Some reflections on team leadership

There has already been so much published on team leadership that, upon being asked to write this, my immediate response was, “Not another one!” I’m not even sure that ‘team leadership’ is the right category to use, for it leads us into business pragmatism rather than the Bible’s relational categories.

But given what wisdom I do have on working together, what follows are nine unordered reflections on teams and team relationships, along with some principles, examples of practice and common errors. They are not intended to apply to just the team leader; they’re useful for understand­ing how the whole team functions best.

1. Together, not alone

a) Ministry is always done within a team setting. The New Testament letters reflect the corporate nature of ministry (e.g. Eph 4:11-16). Paul asks for prayer, requests money, calls on brothers and sisters to exercise discipline, writes his letters often with several other members of his team sending greetings and refers to his colleagues as ‘fellow workers’ (e.g. Rom 16:3, 9, 21). So it is important to note that team ministry for Christians is inevitable. Whether it be a team of unpaid volunteers or paid staff, Christian ministry is always done in a team setting. Thus it is absolutely vital to work out how to do it well.

b) Ministry is always done by prayer. When the Lord Jesus saw the ministry to be done, he didn’t organize a meeting or brainstorm the best way to reach the lost; he called his disciples to pray to the Lord of the harvest (Matt 9:37-38). Whatever the team achieves, it does so because God hears the prayers of his disciples.

The natural tendency of competent people is towards pragmatic activism (appearances, numbers and performance) and getting the job done, not towards prayer. Prayer is the exact opposite of this. It is the key characteristic and chief expression of faith in godly team ministry. Teams that don’t call on each other to pray are not teams of Jesus’ disciples.

2. Family, not business

a) Developing good team relationships is more important than what the ministry teams do (though they are interdependent). In 1 Timothy 5 and Titus 2, Paul outlines directions for how to treat various members of a congregation—that is, as members of a family. Age, gender, situation in life and character are the keys to the nature of relationships. So the language and practice of family is more appropriate for ministry teams than the language and practice of business.

In a flexible team with increasing variety in ministry responsibilities, regular conversations within the context of the ‘family’ relationship model is the way to change to meet new needs and help each other work through presenting issues. Regular conversations updating each other is more important than job descriptions and time sheets.

b) Because we fail to think through the family nature of Christian leadership, business and secular models are often adopted by default. Teams need to work on providing this Christian alternative to secular and business patterns. This may mean putting forth reasoned alternatives to the models well-intentioned business lay people use in their organizations. It might be argued that more tasks will be completed and more evangelism done if the evangelist does not always have to think about those he is training.1 But that misunderstands the nature of ministry. We are always discipling, operating in such a way that others in the team may imitate us as we imitate the Lord Jesus. It is like parents passing on life skills to their children.

3. Mission, not maintenance

a) It is more important to be mission-minded than to maintain the status quo. In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus gives us a blank sheet in terms of discipling. But it is dynamic, not static: it involves taking initiatives to make disciples everywhere. So we must be willing to take initiatives, make mistakes and protect those who take the initiative. Structures and patterns are important, but they always need to be in a process of transition so that they serve the needs of the hour.

Often team members are expected to be ‘clones’ of the senior minister. He in turn may expect them to multiply his ministry. Such a pattern only ever maintains the status quo, frustrating mission-minded thinking and the other members of the team.

Some often fail to see the big picture beyond the confines of the current ‘flock’. Without a mission-minded atmosphere of opportunity, change, risk, innovation and consultation, ministry will only ever be limited to the current congregation, the senior minister’s vision and energy, and past structures.

b) It is more important to shape the future ministry in consultation and debate within the team, rather than simply going with the senior minister’s ideas. This presumes that the team has a desire to see the gospel “speed ahead and be honoured” (2 Thess 3:1). While setting out this vision of the future, the team should be able to discuss issues (theological and practical) vigorously without being overridden and bullied when there is disagreement. Team members should have the confidence to develop ideas in the context of robust discussion. The model is respectful family relationships with adult children, and better ideas should prevail, even if they are not those of the senior minister.

This way of operating as a team will enable new thinking, strengthen clear thinking, promote initiatives, be results-focused, and encourage teamwork and trust—especially when the senior minister promotes others’ initiatives and does not condemn failures. A failure to operate like this will show itself as the ministry grows and the minister tries to do what he did when the ministry was smaller and less complex.

Typically people talk about moving through the next ‘barrier’ in growing a ministry, but there is no such thing as a growth ‘barrier’ when the ministry is allowed to be a multifaceted growing ‘organism’. As the team starts new ministries and churches, they will meet the challenges to growth.

4. Character, not abilities

a) It is more important to have someone on the team whose character is above reproach and who models Christlikeness than any abilities he might have. This definition is the thrust of 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-2:15, where the minister’s abilities are wrapped in the robes of the godly life. Only this pattern of ministering will stand up against the tendency to focus on product and style; it is always people in relationships, not product.

Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1 and 2 Thessalonians 3:7, and the writer to the Hebrews in Hebrews 13:7 want their disciples to imitate them—to imitate them as they imitate the Lord Jesus. Team members want those they disciple to imitate them as they imitate Jesus. So they should be concerned about cultivating a godly character instead of honing their abilities.

b) It is more important for the minister’s character to be serving and promoting the good of others. We take our pattern of service from the Lord Jesus, who “came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). Paul said, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus …” (Phil 2:5ff). So the best interest of others should lie at the heart of our service/leadership.

It is often observed that some senior ministers find it difficult for others on their team to gain kudos. This is symptomatic of a lack of trust in God and their team members, or perhaps a lack of understanding of their role. Such a misunderstanding results in a lack of trust from team members. It is a failure of service and humility.

If the senior minister does not promote the strengths and ideas of others actively, the team will not function effectively long-term. He must be able to give them the credit for good ideas and perhaps take the flak for bad ones. This may mean stepping back and allowing others to shine.

5. Theology, not pragmatics

a) It is very important for the senior minister to be a Protestant minister rather than a Roman Catholic priest. It seems that some ministers don’t practise (or realize) that authoritative ministry of the word is taking place whenever the word is preached, and that this ministry is not derived or dependent upon the presence or ‘imprimatur’ of the rector/senior minister. There is no such thing as ministering under ‘the authority of the minister’. The organizational relationship of the senior minister to any team member is just that: an organizational team discipling relationship.

Maintaining this view leads to:

  • reinforcing a Roman Catholic rather than a Protestant view of the work of the Holy Spirit through the word
  • undermining the ministry of the assistants
  • limiting church planting, because of the need of the senior minister to be present at all congregation meetings
  • women’s ministry being hampered, because the senior minister does not see that proper/authoritative word ministry is taking place in women’s meetings when women are preaching.

b) We cannot lead others if we are not willing to submit to those in authority over us. We cannot lead a household well unless we show ourselves willing to submit to and honour those in authority over us. Authority is given, not taken, and team members should render honour and respect to the team leader; it should not need to be demanded.

In any organization, good relationships depend on giving due honour and encouraging discussion over points of difference. Good team ministry will not capitulate to the worldly pattern of the strongest, smartest or best-looking winning the day or the argument. The son is to give due honour to his father, even if he is better educated than him.

6. Team, not individual

a) We are ‘pouring ourselves out’ together for the Lord Jesus and his glory, not just running an efficient and growing organization. Team members must have the same God-glorifying mindset to work well together (Phil 1:27). Sometimes the team mindset fails to be missionary in outlook, and instead sees denominational/institutional ministry like a ‘public service’ job with benefits. Fundamentally, we are all missionaries, so we need to return to the passion for God exhibited by some of our missionary brothers, such as Henry Martyn, who once wrote, “I have hitherto lived to little purpose; more like a clod than a servant of God. Now let me burn out for God”.2 Ministry must not be thought of as a job to be done, but a life to be lived and ‘poured out for Christ’ in fellowship with others (cf. Phil 2:17, 1:21-22; 2 Tim 4:6-8).

In the midst of many pressures, many talk about the ‘balanced’ ministry life. But the idea of a ‘balanced’ ministry life is Buddhist, not Christian; what we need is a life of passionate commitment to the loves of the Christian life. Who wants to be accused of loving his wife or his God in a ‘balanced’ way?

b) Team unity and quality is a function of regular, robust theological and philosophical discussion. The unity of a growing and diverse ministry is found in the theological and philosophical unity of the team. The senior minister will not be able to control the quality of the ministry by micromanagement, and grow the ministry and the team at the same time. Micromanagement is the death of growth, and does not produce unity or quality.

Unity in ministry is always a by-product of prayerfully but robustly discussed theology and philosophy of practice. The quality of the ministry comes from the quality of the team relationships and discussions together, and is not the imposition of external standards and constraints, time sheets and quality audits.

c) For a church/ministry planting church/team, every minister on the team needs to be a general practitioner. Because every­one on the team is looking to grow and establish new ministries, every minister needs to be able to be a general practitioner or ‘GP’. Although we have different strengths and weaknesses, and a team will have people with different patterns of abilities, if we are to multiply ministries/churches flexibly, then everyone will need to evangelize, preach, administer, raise money, lead others and minister one-to-one. Certain team members can help train others in areas of weakness.

There is also scope within this pattern for people to specialize in the areas of their strengths and passions. For example, someone may become particularly responsible for helping others on the team think about overseas missions, evangelism, preaching or pastoral care.

d) The senior minister’s role is to lead the team. The minister should spend a large amount of his time working with his team on their direction. That means spending time with his team both together and individually (depending on the size of the team), praying with and for them.

It is also essential that he lead some more direct area of ministry so that he keeps doing the same sort of ‘coalface’ ministry as everyone else. He mustn’t become a detached CEO (or bishop).

