Seeing the fungus through the trees

Photo: ChWeiss/Shutterstock

I’ve always disliked church structures, an antipathy I credit to that potentially most monstrous of church creatures: the committee. Having grown up in a church community in which every conceivable task gave rise to a committee—from worship, to carpet cleaning, to selecting members to be on church committees (that’s right: we had a meta-committee)—I came into ordained ministry convinced I had been committeed out.

This has been a bit of a problem because as it turns out, one of a priest’s ordination vows is to “take your share in the councils of the Church,” which is a dignified way of saying that you will accept the meta-committee’s nomination to attend the meetings of a church structure you would probably otherwise prefer to avoid.

And for the first few years of my ministry, I confess that I often felt I attended these meetings more in body than in spirit. Whether at a synod, deanery council or a vestry, as soon as I heard church structure jargon like “visioning processes,” “mission statements,” “strategic planning” or “mission,” my eyes began to glaze over. If Jesus came to bring us life and life abundantly, how was it that we were spending such an abundant amount of that life in musty church basements or sterile conference centres discussing what it would be like to live it?

There is a significant danger in church structures. While we need committees to help organize our community life, we must always be on guard that we do not allow committees to substitute for community. And this has got me thinking: maybe church structures like committees are best thought of not as monsters but as fungus.

In his book The Hidden Life of Trees, German forester Peter Wohlleben describes in romantic prose the remarkable world of forest ecology. Glancing at a forest from the outside, we might see it as a series of individual trees competing with one another for the scare resources of soil, sunlight and water—a wooden war of all against all. This would be a mistake, for in truth, a forest is more than the individual trees that make it up; it is a complex community of sharing.

Living together allows healthy trees to share nutrients with sick trees, to block strong winds during storms, to keep moisture in the soil when it is dry. Forests literally create the conditions in which the trees and the other creatures that make them up flourish. It should come as no surprise that trees living in forests tend to live longer and have healthier lives than trees standing alone.

One kind of creature that flourishes in forests is fungus, which, it turns out, also helps to bind the trees together into a vast underground web of communication. Through this fungal network, healthy trees are able to transfer resources like nutrients to their neighbours in need. In turn, the fungi use some of those nutrients to sustain themselves.

However, not all fungi are good; some forms are parasitic. Rather than redistributing the nutrients they receive, these fungi take all of it for themselves, slowly draining the life away from the trees to which they are connected until those trees die. Rather than share life, they consume it.

If our congregations are trees and our deaneries and dioceses are forests, then our vestry meetings, deanery councils, synods and the countless other church structures are fungi. These are the networks that bind us together, that allow us to share our resources between those who are weak and those who are strong so that together we can better stand against the winds and the droughts that might otherwise break us.

Fungus isn’t sexy (sorry, fungophiles), and neither are church structures, but both have vital roles in sustaining their respective communities. As stifling as committee meetings in musty church basements may sometimes feel, like the humus of a forest floor there’s a lot going on beneath the surface that might be helping to nurture our common life.

Or, they might be parasitic. Are the church structures to which we find ourselves connected helping us to share life or consume it?

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  1. Jeffrey: A very interesting way of looking at our councils and committees. Have you tried (as I’m doing, in the back of my mind, even as I write this) pairing this insight up with Northcote Parkinson’s Essays on Administration? I’ve always found them all the more trenchant in their humorous construction, rather like AP Herbert’s fictitious cases in Uncommon Law and others of his. Both writers treat of very serious problems with humor – and make their point memorably, without booting their reader in the butt.
    What’s going through my head is Parkinson’s claim that ALL committees tend to lapse into sterility, largely because the people that wind up on the mare very seldom original thinkers, but rather rule-followers, and they tend to recruit like members, Parkinson even gives us a reason for this, in that no-body – even the most divergent thinker – will appoint folk who “rock the boat”. He’ll only appoint those who are more rule-bound than he is, so that, eventually, the committee dissolves into a body that can only function as self-perpetuating, and will have to be stripped of authority until such time as it becomes so inanimate that it expires peacefully.
    How to correct this was a matter he didn’t delve into, for correction can come in two ways – one through expiry, and the other when the meta-committee becomes so blind that it cannot see that someone is actually like a time-bomb in the organisation, and it appoints this person, expecting one thing, and discovering, to its horror that he is quite unlike that.
    Such a person arrived in the Roman Catholic world in John XXIII. Possibly the same will be true in John Paul II, or in the current Pope – only time will tell. But I do think we need such a person or persons in the Anglican Communion,, among our Lutheran colleagues – in fact, throughout the Church. Truly, God moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform!

  2. Thank you, Mr. Laidlaw, for your comments. Something not perhaps unrelated: The Anglican Church of Canada and the various diocese structures need, in my opinion, an ombudsman (ombudsperson?). The reasons? If the rector runs the meetings and he has taken a vow of obedience to the bishop, the bishop is a sort of final law in the diocese, and the chancellor “works for the bishop,” then how do people even work towards changing structures?


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