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Team Works

Dave Stone

Key teamwork principles to help your ministry ride the waves of change

When the waters are rough and a change of direction is required, you quickly realize the need for a team effort. A collection of individuals, each of whom is looking out for #1, won't survive turns like these. That's why thriving organizations are committed to moving everyone in the same direction, regardless of the cost or consequences. Some may disagree with the process or the plan, but there comes a time when everyone must buy in. Teamwork is accelerated when you burn your bridges and everyone is committed to the cause.

We live in an era of transition. In the midst of quick changes of direction in the church and in business, teamwork is even more important. How can today's Christian leader foster teamwork? Let's explore several important requirements for effective teamwork in a church or another Christian organization.

Requirement 1: Recruit Diverse People

Electing the team is almost as important as choosing the leader. Teamwork is important, but don't misunderstand me; you still need quality people with a strong leader who brings the team together. Bob Shank says, "Ignorance to the twelfth power does not become leadership." He's right. You could bring a bunch of duds together, who all get along, and have no leadership at all!

And a humble church leader surrounded by variously gifted individuals will always beat a talented, egotistical Lone Ranger over the long haul. So when you assemble your team, look for volunteers or staff members who are strong in areas in which you're weak. Part of the reason for the disciples' success in conveying the gospel message was just this type of diversity.

Christ assembled a diverse group that brought a wide range of gifts to the table. Matthew's position as a despised tax collector gave him a connection with lost, worldly people. Andrew's humility modeled the truth that knowing Jesus is more important than being known. Living in the shadow of his brother, Simon Peter, didn't prevent Andrew from being a team player. James and John were the renegades. Knowing their rebellious natures, you probably wouldn't trust them if they volunteered to serve in your church parking lot. But Jesus picked these two to proclaim the good news. Jesus always sees people for who they can become rather than for who they are.

What goes through your mind when you're looking for servant leaders to fill positions? When I need to add to our team at church, I put "a servant's heart" at the top of my list of requirements. Faithfulness to the mission of the organization is a close second. Of course, I look for God-given gifts in the area of our specific needs as well.

Early in my ministry I was interviewed for a position at a church in Illinois. I'll never forget the final question I was asked by the senior pastor: "Is there anything or anyone that you love more than Jesus?"

"No," I said. Then I honestly added, "But a lot of times I allow him to slip into second or third place."

What a great question for any potential leadership team member to consider! Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21). When assembling your leadership team, look for gifts that are distinctive, but remember that a passion for Christ should be the common denominator.

Many Christian leaders fall prey to the "mirror syndrome" -- hiring or enlisting people with personalities similar to their own. Be sure to evaluate carefully. You may be subliminally drawn to individuals because they remind you of yourself. By hiring them you may duplicate your gifts rather than gain new ones that complement your own. Diversity and variety help to cover all the bases.

H.S. Vigeveno's book 13 Men Who Changed the World includes a chapter dealing with Andrew. The title of the chapter is "He Used What He Had." This reminds me of a time I preached a revival in Mississippi. On the first day, only one person showed up to pray for the revival with the evangelist. His name was Sidney, and he was about 40 years old. He was developmentally disabled, walked with a profound limp, and could barely speak intelligibly. But Sidney loved to pray and to serve.

I stayed next door at the preacher's house. Each night I would sit out on the front porch and look over my sermon, and about 30 minutes before the service, I'd hear the distinctive sound of Sidney entering the church. He'd limp up the front steps, unlock all the doors, and go around to turn on all the lights. Each night, after the service was over and everyone had left, he made his way around the sanctuary, turning off the lights and locking the doors. Then he'd head home until the next service.

I can't tell you how much that man's example touched me. Somebody might say, "He really didn't do that much." On the contrary, he did all that he could. Like Andrew, he used what he had. Whenever I hear a sermon on servanthood, I think about Sidney. I have a strong feeling that I'll get to see him again. When we're at heaven's door waiting to go in, I think God may say, "Hey, Sidney, would you help me open these gates and turn on the lights?" It really doesn't matter if you assemble a group of five-talent individuals or several one-talent or two-talent people. What matters is that, whatever talents they have, whether they're small or great, they lay them at the feet of Jesus.

The Lord can use any of us to help grow his church. So remember that diversity and teamwork go hand in hand.

Requirement 2: Communicate The Plan

When 10 water-skiers are following the same boat, the driver is the leader by default. Where he leads, we will follow. We appreciate his wisdom and thoughtfulness in communicating his plan to all of us through sign language. You see, many a good plan has bitten the dust because it wasn't effectively communicated. Leaders can't expect others to read their minds or to have long-term recall of a plan they previously unveiled. There must be an opportunity for give and take.

