Planting trees, for me, is one of life's most satisfying experiences. When my wife and I bought our house, we couldn't wait. Literally. The place was vacant. It would soon be ours. Who would know? So a full week before the real-estate closing, Susan and I bought four small fruit trees and boldly carted them into the back yard.
We dug holes, added top soil and peat moss, and planted our mini-orchard: two apple trees and two pear trees. It was an act of faith. They were scrawny saplings, but I could already taste the fruit they would eventually bear.
I recited the folk proverb: "The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now."
A week later, the house and the yard were legally ours, and the saplings were already taking root.
Over time we planted more trees: arborvitae for privacy, Colorado blue spruce for greenery when snow covers the ground, sugar maple for brilliant fall foliage of reds and orange. After the deaths of two of our children, we planted a flowering crab that bursts into bloom each spring, an annual symbol of resurrection.
We've been in the house more than 25 years now, and the trees continue to bear fruit (some seasons in abundance, some seasons very little). They continue to provide privacy, shade, greenery, fall color, and an annual celebration of new life.
Planting trees also represents to me the process of mentoring, raising new leaders.
Yes, new leaders will emerge, whether we do anything about it or not. But the quality and usefulness of new leaders, like trees, is usually enhanced when they are cultivated and well-placed. The years that I neglect the spraying, pruning, and nourishing of my fruit trees are the years that the fruit is poor.
Likewise, I've seen churches whose leaders have not been cultivated. They let things "take their course," which usually means new leaders are either naive or selfishly exercise power.
Churches that take seriously the need for fruitful leadership cultivate leaders. And that means mentoring. Yes, the best time to develop leaders is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.
Sometimes those who cultivate leaders stay around long enough to enjoy the result. Other times the investment is made for people we will never meet.
"The true meaning of life," wrote Nelson Henderson, "is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit."
I appreciate the line attributed to Martin Luther. When asked what he would do if he knew he was going to die the next day, the robust Reformer replied, "I would plant a tree."
Like tree planting, mentoring is an act of faith. We may or may not get to enjoy the fruit. But by cultivating emerging Christian leaders, we help fulfill Christ's Great Commission to make disciples of all nations.
I'd like to think that if someone asked what I'd do if I knew the next day I was going to die, I'd have the grace to say, "I'd keep cultivating Christian leaders."
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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