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Building an Effective Ministry Team in the Smaller Church

By Glenn Daman

Pastor John sat at his desk frustrated and discouraged. In the past several months he had been working with the board and the Christian education committee to form a new after-school program for children as a community outreach. When he first mentioned this idea, it was met with enthusiasm and approval. Even though the church was small, it had always had a strong children’s ministry. People recognized that the church’s future depended on its ability to attract families with children; and, if the church were to do that, it needed a vibrant children’s ministry.

After the initial discussions, however, it seemed that Pastor John hit a brick wall. While people were supportive of his idea he could not find anyone to lead the program. He also encountered difficulty in finding volunteers to run the program. The ones who did get involved could not agree on the structure and curriculum.

While Pastor John had heard about the challenges of staffing and team development in the larger church, he had always thought these issues were irrelevant to the smaller church. But as he sat at his desk he suddenly realized that this was the problem he faced. The difference was that in the larger church the staff developed and ran programs; but, in the smaller church, it required untrained volunteers to develop and run its programs. John was perplexed. How can the smaller church effectively staff its ministry and develop effective teams when it relies on volunteers who might resign at the slightest whim?

The problems confronting Pastor John are not unique. The smaller church often does not have enough people to fill the basic staffing needs that keep the church functioning. Furthermore, especially in rural areas, people in the smaller church are fiercely independent and prefer to work alone rather than in teams. Yet much of church ministry requires people to work together to accomplish common (and biblical) goals and objectives. The challenge for leadership is to develop an effective strategy to fill the staffing needs of the church and equip people to work together to accomplish the will of God.

Staffing the Ministry

When we think of staffing we often think of hired staff. In the smaller church, however, the staff is volunteers who give their time and energy to the work of the ministry. While they may not receive a salary, they are just as critical and valuable as any paid employee. The smaller church cannot function effectively without the volunteer’s vital contribution.

The challenge pastors in the smaller church face is recruiting and equipping volunteers for ministry. To effectively staff church ministries pastors need to use the right methodology in recruiting people. Pastors in smaller churches often approach staffing with the arm-twisting approach. As needs become more critical, pastors increase the pressure on people to become involved. Consequently, people are motivated to sign up out of guilt and duty rather than a passion and desire to serve. The result: People half-heartedly approach their ministry. What the smaller church needs are people who are passionate about ministry and understand its importance. Pastors, therefore, need a recruiting strategy that excites people for ministry.

Recruit to a purpose, not a position

Before pastors ask people to serve in the church, pastors need to clearly answer this question: “Why is this ministry important?” One of the reasons people are reluctant to become involved is the perception that the church is only doing what has traditionally been done. Because the smaller church places a high value on tradition, it can cause people to lose sight of the fact the goal of ministry is spiritual transformation (Colossians 1:28,29). People do not volunteer to build an organization or program (even a church’s). They become involved because they desire to influence, change, and help their friends, family, and neighbors. As pastors seek to recruit people, they need to clearly communicate why the ministry is important, and how it will affect others.

Provide adequate training

People can easily become intimidated in ministry. In the smaller church pastors rely on laity to develop and lead programs. Pastors do not have the luxury of having Bible college- or seminary-trained individuals to develop and oversee ministries. For example, the only training the Christian education director might have received came through teaching a Sunday School class. Even then, his experience may be limited. In the large church people are trained before they are given a ministry, especially if it involves leadership. In the smaller church pastors must often train people after they are placed in ministry. As a result, pastors must develop strategies that provide on-the-job training. Then, when a pastor recruits people for a ministry, he can clearly communicate to them how he will equip them for ministry.

Value both the generalist and the specialist

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul gives an analogy: The church functions as a body. Each part — no matter how small — is equally valuable to the health of the whole body. Paul affirms that each part performs different duties in relationship to its contribution to the body. God has equipped each individual differently, with different spiritual gifts, backgrounds, talents, personalities, and abilities.

Some within the church are generalists. These individuals are able and willing to perform multiple responsibilities or, are gifted in a few areas but are able to exercise their gifts in a variety of ministries. For example, a person may have the gift of mercy. As she teaches the primary class she uses her gift in the classroom to minister to the needs of the children. Others in the church are specialists. They are gifted in a specific area and are comfortable focusing on only one responsibility.

