and I honestly thought that I was done with Bradford Pear trees. Little did I know.
While the tree company had removed a significant portion of the trees, some of the root structure was left intact and continued to grow and grow, invading the ground and sucking the nutrients from the soil.
What was interesting to me was that in the places where the other trees had been in the yard, the plants and bushes around that area began to flourish and grow. They were no longer stagnated by the Bradford Pear but instead were able to take in what was necessary for their own growth. Soon, some of these plants which had been fairly small in the presence of the Bradford Pears began to show their capabilities for growth. They were no longer hindered by this large presence which somehow made itself look so looming and large, all the while being frail and fragile.
I’ve thought a lot about those Bradford Pears over the years, especially as I’ve worked in churches the whole time. You see, I’ve noticed that there are some people who inhabit churches who are very much like Bradford Pear trees. At first glance, they look looming and large, healthy and mature. They seem to have staying power and they appear to be beneficial to the environment. But then, in the midst of storms, you begin to see what they are really made of, that they are not as strong and sturdy as they came across.
In fact, just like the Bradford Pear trees, they took the nutrients from the soil, stunting the growth of everything and everyone around them. And as soon as they were removed, the environment changed. People who had once been overshadowed were now able to grow and flourish. They were no longer hindered.
Within the church, we sometimes go into panic mode when people leave. We begin to fear and think that there might be something wrong. We might wonder how we will survive without these people who, like the Bradford Pear trees, have given off an air of belonging and mightiness, all the while they are sick and diseased beneath the surface. They aren’t seeking to get healthier, they just want to suck the life away from everything around them.
I’ve witnessed what has happened when they’ve been removed (in some way or another, but usually by their own choice). While some might panic, the end result generally becomes addition by subtraction. Their absence is also an absence of negativity, of controlling behavior, of domineering, of an unhealthy presence. As soon as that is gone, there is room for growth.
But again, like the Bradford Pear tree, the root system can run deep and wide and if you aren’t careful and vigilant, the remnants of that unhealthy growth may linger for a long time afterwards if you don’t do the necessary work of digging deep and removing every last bit of those horrible roots.
In the many churches that I’ve worked in over the years, I have seen this time and time again. In my friendships with other pastors, I’ve heard their similar stories. Over and over again, the removal of unhealthy people was necessary for the church to grow in ways that had been stagnated by the unhealthy presence of those people.
Now, before you criticize me and tell me that this is graceless and unforgiving, consider some of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples when they would encounter unreceptive people. They would make efforts but they would eventually wipe the dust from their feet and move on. We can only do so much before we need to walk away and trust that the Holy Spirit will do the work that only he can do if it is work that he is supposed to do.
In my yard, I am done with Bradford Pear trees. I will never plant one in my yard. I continue to struggle with the root systems that lie beneath the surface, invading my yard and sprouting their life-sucking branches all over. But I’m pretty sure that I will continue to encounter people who act very much the same way within the church. I will continue to pray through my experiences with them, trusting that I will extend grace when I feel least like giving it. And when they leave and are removed, I may mourn their presence briefly but I will ultimately rejoice that in their absence, there will be room for good and healthy growth, something that was near impossible while they were still there.