Pruning: The Gift of Letting Go

In the vineyard, winter is the season for pruning.  The branches, once covered with leaves and heavy with fruit, are now superfluous…undesired…and they must be cut off.  It’s hard to imagine anything growing out of the “sticks” that are left.  The vine looks dead. 

Upon closer inspection, however, we might notice the branch has not been cleanly cut off at the trunk.  A tiny tag of the branch protrudes from the cordon.  On that tiny tag are two or three fuzzy buds.  These are the embryos, the promise of this year’s harvest.  From these buds will burst forth branches, and on these branches, will hang the fruit that will make this year’s wine.    

But let’s not rush into spring.  Rather, let's sit quietly, pondering the severe gift of pruning.  As leaders, we have all experienced pruning.  Perhaps, like me, your mind wanders to a personal pruning and a time of isolation, or a difficult corporate pruning.  The concept of pruning can be widely applied.  It is as simple as cleaning out our closet, our garage, or our desk…getting rid of things we no longer want, need or use…freeing up physical and mental space for the next season of life.  Pruning is also a metaphor for courageously disciplining ourselves to get rid of habits of character that no longer serve us.   Sometimes pruning happens when we must let go of difficult relationships.  At work, projects and programs that no longer serve the vision and mission of our organization must be pruned.  Each pruning event comes with a certain amount of pain and some fear.

It’s hard to let go of something which has been useful and beautiful, something in which we have invested precious time and soul-energy.  We worry about the future or we fear we might dishonor the past. We are paralyzed by the “what ifs” that flood our mind. What if I get rid of something I’ll need again?  What if it’s too hard to change my habits?  What if I’ll never find another close relationship like this one?  What if slashing a program hurts people I care about or somehow invalidates their contribution to the program?  Where is the gift in that?  It just feels like death. 

It’s true.  There’s no getting around it.  Life and death are inextricable.  The yearly rhythm of pruning in the vineyard reminds us death is a prerequisite to life.  The death (pruning) of the old branch is a necessary ending that makes room for the next season of fruitfulness. Ultimately, pruning produces abundance. 

Everything has seasons, and we have to be able to recognize when something’s time has passed and be able to move into the next season.  Everything that is alive requires pruning… ~Henry Cloud

It's important to remember pruning is not just haphazard hacking.  It is done with great care and intentionality.  As we noticed already, the branch that will bear the fruit has been cut back, but two tiny buds of promise have been left on the cane.  However, the buds identified to become fruit-bearing branches are NOT on the same branch that produced the fruit the year before.

Interestingly, fruit only happens on wood that is one year old. 

The branch that held last year’s fruit will be two years old now and will not bear fruit again. Any new branch that grows, randomly, out of the cordon will not bear fruit this year either, but will be pruned carefully so that it will produce fruit the following year. Basically, there are three options to pruning:

  1. Pruning too hard.  If the vine is pruned too hard, cutting off all the buds at the base of the branch, there will be new, first-year growth, but no grapes.  This option eliminates harvest. 
  2. No pruning.  If there is no pruning, grapes will happen on the one-year-old wood, but there will also be extra branches and leaves that suck the energy away from a good harvest. This option diminishes the harvest this year.
  3. Pruning with care.  If pruning is done with care, leaving two buds on one-year old wood and taking out the old wood that will divert energy from the harvest, there will be a good harvest. This option produces the best harvest.  

Stop and consider.  What needs pruning in your life?  In your organization?  If you’re like me, when the answer popped into your head, you took a deep breath and felt a pang of sadness mixed with some fear and, perhaps, even a bit of shame.  No wonder we avoid the hard work of cutting! Here’s the encouragement and hope of the vineyard.  If we prune with care and intentionality, we will get rid of dead wood that drains our resources and, at the same time, we will open space for new fruit to grow and, eventually, produce an abundant harvest. 

...every branch that does bear fruit [God] prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. ~Jesus

Activate the gift of pruning, friend.