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May 14, 2017Research

Teams in Mission: Are They Worth It? (Part Two)

TEAM missionaries research teamwork.
Teams in Mission: Are They Worth It? (Part Two)

Read Teams in Mission: Are They Worth It?, Part One (Disappointments with the Team; Restoring the Team).

Be a Real Team

In global missions practice, team is a nebulous and often misused term. Lewis asks an important question: “While the idea is admirable, what is the difference between a team and a group?” (2015, 415). In interviews with regional directors, country leaders, and teams around the world, I sought to identify a common definition for team. There were almost as many definitions as there were interviews, but the most common way to define team was this: any group of missionaries who happen to live in the same location is a team.

However, there is a critical difference between a group of missionaries who happen to live and do ministry in the same place, and a team of missionaries who work together. The difference is a common goal. It’s the failure to grasp the significance of this difference that leads to the failure of most teams.

We need to abandon the convenient notion that a team is any group of workers who happen to live near each other. What is a team? A team is group of people with a common goal that compels its members to work together. Notice the two elements that are missing from so many teams—the common goal and working together.

It’s possible to have a common goal that doesn’t compel people to work together. For example, a goal such as “to reach our city for Christ” may be too broad to stimulate teamwork. “To reach the city,” I might hand out Bibles. You might teach English. And our colleague might lead a prayer ministry. All are valuable activities, and contribute towards reaching the city. But we are not working together. We are not a team.

A real team has a goal that compels its members to work through their differences and misunderstandings. It compels the team to capitalize on their differences and create solutions that no one could design alone. That's the kind of goal that transforms a group of like-minded people into a team.

Missionary groups who are mistakenly called teams suffer in two ways: (1) they fail to catch the synergy that is inherent in real teamwork, and (2) they waste a lot of energy in trying to act like a team. Missionaries and mission organizations ignore this to their peril.

So if you want to be an effective team, first make sure you really are a team. Then you can move onto the next step: being a healthy team.

Be a Healthy Team

Healthy teams have certain common characteristics. A healthy team is characterized by growing trust, open and robust communication, mutual commitment, and a compelling purpose.

In a healthy team, members trust one another. That is, they have confidence in the good intentions of their teammates and actively seek ways to build trust. Trust is especially important to teams that operate in a context of high ambiguity and when external supports are weak or unavailable—such as the situation of many church-planting teams. Trust grows the strongest when every member of a team takes responsibility to help it grow, and to repair bridges of trust when they are broken down.

The paradox in building trust is that we can develop trust in others only when we expose ourselves to the very real risk of being hurt by them. Building trust requires acts of reliance upon others and acts of self-disclosure. The repair of trust requires the seeking and the bestowing of forgiveness as the first step in restoring trust. The act of forgiveness is itself a venture in risk-taking.

A team characterized by strong trust is well on the way towards a second characteristic of healthy teams: open and robust communication. Team members listen and speak in order to understand one another. Communication stays open between all members of the team and is not dominated by one or two people. The team is able to debate, challenge, and engage in healthy conflict in order to arrive at best solutions and maintain an open, participatory environment. Relational conflict is dealt with biblically in a culture of truth-telling and grace-giving. Sin is confessed and forgiven.

Because communication happens when messages are both sent and received, there are two essential skills for healthy team communication: listening and speaking. I put listening first because it's the skill many of us take for granted when we talk about communication. But both listening and speaking are essential.

Healthy communication builds trust. Unhealthy communication damages trust, and distrust undermines healthy communication. In other words, trust and communication form a self-reinforcing spiral. This is both bad news and good news. The bad news is that if you are weak in one of these areas, you are probably weak in both. But the good news is that we can build from one to strengthen the other. These, in turn, build into a third characteristic of healthy teams—commitment.

Commitment is a key source of a team’s synergy, the potential for the team to accomplish more than each individual could do alone. But like trust and communication, commitment is not something we can put on autopilot and assume will remain throughout the life of a team. When I join a team, I make a commitment to the team. But I manifest and deepen my commitment through my active participation over the life of the team.

