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Can’t We All Just Get Along?

By Gary L. McIntosh

In the ministry world of the 21st century, some think team-based leadership is a miracle cure for what ails churches. Unfortunately, what at first seems to be a simple paradigm to implement, may become another problem-filled approach to ministry. Most teams function well for a few months, but then experience predictable staff issues that threaten to pull the team apart.

Underlying all problems in team ministry is human nature. Team members are human beings with all the attendant characteristics. Senior pastors often talk about shared leadership, but revert to claiming the sandbox as their own by overcontrolling decision-making. Associate pastors talk about equality of input but refuse to share information with other staff members. Team members talk about the good of the team but end up arguing over who gets the credit for what the team produces.

While numerous problems may be encountered in team ministry, most fall into one of four major categories: motivational, communicational, organizational, and relational.

Motivational

According to studies conducted among teams in various settings, the following are the big three motivational problems for teams.

Free riding

Free riding takes place when team members are not carrying their share of the ministry workload. Team members may share in the glory of being on the team and in the team’s accomplishments, but they drop the ball in their own area of ministry. Other team members may notice the failure of their teammate to accomplish his task but do not want to tattle on him. As a result, they harbor ill feelings toward the poorly performing member.

There are two ways to approach free riding. First, the team leader must assist team members in setting specific goals and then hold each team member accountable for accomplishing them. Second, team members must hold each other accountable for contributing to the team. Team members must have the courage to confront each other in the total team environment and not let any team member get away with free riding.

Groupthink

Groupthink occurs when everyone on the team appears to think alike; no one raises objections or concerns about anything. Groupthink occurs when the group is homogeneous and everyone does think alike; team members are close friends, and no one wants to challenge his friends; or members are afraid and do not want to rock the boat.

If groupthink is a problem within a team, use one of the following two approaches. First, appoint a devil’s advocate every time the team meets. The devil’s advocate is to raise and investigate potential pitfalls in the team’s thinking. This role should be rotated so no one person is always the bad guy. Second, the senior pastor needs to share his opinions last — after everyone else has had opportunity to comment on an issue. In groupthink situations, team members will pick up on what the senior pastor wants and echo those sentiments in their own comments. When a team leader withholds comment early on, he encourages freer thinking by all team members.

Social loafing

Social loafing occurs when everyone knows about a problem, but no one wants to be the first to mention it. Each team member feels someone else will voice the problem before the group. Social loafing may result in a problem never being noted or perhaps being mentioned too late to be addressed. To encourage responsibility, a senior pastor must communicate that all team members are to be honest and forthcoming; and, when someone does mention a difficult issue, not to shoot the messenger.

Communicational

Harold J. Westing, author and consultant on multiple-staff ministry, reports that a lack of communication and misunderstood communication rank first and second as causes of dissatisfaction between team members.1 Two key communicational problems are commonplace among teams.

Team members communicate little with each other

People who work together are not always personal friends. In fact, some individuals find they can minister with other staff members competently without socializing with them away from work. The way staff members feel about each other may not be a matter of great concern, unless it gets out of hand. What is out of hand? Staff relationships are out of hand if:

There are situations where nothing the senior pastor can do will help. In these situations, it is best to let feuding staff members work it out themselves, provided the ministry is getting done and their difficulties are not counterproductive to the team. However, when counterproductive situations exist in a staff team, it is time to intervene. Here are a few suggestions to help pastors get started:

Team members communicate in harmful ways

Harmful communication may become a silent epidemic as team members regularly spread malicious rumors, become involved in backstabbing, or give each other the silent treatment. This rude behavior goes by various names: workplace incivility, psychological aggression, hostile work environment, or workplace bullying.

A formal study on team problems in secular workplaces sheds light on the issues. Joel J. Neuman, director of the Center for Applied Management, lists the top 10 acts of workplace bullying as:

Unfortunately, those who have served on a multiple-staff team can identify with at least 8 of the 10 items listed above. To protect the team from negative forms of communication, preventative and proactive measures must be used. First, the team leader needs to take the lead in establishing a gracious and loving atmosphere. How the team leader, or senior pastor, treats others sets the tone for the entire team. Second, the team as a whole must establish acceptable guidelines for personal communication. A good way is to have team members establish a covenant under which they all agree to work. Third, the team must commit to confront those who violate the covenant.

Organizational

Some team conflicts are attributable to organizational or management issues. Three of the most common are the presence of an overcontrolling senior pastor, misunderstanding team roles, and inequity in salary.

The team leader does not delegate

Giving a staff member responsibility and letting him do the job is something senior pastors or team leaders seem to have trouble doing. For one reason or another, they take on all the big ministry projects themselves. When they do hand off goals and assignments to a staff member, they hover over the staff member constantly checking and rechecking his progress, giving directions, making changes, and generally running the show. While the task may get done, neither the senior pastor nor the associate gains much.

