Taking Staff to Higher Levels of Performance and Relationship
Leading a Team-based Church — How Pastors and Staff Can Grow Together
By Tim Hager
As a pastor, one of my top energizers is to leave the church knowing that a multifaceted event was well executed. This feeling is not only about the fact the mechanics went well, but also about the energy created among staff — when everyone is having a great time doing something bigger than themselves, and doing it with excellence.
Any leader who has been in a key pastoral role long enough has probably experienced the frustration that comes when key tasks are not getting done at a critical moment. Where are the greeters on this opening night of the summer concert series? Why have the ushers vacated their posts partway through the service? Ten people are at the altars to accept Christ and not a prayer partner or pastoral staff member is in sight. The cry may not be audible, but more likely a voice is bellowing inside: Where is my team? We leave the church and wish the day would start over.
Another top energizer for me is when staff members get along well. A pastor can become emotionally drained when his staff does not work well together and does not seem to care about each other. When apathy dominates relationships, the ugly twins — disappointment and concern — hop on my shoulder and hitchhike home with me. It is a blessing when those involved in ministry love what they are doing, love whom they are serving with, and are succeeding at what they do.
Pastors and staff want to be a part of a team of caring and competent individuals who work well together, achieve Kingdom goals together, and celebrate hard-earned ministry successes together. Together has a nice ring to it. It resonates well with those who know what it feels like to really work as a team, and yet be more than a team — real partners in the ministry. This is achievable. Pastors and staff can climb to higher levels of relationship and performance by practicing basic team-building principles.
What Is a Team-Based Church?
The apostle Paul understood the benefits of individuals coming together in small groups to do ministry. His teaching on spiritual gifts highlights how a believer’s individual graces work within and in concert with other believers. Furthermore, Paul described the church as functioning like a physical body — individual parts working in cooperation with other parts. A thumb, for example, is limited on its own. But when it is strategically attached to a palm in play with four fingers, the thumb becomes part of a productive unit — the hand.
In a team-based church, we are smarter than any one of us individually; together we are able to do more ministry than any of us by ourselves. In fact, a ministry group working together will outperform an individual working alone, especially when ministry requires multiple skills, decisions, and experiences. Teams in the church are a power catalyst for ministry.
Disciplines of a Team-Building Pastor
The axiom, As the leader goes so goes the organization, drives home the point that whoever is in charge sets the agenda for everyone else. The senior leader is the thermostat that either warms or cools team dynamics. The senior pastor is the rudder that directs the ship either toward or away from the goal of rich team dynamics. A senior pastor must sanction and support a team culture if he wants his staff to be more than task-driven robots.
One senior pastor was shocked to learn that changing the term staff to team did not enhance camaraderie. It never occurred to him that his behavior must reinforce the trust and solidarity he had talked about. Another pastor was disappointed to discover that hiring an executive associate with team-building skills, and then giving raises to the entire pastoral staff, failed to boost productivity and creativity. Why? The pastor consistently gave conflicting communication about what success looked like and promoted unhealthy interstaff competition. These habits undermined team-building efforts. The senior pastor, however, can guide the team to develop strong rewarding ties that will be productive to the Kingdom. Here are some principles pastors can use to help raise staff members to higher relationships and performance.
Provide autonomy within boundaries
Consider Jesus’ pattern of delegation and empowerment in Luke 9 and 10. The disciples’ assignment was made clear: preach and cast out demons (Luke 9:1,2). Jesus gave them a pattern to follow when He sent them out two-by-two (Luke 10:1). Jesus knew it would take greater clout and additional tools to accomplish what they were assigned to do, so He gave them power and authority (Luke 9:1).
Accountability is the expectation that what we are expected to do will be inspected. The disciples returned and reported to Jesus. Jesus briefed the team, celebrated success, and coached them on attitudes (Luke 10:17,20).
Jesus gave His staff room to work on their own, resources for their tasks, and provided them with parameters. This created a powerful environment for ministry expansion as well as personal growth.
One pastor was bitterly envious of a colleague’s staff: “Your people really know how to make things happen. I don’t have the quality people you do.”
This pastor misidentified the catalyst for better teamwork. Knowing the envied pastor, I can say it was not only quality individuals but also his applying basic principles of empowerment that made the difference. This pastor understood that until senior church leadership is free to share information, authority, and resources, the church will never see high-performing ministry teams. Competent staff members who are capable of overseeing extraordinary programs need information, authority, and resources. Controlling pastors do not empower people; they corral them by withholding the resources that are necessary for them to function effectively.
Leaders can be reluctant to allow other people opportunity to take significant ministry responsibility or even experience real success. Often the underlying cause of this reluctance is fear: fear of others knowing more, doing more, achieving more, having more, or being applauded more. Strong ministry teams require autonomy, resources, and boundaries to excel.
Create real partnerships
From the disciples’ perspective, Jesus was going places. Some of them must have had some concern about being left out or not measuring up because two of them discussed what it would take to hold the top positions in the new order (Matthew 20:20–28). Jesus confronted their thinking on this point when He explained that leaders are servants, not ladder climbers. Okay, You are creating a flat organization without right- and left-hand perks. It is disappointing, but the adventure may be enough. We will still be Your servants as we fulfill Your vision. Good enough? Not quite.
