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About 10 years ago, my wife and I pulled into a busy Wal-Mart parking lot to grab a few things for the casa. That's Spanish for house or light chicken gravy. I'm not sure which one.
As I got out of my car, I heard a woman crying for help. I looked around and, at the far end of the parking lot, spotted a man standing over a woman. He was holding her shirt with one hand and slapping her in the face with the other.
I had to figure out what to do, and quickly. So I started walking toward the couple, tentatively at first. As I did, I was relieved to see several other men behind me begin to move toward the assailant. Like an impromptu League of Justice, we began to run towards the damsel in distress, with me leading the way.
As I got closer, the man turned his attention to me. He was a decent sized guy, but I was bigger and, of course, my Robins, Tontos, and other side-kicks were right behind me! And so in the heat of the moment, I said the only thing I could remember from movies when a hero stops a man from hitting a lady: "Why don't you try that on someone your own size?!"
He turned and ran. I didn't take chase. My sprint across the parking lot was about all I could handle. Besides, if I ran any farther, I would have needed a Gatorade and a doughnut.
So with victory secured, I turned to high-five my fellow action heroes, but they were not there. They had never been there. My wife said that the other guys took a step or two, but when they saw me start to run, they just stopped to watch the show.
Lucky for me, the assailant bought the tough guy vibe. In no time, a few people who knew the lady ran over to help her and explained that the man was her husband. My wife and I went into the store to shop. As my adrenaline surge faded, I began to feel a little miffed at the guys who didn't come to help. I even passed a few and gave them "a look." It was just a two second glance but it spoke volumes. It said, "Hey man, you should have backed me up because that's what guys do." They all looked down, so I know they got the message.
We all knew what needed to be done. But I'd been left to do it alone.
The value of teams
I think that's how we often feel as church leaders. We feel that we have a likeminded team, a strong body of believers that loves Jesus and is committed to do work in his name. We see a noble cause and assume we all know what needs to be done. But as we tear off across the metaphorical parking lot we turn around to discover that when we're in the thick of the battle, we're all alone. The team isn't really there.
It doesn't have to be that way. If we are truly "the body of Christ," it can't be that way. Each member must play a role or the body doesn't function properly.
Our job as church leaders is to build the body. And that means the work of the body is shared. One of the essentials of ministry is the differentiating of roles and delegation of responsibilities—in other words, teamwork.
A true ministry "team" is invaluable. But there's a crucial difference between building a team and merely letting a team form around you. Great teams are built; bad teams just form, with no intentionality or planning. Good leaders tend to approach others to help serve their vision.
Most of the time, we are just happy for warm bodies willing to volunteer. We use pious-sounding phrases like, "I'll use anyone the Lord sends me." Sounds really great, but remember that God is not the only one who sends people to us. I have had my fair share of people I suspect were sent to me by the other team. I thought they were from God—right up to the point they began to turn red and grow horns.
I began to realize building a team would require being more intentional about the selection process. It would require a series of tests and training to see if prospective team members carried our organization's DNA.
Here are a few of the things I ask myself to determine if people can be trusted team members.
How do they respond to failure?
I hate failure. I hate failure in my personal life and on my team. But I loathe it when our failure reflects badly on our church. Self-contained missteps are one thing, the kind of failures that only reflect on the person involved. But let's face it—in a true team environment, failing rarely happens in a vacuum. When a kicker misses a field goal and loses the game, the entire team loses because of the player's mistake. The defense cannot say, "Well, we did our job really well so it does not reflect on us." We succeed and fail together: in sports, in life, and in ministry.
If I want to build an effective team, I have to give certain key leaders the permission to fail—and not rescue them. That's hard to do. If I see something going badly, I have a strong impulse to step in and stop it before it has a negative impact. But in the end, my team members won't learn valuable lessons if I do that. And I won't have the opportunity to see how they respond when they witness the consequences of their failure.
Some time ago, my very young staff was not responding quickly to emails and calls that came in to our church. I made it clear that all incoming messages of any kind needed to be answered within one day. That's 24 hours. And yet, despite my repeated reminders, rewards, and even threats, my team was not responding. So each Sunday I would have awkward conversations at church with new members who felt as though they did not matter because no one got back to them. This was especially irritating because our church motto, which is printed on every sign and brochure reads, "You matter to God … You matter to us."
