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What Game Are We Playing?

Track, golf, basketball, and football teams require very different skills. So does leadership of different size churches.
What Game Are We Playing?

Something stirred inside me as I heard Ben describe the church he was planting. I didn't know whether it was awe or jealousy. Ben had all the bases covered. From philosophy of ministry to vision and goals, he knew where he was headed.

He had mapped out a clear and powerful system of discipleship, church governance, leadership structures, and ministry patterns. I was sure he was laying a solid foundation upon which to build the ministry. So was he.

Now, nearly 20 years later, we both realize he was actually making a critical mistake. He had constructed an organizational straitjacket that choked the very entrepreneurial spirit that initially caused his church to boom.

What happened?

Ben failed to realize that growth changes everything. With structures so strongly stated and so firmly entrenched, he made it nearly impossible to change them when they no longer worked. And when his leadership molds couldn't be broken, the church broke.

Like Ben, many church leaders fail to understand that more members and staff don't just make a church bigger. They make it different. Roles and relationships change, often dramatically, usually unintentionally.

Ministry growth is more than adding players. Sometimes it's a whole new ballgame. And if you don't adapt, it's not long until conflict erupts.

Over the past 19 years, the church I pastor has slowly and steadily grown. More like a glacier than an avalanche, we've worked our way through the stages of growth, from one-man show to megachurch. Along the way, we've had to reinvent ourselves many times. Some changes were so natural we hardly noticed them. Others were difficult, some gut-wrenching. But all the changes were inescapable. Our only choice was to embrace them or resist them; we could not avoid them.

I liken them to sports. As your church or ministry team grows, your game changes. Here's what you can expect at each stage.

Track star

The solo pastor can be compared to a track and field star. That's where most of us start out, and many choose to stay. On the up side, the single-staff pastorate offers tremendous freedom. On the down side, it can be overwhelming and lonely.

Like the sprinter, the solo pastor may work out with others, but he performs alone—often without fanfare and usually before a small crowd peppered with family and friends.

Independent types love it. Sometimes the highly relational do, too, because the smaller church provides opportunity for deeper personal relationships.

The opposite can also happen, especially in a small church with a long history of ingrown relationships. The new pastor can be shut out, viewed by the members as an outsider.

Most solo leaders I've known want to be part of a team. They often pull together a group of lay leaders or close friends within the church to create a team.

Clubhouse buddies

With growth comes the inevitable addition of a team member or two. Key leaders may be paid staff or lay members. Either way, the small leadership team of two to four resembles players on the golf course.

Golf is a highly relational game. So are these teams. Golf is most enjoyable when played with friends. And while it's preferable that players have similar skills, a stroke a hole is no big deal among pals. The leisurely pace allows for extended conversation and camaraderie. It's a major part of the game. Afterward, everyone is expected to hang around for a snack and a drink while debriefing that round and planning the next one.

For the highly relational pastor, a golf-size leadership team is the most enjoyable stage. The relationships are often deep, the sharing genuine, and the concern for one another goes far beyond the course. Doing what you like with people you like is hard to beat.

Playmakers and scorers

As the team grows beyond a foursome, its relationships begin to resemble those found in basketball. More a team sport than a friendship sport, basketball depends upon working together, trusting one another, and sharing the ball.

No one expects everyone on a basketball team to be best friends. There are too many players for that. Some are stars and some are role players. It's also played before a larger crowd.

The ministry team of five to twelve key leaders (whether paid or volunteer) is similar. Everyone is in the loop. They all know what the others are doing and are supposed to do. When the coach addresses the team, he speaks to everyone at once. There are few surprises.

During a basketball game, those who aren't in the game watch those who are. Offense and defense involve everyone. Most players can play multiple positions. Changing positions for the good of the team is usually no big deal, a minor change in focus.

A winning team needs a star player or two. Given freedom to go one-on-one, these players can make or break the team. Adding or losing a star player can turn the season around.

