The Church is a tended vine. The metaphor runs through all of scripture, from Isaiah 5 to John 15. It’s our model for making disciples. But have we taken a moment to ask what we know about the plants themselves? Consider:

  • Vines offer less to look at than perhaps any other plant. There’s just no other way to say it: they are ugly, gangly plants.
  • No other plant is as fruitful as a vine. Properly tended, it will produce bushels and bushels of grapes.
  • Then again, vines are incredibly high maintenance. They will only live and thrive if they are handled with great care and constant pruning.
  • This is because it is the most dependent plant in the world. It can’t be propped up on its own—it must be trained to grow off the ground.
  • A vine serves no other purpose beyond producing fruit. A fruitless vine is basically a high-maintenance weed.

Some days our churches feel very aligned with these descriptors, don’t they? We imagine all the fruit that could be borne if only it were tended and pruned. We see how harmful the community becomes when it isn’t producing any fruit, ingrown and tangled. And we feel as if we are constantly propping up the church, trying to gain momentum and growth.

Tending the Vine

In The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift that Changes Everything, authors Colin Marshall and Tony Payne recognize that every organism needs supporting structure. Bodies need skeletons. Yet they remind church leaders that their primary responsibility is to the vine. They are disciple-makers at their core.

So why does so much of our time end up absorbed by trellis-building?

There are necessarily utilitarian roles in the life of a pastor. We all know that it isn’t all glamorous. There are days we all think: Really? THIS is what ‘kingdom work’ looks like? Budget meetings and building maintenance?

Institutions Need Trellises

But Marshall and Payne’s thesis is that once we understand our job as tending vines, these seemingly ‘corporate’ or ‘functional’ tasks can be seen as part of the vital spiritual work you are called to. In fact, Andy Crouch wrote on the virtue of institutions and the ways in which culture has diminished their value. In his words, it takes institutions to cultivate “real, thick community”, as opposed to the instant gratification of social media. We need young leaders who will be patient, even in the seemingly mundane. That means committing to trellis-building.

Our lives as pastors, then, operate out of this daily tension—are we tending to the vine or tending to the trellis? How do we balance the work we do directly with and for the people of God as opposed to building in the necessary structures so that the people of God can flourish?

Out of Balance

There are those who are drawn naturally to ‘trellis’ work. They like to handle projects that are concrete, that have measurable outcomes. As the book puts it: “Trellis work often looks more impressive than vine work. It’s more visible and structural.” Trellis work also implies less personal risk. Even in looking after my own life, I choose trellis work. I will routinely opt to, say, fold laundry rather than spend time in prayer.

When trellises become the focus then we become “easily consumed by keeping ministry programs running” and soon “it takes all our energies just to keep the wheels turning.” And after all that effort, there has been little payoff in actual spiritual growth in those you’ve been called to disciple. And, most worryingly, because trellis work like this often yields some outward sign of change, it’s easy to justify a breathless, fruitless pace in ministry.

The Slow Work on the Vine

When I was the rector of Christ Church Plano, I found myself falling into those bad habits. In the midst of one of those ‘wheel-spinning’ seasons, a young priest who worked for me asked if he could lead a small men’s study. It would be an intensive Saturday morning program. I started imagining the program, how it could expand and serve more. But he insisted that it should be small, just 10-12 men in a nine month program walking through the Sermon on the Mount and learning to be a disciple.

I sort of thought of this as a ‘minor’ ministry and went about my work. After a couple of years, I noticed this core of men—about forty of them were suddenly everywhere in the life of our church. They were serving our children, coming on to the vestry, visiting hospitals—these were people who had taken ownership of their faith in the sorts of ways all pastors dream! And there was one common denominator: they had all been through this ‘minor’ ministry.

As Marshall and Payne write, “If we take our focus off our immediate pressures and aim for long-term expansion, the pressures we face will become less immediate and may eventually disappear.” Because of this small bible study, suddenly these bigger, heavier projects became less urgent—we were seeing abundant fruit coming from this faithful work.

Work Alongside the Owner

A trellis is a necessary, but simple structure. Just something sunk deep enough in the soil and sturdy enough to bear the weight of the vine. It doesn’t need embellishment or extravagance; indeed, adding such things are likely just to block the growth of the vine. And the simpler the trellis, the less relentless its demands to be maintained.

The tension of trellises and vines will always be a part of ministry. We will likely continue to feel pressure to build up programs instead of people, tallying numbers instead of growing hearts. But if we invite the owner of the vineyard to work alongside us—to work in us as well—we will find great joy in tending the vines that have been entrusted to us and we will rejoice at the fruit they bear.