The Power of Team Leadership

October 3rd, 2009

Ever since I became involved in small, evangelistic Bible study groups as a new Christian, I’ve been impressed by their potential and power in movements of renewal and revival for people of all ages and life stages. This has become more and more clear in American youth missions and churches over the last 20 to 30 years. All over the world, from urban South Korea and Thailand, throughout the villages and cities of China, to the highlands, valleys, and great plains of Africa, I’ve seen God working in and through Christians in small groups.

I’m fascinated by the intricate and complicated dynamics present in such groups, as well as by the challenge of using them wisely and effectively in doing the work of God in the world. Yet the more I know, the more it seems there is to learn.

In the U.S. during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, some youth parachurch groups—such as InterVarsity and the Navigators—grasped the possibilities and importance of Christian small groups as essential elements in ministry programming, long before most churches did. Small groups were becoming regular parts of conference, camping, and campus ministries. And while there were very few training or sophisticated resources available on small groups, the pioneering work of these parachurch organizations helped open the doors for small groups in many churches.

But still, too few people—in church or parachurch leadership—understood then (or now) the great potential for intentionally creating or reshaping primary leadership structures into dynamic ministry groups or teams.

Such teams have clear biblical roots: Jesus shaping the Twelve into a ministry group, and the small leadership group in Antioch that sent Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, as examples.

Yet we still tend to organize ministry according to patterns of hierarchy rather than according to gift-based teams.

Changes Are Coming
In many situations, small groups are offered to students or congregants as “ministry receivers” or participants, while adults in leadership continue to operate in old organizational, decision-making patterns and structures. These patterns and unexamined expectations impact our work and our relationships.

In many churches, for example, youth staffs use small groups as options for young people while staffs continue to function in typical “board” or “committee” decision-making structures. In these instances, small groups are seen as useful resources for teaching, discipling, and ministering to youths—but not for peer ministry with adults who share a concern or responsibility for youth ministry. This can lead to a high-stress, low-care kind of ministry which may encourage superficial relationships, frequent burnout, and high turnover for both volunteers and staffers.

Unexamined assumptions of organizational hierarchy also can influence interactions, decision making, and emotional responses on many levels. The only option some youth workers see is for them to function with high degrees of autonomy with minimal oversight and accountability—or to chafe under more institutional approaches with perhaps heavy-handed committees or supervisors.

A Way Forward
One option is to move beyond the vertical patterns of traditional hierarchies to more horizontal forms of ministry functioning. This suggests the significance of recent, new emphases on ministry teams. I began trying to describe a piece of this in Turning Committees into Communities (NavPress, 1996), but it was just a beginning. Now there is new and growing literature on leadership and teambuilding coming from secular and Christian authors, with many helpful insights and suggestions on how to go about this new approach.

About 20 years ago, while lecturing in seminary on Christian small groups, I often found it necessary to defend and explain why small groups should be incorporated as integral parts of discipleship strategies and institutional church life. Today it’s exciting for me to see the ways in which increasing numbers of younger Christian leaders are understanding that small groups are not only resources for reaching and discipling people but also are primary structures for accomplishing ministry. Moving beyond individualistic emphases on charismatic leadership traits to understanding the synergy that well-functioning teams can generate is a major learning edge right now—and has great potential for the future.

Literature to Consider
Christian literature on team ministry is relatively limited and tends to be focused on working with church staffs. The growth in large, multistaff churches and megachurches is fueling most of the writing in this area. While the largest number of congregations in America are small in size (and often shrinking), more and more people in larger and larger congregations are involved in offering wide varieties of programs.

These larger congregations have specialized staffs and senior pastors who’ve gained on-the-job understanding of working with numerous paid and volunteer staffers in complex and uncharted waters.

Other ministry groups and leaders can usually adapt many of the insights and principles to their own contexts if they’re willing to give it some thought. (You need to read these works remembering the centrality and significance of lay ministry and spiritual gifts.) The adapters also must consider the differences between working with volunteers and paid staff.

Mainstream literature tends to focus primarily on work teams in the for-profit sector, usually in very large corporate settings with strong commitments to the bottom line. Used with care, however, some of these can be quite insightful for Christian team building, also.

There are three team-ministry resources and two leadership resources that I’ve found particularly worthwhile in seeking to serve Christ in my context—you may want to check them out for yours.

Leading the Team-Based Church by George Cladis (Jossey-Bass, 1999) is outstanding in its trinitarian underpinnings, clear presentation, and appropriate illustrations. The focus is on “building stable and high-quality relationships among the members of the principal leadership team.” The author is well read and draws appropriately from the best secular literature. Rooted in personal experience—as well as exhibiting a good understanding of the needs of the church in a changing culture—Cladis discusses covenanting, visioning, collaborating, culture-creating, trusting, empowering, and learning teams. He delivers what he promises in an exciting visionary mix which I find very stimulating.

Team Spirituality: A Guide for Staff and Church by William J. Carter (Abingdon, 1997) is written for churches and staffs of all sizes, though more to “ordinary” churches than to mega-churches. Carter provides encouraging, solid ideas and suggestions for intentional, spiritual team development. His diagnostic and spiritual team-building tools are simple and practical and are adaptable for meetings and retreats.

Team Ministry: A Workbook for Getting Things Done by Stephen L. Schey and Walt Kallestad (Abingdon, 1996) is broader in scope with regard to helping a whole church or specific ministry team work through issues of personal mission, vision, and team functioning and performance. Covers most of the basics in a straightforward and somewhat simplistic way. A pioneering work that many lay people, as well as paid staffers, will appreciate.

And what kind of leader is best for great teams? Check out my favorite guru, Max DePree. This Christian businessman, now retired, has written two wise-yet-simple books that can make profound differences in your leadership style. If you’ve ever longed for a patient and thoughtful Christian mentor, DePree is the one. President of the highly admired and very successful Herman Miller company, he served as the Chair of the Board at Fuller Theological Seminary for many years. Leadership Is an Art (Dell, 1989) and my favorite, Leadership Jazz (Doubleday, 1992), are two treasures that won’t cost much money—but will challenge you with the cost of true leadership if you ponder them carefully.


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