I have been challenged by the care that Jesus, as Team Leader, took to personalize His relationship with His disciples. In John 15:15, the Visionary Leader said, “I no longer call you servants … but I have called you friends.” This is a profound declaration of relationship in the leader-team context.
Jesus viewed His closest disciples as trusted associates who were accomplishing the mission God had given them. Their relationship was not just about serving Jesus. Their mission was closely connected to the reason why Jesus was there. But our Lord made it clear to those in His inner circle that their relationship was a real partnership.
Some pastors catch the subtly of Jesus’ approach, and they communicate: “You are not my servant; you are my friend. You do not work for me; we work together. We work witheach other; I with you and you with me.” A genuine partnership pastor’s behavior reinforces the staff’s confidence that they are trusted to do bona fide ministry and are trustees of the vision along with the senior pastor.
Real partnership means the game is not just about the quarterback. Skilled individuals bring their particular abilities to the huddle. All take responsibility to fulfill their roles while coordinating with others to get the ball across the goal line. Pastors who believe a well-done effort by each staff member means the entire staff scores for the Kingdom are leaders with a different attitude.
Help staff keep focused on the main objective
Staff members in large churches were asked: “What is the most helpful team-building contribution from a senior pastor?” A top pick was bringing clarity. This answer should not be surprising. In the fog of a ministry battle, staff needs their senior pastor to speak authoritatively and clarify the vision.
When priorities become blurry, we value the person who can remind us of important objectives. Nothing cools team commitment and momentum quicker than unclear performance goals and a fuzzy purpose. Daily pastoral demands can chip away at focused work efforts. One superintendent said, “The leader’s job is to define reality.” Pointing out opportunities and redirecting staff toward a rallying point is essential in a busy church.
First Church seized an opportunity to minister to an unreached segment of its community by adding a third weekend service held on Saturday evenings. Months later, the senior pastor led the staff in exploring the possibility of adding additional small-group Bible studies for children, students, and adults. Based on the church’s vision, mission statement, and the opportunity arising from the growing service, the pastor asked the staff to work together on a plan to make additional programming a reality. In 9 months, a comprehensive small-group Bible study plan was rolled out that followed these services. Nearly half of the service attendees became participants.
Here the pastor provided the leadership that many staff members desire: keeping an eye on the bigger trends and opportunities in the church. When there was a ministry possibility to explore, the pastor called the staff together for feedback and reflection. Soon a central purpose for the staff was defined and objectives were given. The staff became committed to the task and motivated to plan well. They effectively overcame obstacles by collaborating at a high level between departments. The fruit of their effort was measurable and impressive. The pastor helped the staff find renewed purpose when everyone could have passively settled into a new-service success.
Coach staff on how to work together
Poll most staffs and the results will reflect that they want to be successful and see their collective efforts bear fruit for the Kingdom. Many reasons beyond our control impact team effectiveness. However, the pastor that will lovingly coach his staff in areas where they can make changes will likely be well received.
Senior pastors provide an invaluable service to their teams when they assist them in understanding situations that influence the team’s ability to meet its goals. Generally, obstacles fall into two categories — internal and external. Internal situations include relationship roadblocks or the way staff members are approaching their work together. External factors — a resistant cell in the church, slow progress among other departments, or a shift in demographics within the congregation — may be blindsiding the group. By equipping the staff to respond appropriately to internal and external situations, the pastor will help the team work together.
Model the art of listening and dialoguing
While providing team-development training with a staff in a sizable church, I was pleased to see that much of the material was energizing the staff; they were excited and quickly jumped into the exercises. But when the topic of interpersonal relationships was introduced, a deafening quiet came over the group. No one moved. They all stared at me and did not flinch. The topic was listening, really listening to each other.
The problem, I discovered later, was one monopolizing talker. When he was present, the whole conversation became a monologue. When he was absent the staff engaged in free discussion, employing healthy team dynamics. This situation was unfortunate, but not uncommon.
The capable staff and anointed pastor possessed the potential to attain a higher level of relationship and team function. Overcoming this obstacle to their communication would have blessed the church and helped the staff become even more effective as a group. In contrast, another staff experienced remarkable tenure and sustained ministry excellence because they practiced the disciplines of listening and talking through issues together.
Believe fun is a healthy commodity
“We thought those guys from First Church were nuts. But, frankly, we were a little envious at how much they seemed to enjoy being together.”
Fun is an important ingredient in healthy staff relationships. Many hard-working staffs have a high work ethic and task-focused activity, but not much heart.
One pastor asked me how to defuse some of the intensity and stress his staff and employees were feeling over a particularly long season of new program start-ups. We looked at several options. Later he catered a picnic for the 30-some employees, provided sand volleyball and other games, and took the lead in getting everyone involved, and then sent everyone home early with pay. I applauded his courage. The pastor said the laughter, fun, and unexpected time off re-energized the staff. This event took some creativity and initiative, but the relational payoff was almost priceless from a team standpoint. Higher-level relationships and productivity happen when those we work hard with are those we have fun with.
Can a staff grow together? Can senior pastor and staff experience a higher level of fruitfulness and fulfillment working together? The answer is yes. This requires individual and group discipline. Knowing the characteristics of a team-based church is a start. Understanding how pastors and staff can build synergy between each other is also important.
Is taking your staff to higher levels of performance and relationship worth the effort? Experience the fruit. Then, when you pull off the church property, you will be energized and filled with anticipation for the next ministry opportunity.