Not letting go is a tendency of senior pastors who do not understand how crucial it is to their own growth to have a staff team that is capable of doing a larger job. If there have been times when you have added an important project to your own busy schedule instead of letting a qualified associate do it alone, ask yourself:

What am I afraid of? Leaders often have what they believe are logical explanations of why they keep control. Some say, “He won’t get it done on time”; or “She will make a mistake”; or “I can do it faster.” Explanations of this kind are based on the fear of letting go and losing control. Determine to ask yourself what you are afraid of and then ask:

What have I got to lose? At times, you may have a great deal to lose. At other times, you may have little to lose depending on the nature of the assignment. In cases where you have much to lose, you can still delegate the task to an associate if you clearly communicate what needs to be done, build in deadlines, and make yourself available to provide assistance if necessary. Then, ask yourself:

What have I got to gain? In most situations there is much to gain. You lift a burden from your shoulders, help develop an associate staff member’s skills and confidence, and pave the way for great success in the future.

Team members do not understand their roles

Role and title misunderstandings are common among members of multiple staffs. For example, is there a difference between a minister of music, a director of music, or a worship leader? If so, what are the differences, and what does this mean to the team? What do the terms associate, assistant, and director indicate? How do such terms impact authority, responsibility, and accountability? Misunderstanding also surfaces regarding roles. For example, a question may arise concerning who oversees the ushers and greeters who serve at Sunday morning worship? Do these servants report to the worship pastor or the assimilation pastor? These and other misunderstandings are commonly at the root of staff difficulties.

The best way to overcome misunderstandings in roles and titles is to develop written ministry descriptions for each ministry position. Ministry descriptions guard team members from diversified role expectations in the congregation; clarify relationships between ministry jobs; help avoid overlaps and gaps between positions; provide a foundation for job appraisal; spell out duties, responsibilities, and limits of authority; provide the basis for team evaluation; and build status, respect, and motivation for each team member.

Major differences in salary packages, benefits, or perks

One of the most difficult aspects of team ministry is the financial inequity between staff members. Some churches do an excellent job of keeping salaries and benefits on an equitable footing, but other churches allow for huge differences that may lead to ill feelings and poor cooperation between team members. Financial rewards among staff members do not always reflect hours or energy spent. Assistant staff members may put in many more hours than senior staff members who receive a healthier salary. Society teaches us that value is measured by income, and even the Bible tells us that a laborer is worthy of his hire. Inequities are a root of many staff problems and need to be addressed.

Inequities in salary can be addressed in several ways. First, each staff member needs to rest in the understanding that his ultimate value comes from the Creator and not from his pay package. Second, those responsible for determining staff pay packages must commit themselves to establishing equitable pay for all staff members. As a general rule, the pay scales for a given staff position should be within 15 percent to 20 percent of the position directly above. Third, staff members must take responsibility as stewards to inform church leadership of their financial situations. Most pastors find it difficult to talk to church leaders about personal money issues. Experience, however, has shown that the initiative for providing sound financial information most often begins with the staff member.

Relational

Joining a staff team is similar to marrying into a family. We do not choose to marry someone based on his family but, once we marry, our relationship to our spouse’s larger family is important. In the same way, once you join the pastoral staff of a church, all the relationships connected to the staff team become important ingredients to one’s ministry.

Church staffs are also similar to families in that certain personalities sometimes do not click. At times it is difficult to get along with or even love members of the family. Habits, lifestyle decisions, or beliefs may create conflict. Here are a few of the key relational problems staffs often encounter.

Team members do not trust each other

Trust levels between staff members are significant because even though team members plan together, they work separately. If pastoral staff members do not trust other members to carry their ministry loads, to complete their roles in the grand scheme of things, or to support each other, the team can fail to function. When staff meetings become times for chronic complaining, it is a sign of trouble. Complaints may be simple, such as the office is too cold or too hot, or members feel they have too much work to do. Moodiness also is a common occurrence, and members may feel that they are walking on eggshells never knowing when they will make a comment that will set another staff member off.

Church consultant William Easum suggests five ways to encourage trust among teams. First, encourage staff members to be passionate about the vision and direction of the church. Second, assist team members to understand their roles. Third, challenge team members to embrace change in their roles. Fourth, build in systems for communication, such as Web pages, retreats, weekly Bible studies, and team-building events. Fifth, meet weekly in a small-group setting for sharing and prayer. Sixth, recruit team members who have some basic affinity with each other.3

Territorial attitudes are present

Territorial issues are present when a staff member sees equipment, facilities, or personnel as belonging only to himself. Another common territorial attitude is seen when a staff member believes a certain room in the church is his private classroom.

Team leaders must communicate on a regular basis that the ministry is the Lord’s and does not belong to any one individual — including the senior pastor. Therefore, it is expected that each team member will graciously work with all aspects of the ministry in a mutual manner, recognizing that as the church grows, multiple use of facilities is a necessity.

