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The Forest and the Trees

A Pastor's Reflection

The phrase You can’t see the forest for the trees is meant to accuse someone of being so bogged down in details that he or she just cannot see the big picture. What is implied here is that it is the big picture that is important and too fine attention to small detail can often subvert the larger goal. It’s a good phrase that can be helpful in keeping certain personality types on track. And this goes for work in the Church. It can be, however, dangerously untrue in the Church as well as it tends to favor and idealize one particular personality type and leadership style over others that have just as important and necessary a place in the life of the Church. But first how I found it to be true in parish ministry.

Administration stresses me out. I am not particularly organized and am generally not drawn to the work that goes into getting a program off the ground, ensuring that the docket includes everything needed for a particular meeting, or keeping on top of the church business calendar. Because of this, these sorts of activities would often become larger than life and take up a disproportionate amount of my time when they needed to be done. In the stress and drudgery of administration it was too often easy for me to lose sight of why all this was needed—the efficient and, thus, effective running of Christ’s Church.

I imagine the flipside of this is true as well, although I have no real experience here myself. There are those who absolutely crave organization and have a true gift for it. Apparently for these folks planning, implementing, and seeing these come to fruition is highly satisfying. And the Church truly needs these people to help it maximize its potential and effectiveness. But I do know a fellow minister who, while he is particularly gifted and adept at dealing with the “trees”—anything and everything he does appears to be well researched, well planned, well executed, and joyously so—he is not generally known and experienced as particularly pastorally warm and interpersonally skilled. Here, attention to details appears at times to take precedence over the people for whom the details are being ironed out so skillfully.

All this underscores the truth of the phrase You can’t see the forest for the trees for the church. But it is also the case that the phrase can be particularly untrue or even dangerous for church life and leadership. For one, the phrase appears to idealize a particular personality type—the big picture visionary type who always has the larger goal in mind. The truth is that if the pastorate was filled with only this type of personality, the big picture might always be kept in mind, but not much would practically be done about it.

There is, however, another way in which the phrase can be problematic. It can easily be forgotten that the forest is made up of trees and without trees there is no forest. This becomes particularly problematic when one comes to think of individuals as the trees. And this becomes very tempting when it comes to certain unattractive or problem trees. At my first church Paul was a problem tree. He stuck his nose in most things, never actually did much he said he was going to do, was constantly asking for money, and was involved in a number of particularly unscrupulous events that I had to insert myself into. Many times there would have been nothing I would have liked better than to justify avoiding him or in some other way discarding him by using this phrase to mean that the trees were somehow expendable so long as the big picture is kept was mind. I could then relieve myself of the pressure of having to deal with Paul while at the same time tell myself that I was acting in the best interest of the Church—a “forest” approach. But this would have been to forget that each person is an end in themselves and not simply a means to an end. There is no forest without trees—as if the forest were some independent idea or reality apart from what it is made up of. If each tree is an end in itself, then each should be seen as the forest.

I guess what I am trying to say—put more simply—is this. In the Church, it is probably best to talk less in terms of the forest or the trees and more about the forest and the trees. Whether details or people, the big picture is made up of them and does not exist apart from them.