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Turning Future Stars Into Real Treasures

A Strategy for Building High Performance Team Members

By Mark Rutland

“If you see a turtle on a fence post,” Sen. Zell Miller (Georgia) once said, “you can bet one thing for sure; he did not get there by himself.”

Every leader worth his salt carries in his mental wallet a photo of himself as a turtle on a fence post. The team with which he surrounds himself has probably contributed more to his success than his own giftedness. That humbling reality brings gratitude to a leader’s heart and helps him determine to find, hire, assemble, motivate, and keep the best team he can.

Baseball managers often tell the old joke, “I am only two players away from having a team that can win the World Series. Unfortunately, the two players are Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.” In other words, the real secret to being a world-class leader is building a world-class team.

There are leadership giants who seem to be able to win with whatever hand they are dealt. Someone asked O.A. “Bum” Phillips, the colorful country boy who once coached the Houston Oilers, how good a coach Don Shula — Baltimore Colts (1963–69) and the Miami Dolphins (1970–95) — really was. Phillips responded, “I’ll tell you how good he is. Shula can take his’n and beat your’n; then he can take your’n and beat his’n.”

There are coaches who are geniuses; but, for most pastors, the key to great success in leadership is assembling the right team.

The Right Players

One recipe used by many in putting together a winning team is called the three Cs. It is a useful way to think about the team-building process.


This is the most difficult of the three to discern; yet, in the long run, the most important. Proven track records that reveal relational issues as well as performance matters are telling and must not be ignored. Override your leader’s intuition or the warnings of others with regard to character and the consequences can be serious.


There are high-character, true Israelites in whom there is no guile, yet they are not competent at the level you need, and may be incapable of getting there. When possible, hire a Lou Gehrig. Sometimes, however, you find a diamond in the rough — someone who is not there, but shows clear promise. If there are enough seasoned veterans on the team for balance, these future stars can be true treasures.


The tension between Shaq and Kobe was front-page news, but it was hardly new. The more high-performance players there are on a team, the more leadership can become bogged down in ego management. Coaching a team that has a Kobe and a Shaq can be a real challenge, but a team with high-performance players can also win championships.

Tension is a part of life and leadership; it cannot be avoided. Its most destructive results can, however, be minimized by building a team whose gifts fit. In other words, some top-quality performers may have team chemistry that will never work. In the hiring process, smart leaders will do all they can to discern how prospects will work with other team members. Some personalities, none of which are bad, will never work together on the same team.

Part of the leader’s responsibility is to lubricate the egos and personalities on his team with balance, humor, and equitable decisions — as free as possible from favoritism. An even more important responsibility is the ounce of prevention that is only possible in the selection process.

As replacements become necessary, newcomers must quickly attain a high level on the competence scale. Developing team chemistry will happen, but first the replacements must prove they can work on a team of high performers. They must be given opportunity to prove themselves, and must be shown grace and patience; but, the better the team, the faster replacements must get up to speed.

The Missing Ingredient

The three Cs have been widely taught and employed by many leaders. I have, however, added a fourth ingredient that I have been using for the last few years in the team-building process, especially in hiring replacements. This ingredient is what I call moment.

I may interview a talented and gifted person who has the ability to play at the level of my team. He may even seem to fit well with my team and show the character we value; yet, the timing may be off, leading me to conclude that bringing him in now would be a serious mistake. Is the question: Is the person capable enough to replace the last man in that office? No. The right question is: Who do we need now? or, Do we need anyone in that place now? Every transition is an opportunity to reshape the whole team. At Southeastern University, we had five vice presidents in 1999. By 2005, there were six. Today, we have four.

Creative restructuring is part of making flexible responses to changing landscapes. Whether you realize it or not, you are not leading the same organization you were 10 or even 5 years ago. Your leaders have changed; the organization has changed; your goals have changed; your vision has grown; your skills have matured; and the world around you is different. You may need different team members, not just better ones.

Broaden the Concept Of Team

John P. Kotter said that one of the major causes of stall out in leading any organization through dynamic change is a “failure to assemble a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition.”1

A guiding coalition means much more than just staff. A pastor surrounded by weak leaders who lack influence is in trouble. Every position of influence that is closest to the pastor — board members, committee chairs, ministry volunteers, and advisory councils — needs to be filled with strong leaders.