In order to resolve the issue, I began answering all the emails and calls myself. This, of course, was too time-consuming. Finally I made a difficult choice. I had to watch them fail, even though I knew their doing so could hurt people and lower our attendance. And it did. It was incredibly frustrating. Several families were offended, and one even left the church. I let my staff all read the email from the outgoing family explaining how they felt and why they wanted to find a church that would connect with them.
In the pain of that moment I saw the heartfelt sorrow in all but one of my teammates. They felt the sting of the failure, and each made a choice to never be the one who dropped the ball in that area again. However, one staff member didn't seem to care at all. His response: "Well, if they are going to get mad over that, we don't want them anyway." He's no longer with us. I needed to release him because his response showed a troubling indifference toward the people whom our team was called to serve. We are in the people business, and that means they all need to matter to us. Without letting my staff fail, they would have missed a valuable lesson, and I wouldn't have seen who was really committed to our mission.
Can they be hurt?
In my years of ministry, I have seen that there is one major difference between a true team member and what I call a "paycheck player." You can hurt a team member. Paycheck players can only be scared. Paycheck players worry only about losing their positions or jobs or money. That is not the case with true teammates. When, as the leader, you have to correct them, you can tell from their eyes and body language that they are really upset. It's not just the possibility of losing a position; they hate letting down the team.
Last year, a highly capable young man on our leadership team made a mistake that cost us several thousand dollars. He failed to pay attention or get input from others, and made an error that caused materials to be printed with entirely wrong information. There was really no way to fix it so we were forced to reprint everything.
I went to his office and sat in a chair across from him. I looked at him and saw tears well up in his eyes. I got up and took his hand and helped him to his feet and embraced him. Nothing I could have said would have made him feel it more. He knew he had blown money we didn't have. But he is a real team player. He was in pain over the mistake and made no excuses. He's the real deal. As I left his office I simply said, "Be more careful." That's it. When you have a true team player, you know the pain of failure is consequence enough. All they need when they mess up is love and forgiveness.
Will they stand up to me?
When you bring passion, drive, and vision into ministry endeavors, there are going to be moments of friction between team members. It's unavoidable, even healthy. In fact, I never trust anyone completely until I have a disagreement with them. Only then do we see how committed we are to the relationship.
Life is too short to surround yourself with overly sensitive people. This does not mean we have a license to be rude or insulting, but we must be able to communicate through emotions and passions. I will walk through fire for my friends, but I will not walk on egg shells for them. I expect my teammates to treat me the same way.
Ministry work affords no shortage of dealing with emotionally volatile people. So if a team member can disagree with me passionately, but without getting mean, then there's a good chance they have what it takes to be firm but loving with church members. Often I will play devil's advocate and just oppose an idea to see if my team will stand up to me. And I'm proud to say, they're becoming great at it.
I didn't always like this aspect of teambuilding. Sure, I would tell people that I welcomed arguments, but secretly I just wanted them to agree with me and do what they were told. After all, I was the leader and about two decades older than most of them. I had to come to grips with the fact that my insecurities were attracting only "yes men," and not high-caliber leaders. I had to work to become more secure in my identity in Christ so I could handle pushback. I'm realizing now that true greatness is less about where I go and what I accomplish and more about who I bring with me on the journey. I am surrounded by leaders who will do far more than I could and I'm grateful to be part of their development. I have even enjoyed being proven wrong when initiatives I opposed turned out to be successes. The only loser is my pride.
These are the three questions I ask to evaluate whether a person is a real team player. I'm sure there are more, and each leader has to develop their own list. Many times people fail in one or more of these areas, only to stick around and get sharper and ultimately become a valuable member of the team. A mentor of mine used to have a framed sign in his office with the familiar inscription: "Teamwork makes the dream work." Under it, he'd pinned a note to the wall, on which he had written, "… If you can survive the nightmare of building a real team!"
Team building is not for the faint of heart. But if you have the passion and patience, it becomes one of the highlights of your ministry and life.
Michael Cheshire is senior pastor of The Journey Community Church in Aspen Park, Colorado.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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