Are you trying to make people grow?

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Don’t pull the saplings to make them grow.” A few weeks ago, Rev. Judith Sutterlin spoke at my church, First Baptist Church of Portland and mentioned this Chinese proverb. She learned it in her ministry teaching in a seminary in China.

It reminded me of similar words by Dr. Murray Bowen: “You can’t make a plant grow by pulling on it.”

The proverb doesn’t talk about plants, but about people. In our heartfelt desire for people to find their way in life, we so often end up trying to make them grow. It just doesn’t work. People resist our attempts to will them to change.

In fact, our efforts to make people change often produce the opposite effect. It’s counterproductive to be willful. You may want to see growth at church (numerical, financial and/or spiritual). Or you may have a church member or friend who is struggling in a relationship. You have a great idea how to fix it, or you are sure they should end it.

I’ve experienced this. The harder I try to convince someone to do what I think is best, the more reasons they have why they can’t do it. After years of this, I’ve finally learned to say less and listen more.

What if your church doesn’t want to change? I suggest:

First, begin by accepting them as they are. You still want more for them, of course. Leaders by definition are in a position to see the bigger picture.

Second, over time, tell them what you see, the new possibilities — but without that willful energy. You simply say, “That’s just how I see it.” This gives people room to say yes — or no

Third, you work with those who are motivated to carry out ministry. Don’t try to convince those who are naysayers, just stay connected with them.

You can do the same thing with individuals. Accept them, share a few ideas, work with those who are motivated. You  might toss off a thought. “Here’s an idea. I don’t know if it’s right for you.” Or give them three ideas. The fact is, you don’t actually know what is best for someone else. They have to figure it out for themselves.Stay in touch but don’t chase after them.

If someone doesn’t want to grow, rethink how much time you spend with them. It feels hard-hearted and mean. But you can spend endless hours with someone who has no motivation to change. Those hours could be spent with people who are motivated to learn and grow and develop ministries of their own.

Like plants, people were born to grow, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Let the light and the water of God’s love and grace do its work. You don’t have to keep pulling to make growth happen.

2 Responses to Are you trying to make people grow?

  1. Thanks, Dwight. I agree, there are consequences when people’s anxiety is high. Thanks for sharing your story here.

  2. Dwight Robarts says:

    Margaret, This post is right on. Sometimes there are consequences to this approach though. As you know in my last church when I came to the conclusion I had little power to lead (make, get, encourage or whatever word you want to choose) the church to grow and told the leaders so, they felt they had to “make a change.” While painful, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I no longer had to live under the burden of the anxiety the church felt about growth. And, I no longer had to live with the lack of integrity that came with pretending that somehow I was going to come up with the magic formula that would result in growth.

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