Jesus does not mean for his followers to go about their work alone.
He is the one singular leader in his church. No peers. The rest of us follow his example together, by laboring in the plural. He alone is “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20), the chief shepherd (1 Peter 5:4), the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25). He means for his undershepherds to work together. He went to Calvary alone. We go through the fire as a team.
During his ministry, Jesus sent his disciples out two by two (Luke 10:1). And throughout the New Testament, leadership in the local church is always plural: first the apostles, then the elders/pastors/overseers (Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; Ephesians 4:11; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 4:14; 5:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1, 5). Living, leading, and laboring as a team is vitally important both in principle and in practice in the life of the church.
Here are seven ways, among others, for ministry teams (and especially team leaders) to pursue health and fitness in team dynamics.
1. Actively cultivate and protect trust.
Effective teams run on trust, and it comes at a premium. Trust is slowly gained, and quickly lost. It’s worth investing significant time and energy in building trust, and taking care not to lose it.
Trust is built by treating those closest to us (our teammates) with the most care and respect, rather than the least. As with our families, our temptation can be to assume the relationships around us and give our best energy and attention to those outside. If such an instinct goes unchecked, we will soon find trust eroded with those that matter most.
In a local church setting, trust among leaders is paradigmatic for the whole congregation. What’s true of the leaders will soon be true of the people. Dissent among the pastors leads to factions in the flock. For the church to live the unified vision of Philippians 1:27–28 in the long run — “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents” — there will need to be evident trust among the leaders.
2. Carefully monitor team size (and communication).
Humans are finite. God made us this way. He sanctified finitude in creation, and doubly sanctified it when Jesus joined us in human flesh. Finitude is not a flaw, but something to be acknowledged and not neglected.
As nice as it would be to include as many people as possible on the team, the larger the group gets, the more difficult it will be to keep everyone on the same page. The “lines of communication,” as Larry Osborne observes, increase exponentially with each new member. Many teams trend toward unhealthiness simply because they are too large.
With each addition to your elder counsel, pastoral team, or other ministry crew, assess the team dynamics and survey team members. Keep in mind that adding members isn’t always adding effectiveness.
3. Generously invest time into your team.
Healthy teams take time. In a fallen world, they don’t simply happen, even among Christians. You can’t skimp on time together (quality or quantity) and think everything will be okay in the long haul. Relationships within the team are worth your investment. Focusing “inward” like this won’t necessarily detract from your mission together, as long as you’re careful not to become in-grown, but learn to enjoy life together on mission.
It may feel like slowing down to spend quality time with your leadership team, but it’s a good slowing down, one that keeps you from out-advancing the supply lines. As Osborne points out, “Whenever a group of people increase the amount of time they spend together, there is a corresponding increase in their regard and appreciation for one another” (40). It sounds like common sense, but unfortunately it’s not common practice.
4. Humbly pursue unity in all areas.
When a ministry team is deeply united around a clear, shared vision of who God is, and how he has revealed himself in Jesus and the Scriptures, and what he is doing in the world, and how our mission relates to his, it is amazing the kind of camaraderie and team health that can emerge. It is worth working years to get the team on the same page theologically. It is a beautiful, rich, and invaluable thing to be deeply united about all the most important truths in the universe.
There’s also important unity to pursue beyond doctrine. In the team setting, it is also vital to be united in philosophy, and in friendship as well. Teams are not just cognitive; they must be practical. They take initiatives and act together in the world. Which means they must make decisions about methodology, how to go about fleshing out their vision of God in everyday life and ministry.
So respect and friendship are vital. It is good for friends, not just associates, to lead together. Ministry teams should not be cliquish, but it is a benefit to everyone when members are genuinely friends and enjoying being together.
5. Boldly keep short accounts.
Aggressively have the conversations you don’t want to have. For the long-term health of your team, be willing to talk today about what’s unpleasant and potentially problematic. Typically the most important topics to tackle are the ones we fear. They reveal tensions that we’d all like to have go away.
The topics we neglect will not go away with neglect. If you suspect someone is getting frustrated or feeling marginalized or acting arrogantly, tackle it head on now. Speak the truth in love as soon as possible. Don’t let it go.
Unless someone takes the initiative to have the awkward conversation, assume the tension will get worse, not better. And when it goes underground, it will only grow and fester and return to the surface worse than it was before. Negligence of tensions among teammates signals the destruction of a team. It’s just a matter of time.
6. Lovingly guard the gate.
It’s worth the extra time and care to vet someone thoroughly before adding them to the team. In the long run, it is much easier, and better, not to bring someone on than to need to remove them later. Ask all the hard theological and philosophical questions you can think of. Ask the tough questions about the rough spots in their past. What led to their leaving their previous church or team? What struggles have they had with team members in the past? What steps have they taken, if any, to address their part in it?
Think of your ministry team as one on which every member always plays. The team is hampered by its weakest player. Don’t compromise at the gate.
7. Joyfully lean on the team’s wisdom.
Learn to enjoy not getting your own way. God puts us in teams and has us minister together because it goes better for us and for those that we serve. It can be easy to acknowledge this in theory, but difficult to embrace when the collective wisdom of the team goes against our own preference on an issue. Ask God for help in these moments to believe in the wisdom of the team above your own. How miserable if everything in ministry went the way you wanted — with all of your own weaknesses and blindspots.
It may seem like a strange joy to cultivate, but it is a great mark of Christian maturity. Even when our personal opinion on some ministry decision is different, we have the opportunity to step back, try to see the wisdom in how God is leading the others on our team, and thank him for them — and for not leaving us alone to navigate these decisions.