Each member of the executive administrative team at Southeastern University is a professional. They are clear on our vision, and committed to it. In addition, the Board of Regents, especially its chairman and officers, are enthusiastic about our long-term comprehensive master plan. The alumni president, the chairman of the leadership roundtable, as well as leading pastors and business people who provide both local and national representation are part of a coalition of vision — the kind that is critical to successfully leading change in any organization.

The pastor who wants to instill enduring change into his church culture must — beginning at the top and broadening his definition of team — build a coalition of loyal, capable, influential visionaries. The more profound the needed change, the more powerful that coalition must be.

Talk, Talk, Talk

In team building, it is impossible to overcommunicate. It is possible to communicate poorly, to communicate too late, and to communicate too little, but it is not possible to communicate too much. The essence of team building is communication. The mission, vision, goals, and plans for accomplishing them are fuel for leadership. Team building takes time — time spent communicating.

A pastor must communicate with those whom he leads — especially, but not exclusively — with those closest to him. Staff meetings are wasted if they become swamped with low-level tactical responses to crises. The effective transformational pastor frequently rehearses the vision and plans with every leadership level of his church. The church’s values, any changes in direction, altered expectations, and challenges ahead must be patiently, clearly, and frequently explained. The team must have confidence in its leader, and loyalty must be built through relationships. Leadership is another word for communication. The myth of the strong, silent type is exactly that — a myth — and a destructive one at that. Teams do not thrive under withdrawn, uncommunicative men of mystery.

Hire My Staff

Another university president once asked me how his school could experience the great growth and success we have had at Southeastern. I told him the secret: Hire my staff.

I am not the greatest or the smartest president in the world, and certainly not the best educated. I do, however, have the greatest staff. If this is true, and it is, they deserve to be blessed.

I believe in blessing the team. Great leaders share the glory, the limelight, and the rewards. As great teams develop and mature, team members need to feel appreciated. Sometimes showing appreciation is nothing more than giving praise. A river of encouraging notes, e-mails, and phone calls needs to flow from the pastor’s office. Occasional gifts and bonuses, and regular raises, also express appreciation.

A friend pastors a large church near Southeastern. Every year he takes his entire pastoral staff to an elegant department store and buys each of them a new outfit. When a youth pastor at another church heard this, he began wrangling for a job there. When people learn that a pastor appreciates his staff, high-performance players will desire to be on his team. This is not all about receiving a new suit or a raise; it is about being appreciated.

Steal my staff if you can. But it’s going to cost you.

From the Top Down

Some pastors who are trying to lead change and growth either start at the wrong place or get stranded at the beginning. The right place to start is at the top.

It is impossible to massage deep-tissue cultural change into any organization from the bottom up. Key positions of leadership — those closest to the pastor and those with the greatest influence and responsibility — must be filled first, and filled with top performers. It is absurd to think that any profound shift in the leadership culture of a complex church can be effectuated by replacing the assistant-associate-deputy, junior high youth pastor. Change starts in the most senior positions.

Change, without intentional downward pressure, can get stalled at the top. Each leader must grasp the vision and the culture of the church. He must also understand that it is his responsibility to lead change in his own division.

The senior pastor’s philosophies of leadership, relationship, and management must reach the extremities of paid and volunteer staff. This will not happen unless the senior staff shares the pastor’s vision with their hearts and heads. It will not happen unless the church administrator understands that his job is not only to keep the books and pay the bills, but also to ensure his secretary answers the phone in a way that reflects the pastor’s leadership.

Until the janitor knows what the pastor expects — how to speak to a visitor, how to strive for excellence — someone between the janitor and the pastor has dammed up the flow. If the volunteer nursery worker is out of sync, then the nursery coordinator has not fully grasped her job. This means the director of children’s ministry is failing in part of her job, and the director of Christian education is not performing an important part of his job. It is crucial that the culture at the heart of the ministry is put into action at its extremities.

Strategy and Attitude

President George W. Bush made it clear in his own inimitable way that in leadership there is no substitute for “strategery.” How true. High-performance teams thrive at higher altitudes of strategic focus. The leader who allows high-octane talent to be wasted on low-level problem solving and crisis management will frustrate his team. Assembling a high-performance team is one thing; staying out in front of it is another.