"Over-communication" and an excellent listening ear are two attributes of a great leader. Recently my kindergarten-age son came home and burst into tears. He told us he had gotten into trouble in the hallway at school for something he didn't do. My wife, Beth, asked him, "Samuel, did you try to explain to the teacher what you were doing?"

He said, "I tried, but she wouldn't let me explain." My son learned at a young age how all of us feel when our voices aren't heard. If our opinions don't seem important to those in power, our lives can be very frustrating.

We've all been there, and Samuel will face the problem numerous times throughout his lifetime. Leaders must not forget how it feels to be left out or to have no input. This may seem obvious, yet, if assured confidentiality, many church staff members and volunteers would emphatically state that they have been left out of the loop. They don't feel privy to what others know. Whether they really are being excluded isn't the issue; if they feel left out of the process, we need to find ways to make them feel included.

Like it or not, perception is reality. If communication isn't perceived to be flowing to every team member, then the entire group will begin to sink. This is true for volunteers as well as lay leaders. Volunteers must know they're on the inside and be given as much information as possible so they can fulfill their particular responsibilities.

Try to set up channels that'll facilitate communication -- an email reporting on the board meeting, a weekly meeting, or an open appointment at the same time each week, for example. Information is empowering. Talk to your staff and volunteers on a regular basis. Keeping them informed shows that you trust them and have confidence in them.

In fact, the number one complaint of both the staff and volunteers in any church or organization may be a lack of communication. Those in the know are often oblivious to the fact that those outside the circle want feedback. Those "outsiders" may feel they aren't given a chance to share their opinions. And the perception of ostracism always leads to division. You know you're in trouble when you hear statements such as these:

  • "I never know what's going on around here."
  • "They don't even bother to get our input anymore."
  • "It's so embarrassing when I hear things from my volunteers that no one bothered to tell me."

No one is exempt from being uninformed at one time or another. Toughen up if that offends you; there's no getting around it. The goal, though, is to arrange for informative communication to be the norm rather than the exception. I must admit that this is not my forte. It has taken me years to realize that I may devise an excellent plan, but if I don't share it with my team -- regularly, and in great detail -- it's impossible for them to embrace it.

Err on the side of more communication, not less. (Don't confuse this with micromanagement, by which you suffocate your staff or volunteers by constantly looking over their shoulders.) Inclusion goes a long way toward building a team because the knowledge of basic, everyday, nonconfidential information helps establish rock-solid loyalty. John Maxwell says, "I'm convinced that the surest way to establish a sense of ownership among your constituency is to involve them in the creative process, all along the way. You might be able to reach a goal faster on your own, but when you get there you will be just that -- on your own. Slow down and take your people along."

Be certain that your co-laborers understand how you communicate. For example, as we added more women to our staff, we realized we had to alter the tenor of our staff meetings. Our guys bonded by picking on one another and by hurling heavy doses of sarcasm across the room. The women on our staff felt that the men were too brutal with one another. (Now we've struck a happy medium -- we just pick on the women. Not!) For the sake of teamwork and unity in the body of Christ we've eased up. Through time and reflection, we've learned that we probably did cross the line of good-natured kidding and that, as a result, teamwork wasn't enhanced.

The Christian leader who wants effective teamwork will share vision and plans rather than attempt to force them through. Ideas will be refined by the experience and wisdom of others. As a result, the entire team will get the credit. And if this group is truly God-honoring, the Lord will receive the glory.

Requirement 3: Encourage The Participants

Freely given encouragement breathes life into individuals and organizations. You might be surprised that the recipient of your encouraging voice mail messages listens to those messages again and again. Stop by someone's cubicle and you may see a thank you note prominently displayed, a little message you scribbled three weeks ago with little thought. I dare you to block out 20 minutes a week simply to encourage your team members! The benefits will astound you.

All of these seemingly insignificant acts of encouragement help create an environment in which teamwork flourishes. That teamwork is so important when you face a radical change of direction. A sincere high-five goes a long way with your staff and volunteers. Successful leaders don't resemble dictators. Russell H. Ewing said, "A boss creates fear, a leader confidence. A boss fixes blame, a leader corrects mistakes. A boss knows all, a leader asks questions. A boss makes work drudgery, a leader makes it interesting. A boss is interested in himself or herself, a leader is interested in the group."

In fact, the leader's responsibility isn't to police the masses, looking for mistakes. Rather, good leaders create an environment in which people have the latitude to suggest different methods and to think outside the box. If an idea fails, it fails -- but it's important that team members have the freedom to fail and to learn from the experience.

I heard of a teenager whose first job was working as a delivery boy for a florist. One day the boy was to deliver two sets of flowers. One set was for a funeral home, and the other was for a big church that had relocated to a larger sanctuary.