Spouses or families are not happy

It is difficult for a staff member to function successfully when his spouse or family members are unhappy. One pastor’s wife puts the potential impact this way: “A divided staff can muzzle a church’s vitality. A wife’s attitude about other staff members has potential to wreck or to promote healthy, harmonious workings among a group of people committed to a common cause.”4

Managing unhappy families of staff members is extremely difficult. In some cases it may be wise to stay out of the situation and allow the staff member to handle the problem. However, if the unhappiness begins to creep into staff relationships and destroys harmony and the team’s ability to minister effectively, something must be done. The best approach is to seek a win/win between the church and the team member’s family by collaborating to discover the mitigating concerns and searching for a workable solution.

Prepare for team conflict

One of the most frustrating, exasperating, and demanding aspects of leadership is resolving team conflict. Whenever individuals serve together on a staff team, there is sure to be conflict in at least one of the four main areas noted above. Thus, a wise team leader prepares for conflict. Here are some steps to consider.

First, allow for healthy conflict. It is a mistake to create an atmosphere where conflict is not allowed. When unresolved conflict is buried inside a staff member’s storehouse of feelings, it will later explode in an unexpected moment. It is far better to allow conflict to be expressed and resolved a little at a time as it takes place.

Joseph Umidi, professor of ministry at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, believes healthy conflict interactions are encouraged as leaders allow for three Ps: permission, protection,and potency. Permission is given for healthy conflict to take place in the normal process of ministry. Protection is given to each team member by establishing boundaries so conflict is managed with respect, appropriate language, and integrity. Potency is empowering all staff members to potently express their point of view.5

Second, deal with conflict as early as possible. Norman Shawchuck suggests that conflict moves through five stages:

  1. Tension Awareness: Team members begin to sense the breakdown of relationships.
  2. Role Confusion: Team members begin to place blame on others.
  3. Injustice Collecting: Team members begin compiling evidence to justify their position.
  4. Attack Stage: Team members begin to openly express hostility toward other team members.
  5. Adjustment Stage: Team members begin to leave for other ministries or church splits occur.6

The key to managing conflict is to deal with it as early as possible in these five stages. Recognize that the longer one waits, the more difficult it will be to come to any form of resolution.

Third, practice healthy communication. Conflicts normally create an atmosphere where it is difficult to communicate. However, by following several guidelines, healthy communication is possible. To communicate in a healthy manner one must focus on the issue or act rather than the person, avoid generalities and exaggerations, spell out specific remedies, choose the right time to talk, and follow up to keep communication open.

Fourth, select the proper approach. One of the biggest mistakes in managing conflict takes place when the leader of the team thinks he must resolve all issues between staff members. It is natural for staff members to view the senior pastor or team leader as the Big Daddy who can take care of all their problems. If the leader is a benign I’ll-take-care-of-your-problem parent figure, however, he may be harming the team rather than helping it. While this is one approach to managing conflict, at least five other approaches to managing conflict need to be considered.

The Win/Win Option. All parties collaborate to arrive at a meaningful resolution. Key question: How can we work together? This approach to managing conflict is sometimes called collaboration. It is the healthiest approach and should be used in as many situations as possible.

The Win/Lose Option. One party seeks to win the conflict at all costs. Key question: Is it worth the cost? This approach — sometimes called competition — is best used when core moral, ethical, or biblical values are at stake.

The Lose/Yield Option. One party yields to the other after realizing the issue is not worth the trouble. Key question: Is it really that important? This approach — sometimes called accommodation — is best used when the conflict focuses on surface or cosmetic issues.

The Lose/Lose Option. The issue is dropped because it will hurt the church to pursue it to resolution. Key question: Will it hurt the church body? This approach — sometimes called abandonment — is best used when core values are not at stake and the issue can be tabled until a later time.

The Compromise Option. The conflict is ignored, allowing the various parties to work out the issues on their own. Key question: Is it worth getting involved? This approach — sometimes called avoidance — is best used when it is wisest not to get involved with problems that are beyond your influence.

Those ministering on a multiple staff face unique challenges and struggles — one of which is facing conflict. On the whole, conflict is to be avoided. But conflict is an aspect of human nature that is sure to come out in any team situation. Conflictive situations are opportunities for growth and development. The key is for staff members to accept their roles and to develop a realistic and positive attitude about the circumstances in which they serve, while always recognizing that Christ builds His church, not us.

Gary L. McIntosh, D.Min., Ph.D., is professor of Christian Ministry and Leadership at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. This article is adapted from his book Staff Your Church for Growth (Baker Books, 2000), and used with permission of the author.

Notes

1. Harold J. Westing (Pastor’s Symposium seminar at Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, California, 12,13 October 1987).

2. Quoted by Jessica Guynn in “Bullies in the Workplace,” The San Diego Union Tribune, 28 December 1998, sec. C, p.1.

3. William Easum, “Teams,” at http://www.easum.com, accessed September 1998.

4. Marilyn Hansen, “When Your Husband Is Part of a Staff,” Partnership, March–April 1985, 49.

5. Joseph Umidi, “How To Resolve Conflict Among Your Church Staff,” Ministries Today, January-February 1998, 36.

6. Umidi.

 

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