Team members need to know that you are thinking ahead, planning and envisioning a future they have not yet seen, and anticipating challenges they are not yet aware of. Waste as little of their time as possible in the tactical now and press them toward high-altitude, strategic thinking.

Take, for example, the budget process. Strive to get the team past turf warfare and into the ionosphere of strategic thinking. This is a challenge for any team. Reimaging the budget process is essential to getting past the divisions and parochialism that haunts many teams. Communicate, teach, and preach — whatever it takes, as long as it takes — that budgeting is not divvying up the pie but moving as a team toward a common goal.

Steal the Bacon

When I was a boy we played a game called steal the bacon. We would stand in a circle. The bacon, usually a stick or a rag, was put in the middle of the circle. Each child was given a number known only to himself. The leader would call out two, three, or four numbers at a time. Those whose numbers were called would dive for the bacon and strive to carry it back to his place on the perimeter of the circle. This game is a perfect picture of a common approach to team leadership that has often proven destructive.

Adversarial advocacy — a leadership philosophy preferred by some who want high-performance teams — can turn your staff dynamics into a highly destructive game of steal the bacon. There is plenty of self-interest in any team for the leader to deal with without encouraging it. Create a zero-based-sum mentality and allow your team to fight for the bacon, and you may turn your team into disconnected, discordant adversaries who are duking it out for whatever advantage they can get to make their area of ministry successful.

Some claim adversarial advocacy runs off weaklings who are unable to keep up with the top performers. This may be true; but, the big boys you create may never be loyal to you, will almost never coalesce into a unified force, and will probably learn to operate using covert manipulation and deceit. This anything-to-get-the-bacon attitude may create high-powered staff members who are hardly more than high-powered enemies. They will be constantly advocating for their own, incapable of pulling together, and ultimately will pull apart.

Building Consensus

Another management philosophy is called conciliatory consensus building. Instead of a fragile consortium of sworn enemies — each after a bigger share of the budget — consensus building molds a staff of complementary gifts into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The goal of the adversary leadership model is to weed out weaklings and build tough staff members who can stand the heat. The goal of consensus building is to create a team capable of strategic thought, creative negotiation, and unified problem solving. This model tends to make stronger teams, not angry, isolated individualists who are in competition with each other.

Effective consensus building has a cost: Time. A budgetary dogfight is quickly and viciously settled. But statesmanship, leadership, and communication skills are necessary to forge a team that can move past self-interest and strategize together for a greater good. The fabric of mutual trust is not woven in a day, especially using the threads of high-performance hard chargers who are success oriented. Team members must learn to trust their leader, trust each other’s competence, and trust each other’s motives and intentions.

Leasing for Power

Perhaps the most common inhibiting factor in a high-performance team’s development is the pastor’s fears. Pastors who are easily threatened may fear their staff member’s accomplishments and giftedness. A fearful pastor may subconsciously engineer his brightest star for occasional failure. He believes this keeps him humble, less likely to lust for his job, and more desperate and grateful to keep his own.

The pastor with this philosophy is wrong. The more he shares the spotlight, the more he publicly praises each staff member’s successes and covers their set-backs with grace, the stronger his staff becomes. A leader’s praise strengthens his staff’s loyalty. His confidence in them increases their confidence in themselves and in each other. His willingness to turn their failures into teaching opportunities instead of despotic tirades increases their sense of balance and enjoyment, both of which make them stronger.

The wise pastor empowers his team by continually leasing them more territory. When they feel empowered to make more decisions, two important things happen. First, the staff pastor becomes a stakeholder with a true sense of ownership when he feels the liberty to make decisions. Second, fewer crises hit the leader’s desk because they are met and resolved at lower levels. I tell the vice presidents at Southeastern University, “Bring me solutions. The problems I can find for myself.”

Empowered teams must know when and where it is appropriate to act and when they should defer to the pastor. Erring on the side of granting greater release and authority may cause an occasional train wreck; but, taken as a whole, it generates an atmosphere of trust and builds stronger, more confident team members. Pastors who clutch at every task and insist on controlling all outcomes and decisions demonstrate fear, not faith. Leasing out authority allows the team to move faster, make better decisions at lower levels, and avoid executive bottlenecks.