The senior minister is also the link between the teaching team and the senior lay leadership of the church (wardens, elders, etc.). He should expend similar effort meeting with this lay team as he does with his teaching team. Only then will they all be on the same page spiritually in terms of their philosophy of ministry and shared vision.

e) The expectation for joining a ministry team should focus on joining ‘this team’, not just doing the ministry tasks that the team is doing. As a consequence of this, there must be agreement over the non-negotiables of theology, philosophy of ministry and personal style. In addition, there needs to be flexibility over the roles the new person might do. The new person joins the team to do the work of ministry; what that looks like will no doubt change according to the needs of the future. Furthermore, the person who is the ‘best’ preacher/evangelist/pastor may not be the best fit for the team.

f) All the principles mentioned also apply to the women on team. I don’t think that I have done anything essentially different for the women on my teams than I have done for the men. For the women, I do allow flexibility with time, as well as time off. The women often hold the key to their wider family and relational responsibilities more than the men, and so need more flexibility. My observation is that women feel confident to work in these sorts of teams because of the displayed confidence in them, even though the senior minister may not see what they do in detail. He trusts them to get on with the ministry.

However, it is important that a woman’s ministry be based on a clear agreed upon understanding of the Bible’s view of men and women. In addition, it is important that her ministry be not simply based on results. Finally, as with male members of the team, the senior minister must be in a discipling relationship with her—albeit with the care that men discipling women must always have.

7. Train, not task

a) It’s more important to learn to train people for ministry than to do the ministry (although the training takes place in the context of doing the ministry). The key to growth (in quantity and quality) and to fostering church planting is to train others to train others in the process of doing ministry. Every team is to develop a training mindset. The trainer is the key to good training/discipling. Everybody on the staff team must be able to train others to train others in the context of doing ministry.3

We need to remember that a training/discipling mindset is another key strategy for growth. As a first prior­ity, we should concentrate on young men and women, and disciple them early, keeping them thinking about discipling even while in theological college. But training older disciples to disciple is also vital for the strengthening of any ministry.

b) Ministry is caught, not taught. What we want is more ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’ with their ‘children’ (1 Thess 2:11-12). We need others alongside us while we minister. That is why formal theological ‘education’ is better done in a collegial and residential fashion, for it is not primarily about learning information. The minister should always be setting a pattern in life and doctrine for his apprentices to be like him, not just setting up a curriculum for them to follow.

8. Fight, not flight

a) Argumentative talk is always good for the team. A team in which there is no conflict is a team that is not trying to bring change and not ministering to a changing world. Vigorous discussion over theology and practice will sharpen the team’s ability to resolve differences of opinion, and will encourage adventurous thinking and risk-taking. If a member of the team is allowed to float ideas and have them tested by his mates, who will oppose wrong thinking but who will do it in an atmosphere of fellowship, then better theory and practice will result. Where the team is passive and not able to discuss ideas and practice, it is much more likely for conflict to threaten the team’s unity.

Having said this, people—and men and women—do argue and discuss differently. Care needs to be exercised so that, in the cut and thrust of debate, team members are not discouraged and feel they cannot contribute because of the style of the argument.

b) It is more important to allow different teams to express a difference in style instead of creating a uniformity of ‘product’ across all teams. Within the limits of theology and general ministry principles that the team holds and defends, there is great flexibility in the way this might work out practice. Where the differences that exist are not theologically critical and still promote godliness of life and the growth of the gospel, the style in which ministry advances is much less important. However, again, such differences must be managed within the context of the fellowship of the team.

9. Flexible, not fixed

a) It is more important to have members who are able to be flexible in current changing cultural contexts than to have team members who are more competent for a specific task. Flexibility is vital to team ministry. This is not just a matter of meeting the current challenge of cross-cultural ministries; it’s a way of thinking. The team that isn’t flexible is a team that is not thinking about the people around them. The current flock may be homogenous, but the groups around them are often vastly different. Someone sometime called them the ‘tribes and deserts’ of our city. As soon as we begin thinking about them, we must begin to think about how we might reach them, and then we must practise flexibility.

b) Monocultural teams in a multicultural context are the death knell of the team and their ministry. City ministry in Australia is multicultural, so a team that doesn’t look to the future, engaging ministers from different ethnic backgrounds, will find themselves left behind in terms of ministry thinking and opportunities. This also applies to other parts of the world. This enterprise will often be costly, because it is often not immediately self-sustaining, and there­fore it will require the persuasion of others to achieve.

Much more could be said about teams in Christian ministry, but I hope these reflections prompt further thinking.

  1. David Shead’s article ‘Making trainees of all people’ in Briefing #365 (February 2009) contains some good reflections on training. As David suggests, the word ‘training’ is better replaced with the word ‘discipling’.
  2. Henry Martyn in his journal, upon his arrival in Calcutta, India, in May 1806 (http://www.gfamissions.org/missionary-biographies/martyn-henry-1781-1812.html).
  3. MTS (the Ministry Training Strategy) is a great model of this. See http://www.mts.com.au for more information, as well as The Trellis and the Vine (Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, Matthias Media, Kingsford, 2009).