Because the smaller church largely depends on generalists, pastors can easily overlook the specialist, or worse, consider him unspiritual because he is not willing to perform more than one responsibility. On the other hand, pastors can become critical of the generalist because, while he does a number of different tasks, he does not excel in any specific one. The generalist does an adequate job in his ministry, but he never becomes a star. The result is that pastors criticize generalists for being mediocre. Yet both have an important role to play.

Avoid overworking volunteers

When pastors are staffing the church, it is easy to focus on needs rather than on the amount of work people are already doing. In many smaller churches people are heavily involved in ministry. They have a sense of ownership of their ministry and are often performing several tasks within the church. If pastors are not careful, they can manipulate people into becoming so involved that they burn out.

Not only is it the pastor’s responsibility to involve people in ministry, it is also his responsibility to protect people from becoming overcommitted to the point where they neglect their families and other responsibilities. When pastors overwork people, they can burn them out; and, they quit all activities, leaving the church in an even worse position.

Have clear job descriptions

When pastors recruit people to a ministry in the church, it is important to communicate the responsibilities and requirements of the job. By clearly describing what the ministry will involve, pastors aid both the church and the volunteer because they can match volunteers with ministries they are equipped by God to perform. In the smaller church, however, communicating responsibilities is often not done through a formal job description but through informal communication. Nevertheless, pastors need to develop a clear job description even when they plan to communicate it informally.

Developing a Team Within the Ministry

The challenge confronting the smaller church is not only in recruiting people to serve, but also in developing a sense of teamwork within the different ministries. While people in smaller churches — especially rural areas — are strongly relational, they also are independent and self-sufficient. They tend to be more inflexible in their ideas; and, as a result, when they work with others, they can easily become frustrated when their ideas are not adopted. Yet, God has designed the church to be the ultimate expression of teamwork. Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that Christians in the body of Christ are to function interdependently rather than be independent of one another. The fact God has established a plurality of leadership within the church implies that the church is to function as a team (see Ephesians 4:11–13). While a pastor cannot force people to work well with others, he can provide an environment that fosters teamwork.

Develop the right foundation

Building an environment for effective teams begins with those in leadership. The pastor sets the example. When a church fails to work together, it is possible that the pastor has also failed to work well with others.

A mistrust may exist between pastor and board. Pastors can destroy team development in their church by having an adversarial attitude. The danger of ministerial training is that pastors may develop a sense of superiority. They may begin to equate training and biblical knowledge with spirituality. They view board members as untrained and uneducated in spiritual leadership. Instead of trusting and valuing the board’s input, counsel, and decisions, the pastor begins to question them. When the board rejects the pastor’s ideas, he quickly labels them as rigid, old fashioned, and unspiritual. As a result, the pastor-board relationship begins to disintegrate. Instead of working as a team with the board, the pastor develops an adversarial relationship.

This adversarial relationship can be further exasperated if the board views the pastor as an outsider. Because of a high pastoral turnover and because of the cultural differences that exist when a pastor comes from a different cultural setting, the board does not fully accept the pastor’s leadership. Moving beyond these obstacles and learning to work together for the common good of the church is critical for developing teamwork in the church. If pastors cannot work with the board as a team, they can never expect volunteers in the church to work as a team. The result is a dysfunctional church.

Develop a trusting environment

A church that works together must be built on trust. First, the church must learn to trust God. Effective ministry requires faith. It is easy for the smaller church to become reluctant to take risks because people fear a new ministry might put the church at financial risk. As a result, they focus on maintaining existing programs rather than on developing new ideas. The church, however, needs to recognize that God is responsible for providing it with the resources needed to accomplish His will. The focus of the team should never be, “How can we maintain the program?” The focus should be, “What does God want us to accomplish?”

Second, church members need to learn to trust others. Trust is also critical for pastors. Sometimes it is difficult for pastors to trust people with the ministry of the church. It is difficult to trust their ideas and their methods of doing things. Pastors struggle to allow them the freedom to plan and perform the ministry in the way they think best. Pastors must realize that God entrusts ministry to the whole congregation. In Ephesians 4:11–13, God gives the work of ministry to the congregation. So must pastors. A pastor’s responsibility is not to dictate to his people what they are to do, but to equip them to do the work.