Hold Tightly With Open Hands

Finding good team members and blending them so their gifts and personalities complement each other is no easy task. Managing complicated egos and seeing players mature into a finely tuned team that makes great plays and wins the big games is rewarding. As gratifying as that is, transitions can also be frustrating. Assembling an infield that effortlessly turns double plays is a coach’s dream, but watching it fall prey to free agency is no fun.

Some pastors react to staff transitions with angry protectionism that usually succeeds only in offending the departing staff member and ruining their relationship. No one likes losing a star from the team, but learning to let him go gracefully plants him as a friend wherever he lands. (Someday you may need a friend in that exact spot.) It also demonstrates to those who remain on staff that they are not inmates but trusted and valued colleagues whose personal destinies are not in bondage to their leader’s dreams.

A veteran Australian leader gave me wise parenting advice. He said, “Hold on to your children tightly with open hands.” That is also good leadership in team building.

In building a high-performance team, there is no substitute for hiring wisely and well. Never expect a plow horse to win the Kentucky Derby. If you want to hire thoroughbreds, settle for nothing less. Find them, reward them, praise them, and take good care of them. Once you hire them, let them run.

Racehorses rebel when petty jockeys, fearful of losing control, constantly jerk back on the reins. Let your team go for it. Teach team members to trust you and each other by creating an atmosphere of trust and modeling it. Then, when transitions come — and they will — go through them with good will and faith, not panic and anger.

Send departing staff away full, then try to hire up if possible. If you are replacing a star, it may not be easy to hire up. In fact, it may create some hard work in transition. Transitions are a fact of life, and a healthy team led by a healthy leader can often take advantage of them to become better. Assemble a great team, and then hold them tightly with open hands.

Right Church, Wrong Pew

Team builders strive to get the right people on board. It is hardly possible to overestimate how important it is to hire the right person; yet, a complementing truth is often forgotten: Those right people must be in the right places.

Sometimes capable and anointed staff members are inadvertently engineered for failure because they are placed in the wrong job. A sign, “Beware of the Peter Principle,” should be on every leader’s desk. The greatest youth pastor in the world may be a disaster as an associate pastor.

Pastors must make careful decisions when hiring staff members because the choices they make cannot easily be changed. It is distressing to move a great youth pastor to associate pastor, hire a new youth pastor to replace him, and watch the now associate pastor implode before your eyes. Despite all the regret and second-guessing, it is too late to change the situation. The pastor often ends up with a less capable youth pastor, no associate, and a hurt and disillusioned ex-staff member.

A failing staff member may also be successful in a different role. At Southeastern University I was ready to ease a less-than-effective employee out the door when one of the vice presidents interceded. He saw gifts in this person that I could not see and appealed my decision. Against my judgment we moved this staff member to a detail-oriented, administrative job where he blossomed — proving once again my lack of discernment. This person has proven himself to be of invaluable assistance through Southeastern’s incredible growth surge these last few years. He was an intelligent and capable employee who was in the right church, but seated in the wrong pew.

Success and Toxicity

Much has been written on team building and much is yet to be added. One important and relevant perspective that probably is often ignored is that no pastor interested in a growth-oriented, influential ministry wants lethargic or lazy people on his staff. On the other hand, leadership is not supposed to kill us, and the goal of ministry is not to make our staff members miserable.

I want a high-performance team. I have one, and I am thankful for each player at each position. But a cautionary warning needs to be made regarding the phrase high performance. We can lose ourselves and our souls in our striving for success. High-performance men can become driven and empty while trying to fill their inner emptiness with accomplishments and applause. A high-performance life that is fulfilling includes adequate rest, values true love, and remembers what is really important. Toxic success, as one writer calls it, is not high performance; it is just the fast lane to unhappiness, marital stress, and ministerial burnout.

Anointed pastors who are leading high-performance teams need to pace themselves, develop healthy inner lives, and cultivate contented spirits before it is too late. Relationships — spouse, God, family — must not be neglected in their search for success.

One of the risks of being on a high-powered team is adopting the self-deception that success is enough. Nothing could be further from the truth. Doing the work of God without God is toxic. Those called to God’s work have the greatest needs, and nothing can fill those needs but God himself.

MARK RUTLAND, Ph.D., is president, Southeastern University, Lakeland, Florida.


1. John P. Kotter, Leading Change (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996).

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