The florist knew there was a problem when he received a phone call from an irate minister. The preacher said, "We've got a beautiful new sanctuary with a basket of flowers up front that says, 'Rest in Peace.' "

"You think you've got problems!" the florist replied. "Somewhere in this city there's a nice bouquet of flowers sitting beside a casket with a sign that says, 'Good luck in your new location!' "

Allow your team members to make mistakes, and encourage them to learn from those mistakes. Encourage the creativity of your staff and volunteers by giving them opportunities to brainstorm and "mindmap." Look for ways to add to your ministry's effectiveness rather than merely continuing the same old programs year in and year out. This is what leadership guru Jim Collins refers to as "the genius of the 'and,' rather than the tyranny of the 'or.' "

Encouragement can be given publicly or privately. Both types are needed. Type A personalities long for public encouragement. Type B personalities appreciate encouragement more if it's given privately. But regardless of a teammate's temperament, either type of praise is appreciated and essential for building a team.

Part of the benefit that flows from special projects and events is the appreciation you gain for other ministries and volunteers. For example, when Bible-college students spent the weekend at our church for a ministry conference I directed, the women's circles provided housing for them. I was encouraged by their hospitality. When the Fellowship of Christian Athletes held a fund-raising auction, the student leaders stepped up to the plate. I was encouraged by their attention to details and gift of administration. When our church put together a "friend weekend," the members of our children's ministries department took ownership of the event as if it were their own. I was encouraged by their creativity and desire to promote the weekend to all ages. When our church presents an Easter pageant or a Christmas program, I'm always encouraged by the servants' hearts of the members of the facilities team. They go beyond the call of duty, working late on behalf of the other ministries and Christ.

So no matter how busy you are, always remember that navigating the rough waters requires an occasional boost of encouragement. Take time to give it in large doses.

Requirement 4: Instill Unity Of Purpose

The Apostle Paul knew that a division among Christians is a poor witness that can paralyze the power of the church. The size of the ministry doesn't matter; division is just as deadly in a church of 80 as it is in a church of 8,000. Paul minces no words when he says, "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3). In other words, don't step on others.

When 180-degree changes loom ahead, stick together and hold on. Remind others why you're doing what you're doing. Tie the change in with your mission or vision statement. In Romans 12:18 Paul says, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." Paul went to great pains to encourage teamwork within the body of believers. But the apostle also left the door open since, in rare cases, unity of purpose may be impossible.

Do your best, but realize that in some situations people may need to be released from certain responsibilities and redirected to areas in which harmony comes more naturally. Those times are stressful, but I've found that, in the long run, such prayerfully considered decisions have been vindicated. It may take such a measure to improve the teamwork of the whole organization.

Because you work in a church or a parachurch organization doesn't mean that relationships will always be peaches and cream. Personality conflicts will arise; contrasting styles won't always mesh. Someone has put it this way:

"To live above with the saints I love, Oh, that will be glory! But to dwell below, With the saints I know -- Now that's a different story!"

Decide early in your ministry that you won't allow Satan to divide your staff members or volunteers. A lost world desperately needs the message of Christ. Your team must model his love and spirit of unity.

Finally, I must remind you that some leaders seek name recognition or personal glory, and that's a devastating barrier to unity. Others, though, have a genuine kingdom consciousness. They care about their staff members. They treat their volunteers with respect. Those leaders have the big picture in mind, so they set their sights on building a true team. Banker Walter Wriston, who writes for the Harvard Business Review, says, "The person who figures out how to harness the collective genius of the people in his or her organization is going to blow the competition away."

This idea goes deeper than just spending time together as co-laborers, because there's a difference between "union" and "unity." If you tie two cats together by their tails you'll have union -- but you probably won't have unity. True Christian unity is based upon being "in Christ," sharing together in the life of the Son who dwells in all of you. That's more than a social relationship, and it goes even deeper than a spirit of collegiality or even deep friendship. So after assembling your team and communicating the plan, you must aim the members of your team in the direction of their main purpose, which is to bring glory to their Savior.

With Teamwork, It's Possible!

Several years ago, at the Calgary Stampede in Canada, something unusual happened during a pulling contest. This particular contest is designed to determine which horse can pull the greatest weight. The winning horse pulled a little over 9,000 pounds, while the second-place horse managed to drag a little under 9,000 pounds. Afterward, the two owners decided to give the crowd a demonstration of teamwork. They harnessed the two horses to see how much they could pull together. To the crowd's surprise, it wasn't 18,000 pounds. It was 27,000!

What a lesson for the onlookers! Teamwork allows us to accomplish so much more than we might ever dream possible. There is strength in numbers. When you run smack-dab into a wave that you yourself may have helped create, know that you're not alone. And know that it's better to have a rough ride through the transitions -- as a team -- than to sink slowly in defeat.


Excerpted from Keeping Your Head Above Water by Dave Stone (Group Publishing, Inc.). Dave is a pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

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