Develop an empowering environment

Along with trust is the importance of empowering people for ministry. Empowering people means giving them the authority to accomplish the task. When Christ sent out His disciples, He not only gave them the responsibility to preach the gospel, but He also gave them authority to fulfill the task (Matthew 10:1–16). It is easy to give people responsibilities but difficult to give them authority — the freedom to set the goals and strategies for their ministry. While pastors provide counsel and direction when needed, especially when the individual is new to a ministry, pastors must also allow them freedom to make decisions. Only when pastors empower people will they develop into effective leaders.

Develop an encouraging environment

In the smaller church discouragement also plagues people’s involvement. When people do not see extraordinary results for their efforts, they begin to wonder if the ministry is worth their efforts. This is especially true when they have attempted to implement new ideas but failed to see positive results.

When a group works together to implement new ministries, especially those designed for outreach, they often develop a defeatist mindset. Consequently, pastors need a positive-based evaluation strategy where they focus on spiritual outcomes rather than on goals and objectives alone. A positive-based evaluation strategy is one where pastors recognize that if God desires to sovereignly accomplish His purposes through them, they can expect God to work unexpectedly. People might consider a ministry effort to be a failure, but God may use it to accomplish His purpose. When people work together to serve God, He will accomplish His will through them, even though they may achieve far different results from those they expected. Consequently, pastors need to reward people for their faithfulness rather than just their achievements (Matthew 25:14–30), for in their faithfulness God achieves His purpose.

Develop a supportive environment

To have effective teams a pastor needs to offer support in three areas. First, he needs to provide adequate resources for ministry. A team will only be as effective as the resources provided. Asking people to develop a youth program without providing financial resources will not only frustrate the team, but will also ensure its failure. Second, pastors need to provide guidance. While pastors should never dictate what needs to be done, they should periodically meet with the team to discuss how the youth ministry is going, what goals they desire to accomplish, and how they will reach them. Third, pastors need to provide spiritual support through prayer and encouragement, ministering to team member’s spiritual and emotional needs as well.

Develop accountability

One of the most difficult aspects of working with volunteers in the smaller church is accountability. Volunteers are less likely to handle criticism, even when it is constructive. Furthermore, in the smaller church, if a person becomes hurt or upset, it reverberates throughout the congregation. Accountability, however, is not the pastor holding a club over the team like a taskmaster, demanding that it do exactly as he says and making sure it achieves the results he desires. Instead, accountability involves loving, supportive oversight that allows the pastor to provide assistance when problems arise.

When Christ sent out His disciples, He reminded them that they were accountable to God for how well they performed their ministry (Matthew 10:28–33). They were accountable not in the area of results, but in their faithfulness to be obedient to God and to be good stewards of what He had given them (see Matthew 25:14–30).

Pastors are to hold volunteers accountable in three main areas. First, volunteers are accountable for walking in biblical obedience. As ministry leaders they are to exemplify Christ in their lives. Second, volunteers are to be faithful to the assigned task. If they are failing to fulfill their responsibilities, the pastor needs to come alongside them and address the issues in their lives that are hindering their ministry. Rather than fire them, help them develop the skills necessary to accomplish the task. Third, volunteers are accountable to uphold the values, beliefs, and vision of the church. While each ministry will have its own vision and goals, these should never conflict with the vision of the church. While volunteers are given freedom in the curriculum, it should never conflict with the theology and values of the church. When it does, the person needs to be reminded of his agreement to teach what is in agreement with the church. If he refuses, then he must be removed. Otherwise, his teaching will bring division and error into the whole congregation.

Conclusion

As Pastor John thought about the new children’s ministry, he realized that the program was struggling because he had failed to properly recruit people to the ministry. When people did volunteer, they were given positions but were not placed on a team.

He still believes the ministry is critical for the future of the church, but it will require more preparation and effort on his part to share with people the passion and importance of the ministry. He then needs to work with the volunteers to develop a team so they can work together with a shared vision to accomplish the ministry.

Glenn Daman

GLENN DAMAN, D.Min., is director of the Center for Leadership Development, Stevenson, Washington. He is author of Shepherding the Small Church, Leading the Small Church, and Leadership Development in the Small Church: A Guide for Building an Effective Board.

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