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Images for ministry are really important. They frame the way we think about our jobs.

My seminary education provided several images for ministry: shepherd (find the lost one), prophet (tell it like it is and they will ignore you), priest (get used by the system), savior (dead in three years) and missionary (get thrown in jail). Given these options, no wonder some ministers commit career suicide.

God gave me another ministerial image. I was sitting in an orthodontist’s office, and the good doctor was explaining to me how much my second son’s braces were going to cost. With one son already a year into braces, I was not prepared to lose the other half of my life’s savings. Panic was written all over my face.

Then the doctor said, “Ron, what we do here is really simple. We apply constant pressure at just the right place.” The clouds cleared, and I had a new image for ministry. I didn’t have any money, but I had a new way to think about ministerial work.

The Right Place

Churches are very complex systems. Rarely can a minister change the whole system all at once, short of some terrible tragedy in the congregation’s life. If we try to change the whole system, we may well end up wearing ourselves out.

So choose the one area of ministry that is most strategic to the church’s success – most likely not the squeaky wheel. Accept the philosophical notion that “band-aids” will have to suffice for a lot of church problems, but one issue must be resolved at a foundational level.

When the minister is convinced of what most needs fixing, the congregation’s (or ministry’s) focus will follow. Many, many times I said to church members, “Yes, I know this is important, but we are going to put in place a shorter-term solution on this issue, because so-and-so must get fixed first.”

Of course, good people were put out by my words, but they respected the fact there was a plan to eventually lift all ministries to A-status.

Deciding on “the most strategic need” of a church can be tricky. Always choose a need that can, in fact, change. If there are no young adults within 20 miles of your church, it makes no sense to start a young adult ministry. Often the minister faces a number of important needs competing for attention in a congregation’s life; choose one and make the case for its importance.

And this is the very place where ministry often runs aground: Faced with competing needs, the minister can’t decide which is most important, so nothing gets done. I want to place the emphasis not on the “absolute most important need” but on identifying one and getting busy.

The minister can’t change everything, but she can change one thing. The prelude to ministry success is the minister gaining clarity and conviction about what needs transformation first.

In one church I served, the “right place” was articulating a congregational vision followed by involving members in ministries of compassion in the local community.

In another church, it was calling staff ministers: the minister of music, then the minister of youth, then the minister of children, in that specific order.

The minister overseeing a particular area of ministry, or the pastor, has to name the “right place” or all is lost. Counsel, of staff and laity, is helpful in identifying and establishing priorities. Even so, the minister must be on guard to ensure church committees and councils establish the single goal that is most important to accomplish.

Again, the tendency of ministers and church committees will be to identify many things that need to be done and try to develop a plan to do it all at once. This is a major mistake. A key reason church strategic plans and long-range plans do not work well is because they try to accomplish too much. Transformation is achieved one concern at a time.

Constant Pressure

A new minister almost always encounters a really stable system. It may not be a healthy system, but it is profoundly stable. My country-preacher father described church as a very large steel ball weighing tons and tons. Once stopped it was very difficult to get it moving again. But if you could ever get it moving, it wouldn’t take much effort to keep it going.

I’ve seen many ministers get a running start and slam themselves into a heavy steel ball with predictable results. Constant pressure is the only way to change a stable system.

Let me use the example of rekeying a church building. Cost: $8,000. With many buildings built at different times in the church’s life, we needed a wagon-load of keys to open doors. I attended every property committee meeting and made the speech for rekeying the church, even though they had heard my speech the month before.

When folks complained about locked doors, I espoused the virtue of rekeying the building. I convinced others to sing the chorus with me. After a year and a half, we had a budget surplus and funds were designated to rekey the building. This happened because some people thought it was a good idea and others were tired of hearing my speech. Constant, relentless pressure. The end result was one master key.

The same principles can apply to transforming a church’s music ministry, youth ministry or children’s ministry. When trying to get a congregation focused on a vision process, I taped “Have Vision, Will Travel” on the side of a satchel (with a shoulder strap) and carried it with me everywhere I went in the church’s buildings.

I walked into the pulpit with it and sat it beside the chair where I sat. I carried it to Wednesday evening Bible study and displayed it on the lectern from which I spoke. Did people talk about me and my silly satchel? Absolutely. Did they get focused on vision? Absolutely. Constant, relentless pressure.

Orthodontists regularly transform a mouth full of jumbled teeth into a beautiful smile. Ministers should take note: constant pressure applied at just the right place.

Ron Crawford is president of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. This column first appeared on his blog.

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