I’ve had the same “house plant” since 1981; it is one of those easy-growing plants that are hard to kill. I water it, fertilize it and change pots when the spirit moves. I bought it the year I moved into my first pastor’s office – a small room with one window. I bought it for two reasons: to brighten up the office and to remind me that “something was supposed to grow around here.”

“Ministerial fertilizer” is meant to carry the sense that we cause things to grow, not that there is a sweet aroma about us.

We grow the self.

The transformation of the self is at the heart of one’s call to ministry. Ministers become something by the grace of God. Ministry is not simply performing a list of complex tasks. Or to put it another way, you cannot offer another what you yourself have not tasted. Ministers are transformed people who infect others with the transforming grace of the Living Lord.

It all begins in the individual transformation of the minister, not in priestly deeds performed by the minister. Ministry includes doing but is centered in being.

Every minister will be well-served to ask the foundational question, “Whom am I trying ‘to get saved’?” “Whom am I trying to heal?” The superficial answer is “the sinner and those who are sick.” The answer that resonates with deep truth is, “It’s me. It’s me, Oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” The ministerial personality is often the one that feels the desire for wholeness at a deeper level; thus, we are willing to make significant sacrifices to achieve the desired harmony of soul.

This “hunger” is very evident in seminary students. In the press of ministry and the plethora of religious functions, ministers often lose a clear sense of their own spiritual need. Even so, the successful ministry career involves an enormous amount of personal growth.

We grow others.

Ministers are spiritual guides. They set the stage for conversion. We teach the Bible so people will better understand what God wants them to do. We teach and preach so others can grow into spiritual maturity.

We meet with individuals for a variety of reasons: to make suggestions about their spiritual journey, to help them with grief, to help them with marriage and family relationships. We talk with individuals about their personal beliefs about the Bible and theology: Why is it OK to have women deacons? Why did my infant son have to die? What part did God play in creation? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Ministers are like fertilizer – we grow other people.

We grow organizations.

We grow spiritual depth and maturity in the organizations we serve.

We grow the size of organizations we serve. We increase the number of people in the room. We build up the organization we serve; we make it stronger, healthier, better.

Many ministers balk at the notion they are to grow the number of people in their church or organization. This is quite curious. Ministers agree quickly with self-growth, aiding others in their spiritual growth, and even in the notion they are called to help an organization grow in maturity and spiritual depth. And yet, many ministers balk at the idea they are responsible to grow the number of people in the organization. Why? Why do we draw the line on growing the number of people in the organization?

At this point, ministers tend to want to defend their unease with growing the number of people in their ministry with elaborate philosophical reasons and rationale. While I enjoy listening to excuses wrapped in philosophical language, I also enjoy wondering about how a person’s family of origin impacts the way they view ministry.

The conviction a pastor is not responsible for the numerical growth of a church is rooted in the minister’s own life story, not the Bible or Christian theology.

One’s ministry context will significantly impact a ministry’s potential. My first job out of seminary was as an associate minister in a transitional community. Because of demographics, the church’s attendance dropped each year. I remember the average Sunday school attendance was 201 one year. We set the next year’s goal at 200 because the five-year trend was nearly a 10 percent reduction each year. We tried to “hold the line at 200.”

While demographic trends are extremely important, they are not definitive. Plenty of churches overcome poor demographics. While every demographic context is different, no congregation will rise above predictions informed by demographic data unless the minister believes growth is possible. The belief, the conviction, of the minister is essential to every congregation; if the minister does not believe in a promising future, no church member will.

The flow of this column is critical: The minister grows, people around the minister grow, the organization grows in maturity and spiritual health, the organization grows in numbers.

The tendency in some areas of ministry is to skip foundational matters and go directly to technique: Do this program or make this change, and people will come. If this approach is used, then the focus of ongoing ministry in that context is to “grow roots, spiritual roots, in people who have none.”

The better choice, the healthier choice, is to grow the minister, people and the organization (in that order) – then a strong root system is already in place to allow the ministry to thrive.

Ministers are fertilizers. They grow, and they make other things grow – for the glory of God.

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

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