We enact our commitment to the team in at least three ways.

  1. Through the roles we perform on the team. I agree to contribute in certain ways, and then I do the work I say I will do.
  2. Through the way we communicate. We listen to our teammates and share our ideas and opinions openly and honestly.
  3. Through holding ourselves accountable to our teammates. We expect them to tell us when we are not following through on our responsibilities, and we admit our mistakes when we recognize them.

Finally, healthy teams have a compelling purpose. When teams define their purpose clearly, they tend to work together more effectively. When teams don't understand their purpose, they struggle to work effectively together. Defining and understanding a team's purpose starts with articulating the overall mission of the team, and continues with developing operational goals which helps the team see specifically what they need to do together to accomplish the mission.

As mentioned above, a common failure of so-called teams is to draw the purpose so broadly that there is no built-in motivation to work together. When a goal compels team members to work together, the team experiences positive interdependence that encourages cooperation rather than competition or individualism. Positive interdependence occurs when individuals in a group perceive that they can reach their goals if and only if the others in the group also reach their goals.

Each member may have personal goals that are somewhat distinct from the goals of others on the team, but an overall purpose that integrates these goals will unleash the potential for teams to accomplish more than the individuals working alone toward their own goals.

Answer Six Key Questions

Healthy, effective teams know the answers to six basic questions. Because each team is made up of different people and works in a specific environment, every team will have different answers to these questions. But the members of the same team should get on the same page when it comes to these critical questions:

1. Mission: Why are we a team?
Each member of a team should be able to articulate the purpose for which it exists. What is it that compels us to work together as a team? What has God called us to do?

2. Goals: What will we do?
The team should have specific goals which it expects to accomplish within a specific time frame. Everyone should know what the goals are, when they are to be completed, and how they contribute toward achieving the team's mission.

3. Roles: What do I do? What do my teammates do?
Everyone should know how they are expected to contribute to the team. This includes what a member does to accomplish team goals (e.g., preaching, discipleship, hospitality, etc.), and how a member supports the team (e.g., roles such as encourager, organizer, innovator, etc.).

4. Communication: How do we relate to each other?
Communication encompasses all the ways that teammates interact with one another. How do you use the phone, email, or texting to communicate with each other? How often do you meet and what kinds of things to you talk about or do together? Are there any biblical principles which your team will make a specific commitment to follow?

5. Decision-Making: How do we make decisions?
Does the leader have ultimate decision-making authority, does the majority decide, or do you expect consensus? The way you make decisions may vary based on the situation, but each team should develop a clear sense of which approach fits which situation.

6. Conflict: How do we handle conflict?
Healthy conflict is essential for effective problem solving, planning, and creativity. A team needs to agree on how they will engage in healthy conflict, how they will prevent unhealthy conflict, and how they will resolve unhealthy conflict when it does occur.


Are teams worth it? Yes! If we embrace the reality that teams are a good way to do missions, we should do our best to do teams well. This is especially true in a world where our teams consist of multiple cultures and a rapidly-changing environment. Our organizations and leaders play a key role in helping our teams to succeed. You can start by forming a real team, practicing healthy team dynamics, and answering the right questions.


  • Ellis, Jordan. 2005. “Let's Get Real About Missionary Team Chemistry.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 41(4): 440–445.
  • Hibbert, Evelyn and Richard. 2014. Leading Multicultural Teams. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
  • Lewis, Richard. 2015. “How Teams Work: A Case Study in Senegal, West Africa.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 51(4): 353–464.
  • Scott, Waldron. 1971. “Teams and Teamwork.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 8(1): 1–8.
  • Zehner, Damaris. 2005. “Building Teams, Building Walls.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 41(3): 362–369.

EMQ, Vol. 53, No. 2. Copyright © 2017 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved.

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Teams in Mission: Are They Worth It? (Part Two)