While basketball teams do not have the same depth of relationships found on the golf course, the good ones have great esprit de corps. Everyone rides to the game in one van. The locker room is lively. Trash talk is half the fun.

Offense, defense, special teams

When the primary leadership team increases beyond 15, the game changes radically. More like a football team, the dynamics can be very uncomfortable for the golfer. And for those who still think they're playing basketball, ministry can become confusing—and painful.

Football is a game of highly specialized roles. Few players are interchangeable. Guards seldom become quarterbacks. Teamwork is more important than one-on-one skill. In fact, a great athlete who freelances can mess up the entire game.

Football players don't know what everyone else is doing. The offensive and defensive teams have different playbooks and different game plans. When not in the game, they may not even watch their teammates; they huddle with their unit and position coach to plan for the next series. Most players have to watch the game films to know what happened.

The sheer number of players and the distinctly different roles make camaraderie a challenge. While the basketball team rides everywhere together, the football team takes may take two buses.

For the members of a leadership team that once played basketball, this is a difficult adjustment. They may feel out of the loop and insignificant. Some won't be able to make the change. Some won't want to. But there is nothing they can do about it. The game has changed. The only question: Am I going to put on the pads, retire, or just stand here in my shorts and get run over?

How you know it's a whole new game

A star football player and good athlete, Tim decided to go out for the varsity basketball team. He made the team. But whenever it came time to play hard-nosed defense, he reverted to the tactics he'd learned on the football field. He never quite understood that this was a new game with new rules.

What football player Tim called "a little pushing and shoving," the basketball referee called a foul. Soon Tim was on the bench, frustrated that the officials didn't appreciate the tight defense that had won him awards as a cornerback.

While changes are inevitable in a growing church, they are not always easy. Leaders who don't see them coming or don't realize they have already taken place pay a high price in emotions and relationships. So do their teammates and churches.

Besides simply the number of players, here are other signs that the game has changed.

Relational overload. An increase in time spent massaging relationships is an early sign that the game may have changed.

My preferred style of leadership is relational. I'd rather convince than give directives. I don't do memos (okay, I didn't do memos). Instead, I prefer to pass vision and direction through ad hoc meetings around lunch or the water cooler.

That worked well for a long while. Adding a few staffers and a weekly staff meeting, we easily made the transition from track to golf to basketball. We hit our stride. We hummed along on a long winning streak. It was a blast. Everyone was happy.

But with steady growth in attendance came the need to add new players. Eventually we were no longer an overgrown basketball team. We were a football team. But since the staff came aboard one at a time, I didn't realize the game had changed. I noticed I was suddenly spending a lot of time keeping everyone in the loop.

The ministry team thought we were still playing basketball, so they were upset every time something happened that they didn't know about. I thought we were still playing basketball, so I assumed their complaints were legitimate. Their grievances about relational issues eventually pointed me to structural issues. Only when I realized I was trying to lead a football team like a basketball coach did I find my way out.

Increased miscommunication. When important messages are chronically missed or misunderstood, it's time to change the way we play the game.

On a golf team, communication is easy and natural, there is seldom a need to set up a special meeting to discuss anything. They probably covered it on the way to the clubhouse.

When our church staff was small, we hardly ever had a scheduled meeting. It felt silly. If we had something to discuss, we did it on the spot. It was fun and fluid, and took little time or planning. But as our staff grew, that style was less effective. Someone was always missing from our discussions. The larger team needs intentional communication.

I've coached my son's basketball teams. Ocasionally, another team will throw a surprise defense our way. Nothing is harder than trying to explain to the kids in the middle of a game what's happening and how to beat it. It seldom works.

The information is not that complicated. But you need a chalk board, about two minutes of explanation, and several walk-throughs. The problem is the number of people who need to grasp it. If just one kid misunderstands or tunes out, we'll turn the ball over, no matter how well the others understand.

Usually, we just do the best we can and then deal with it at the next scheduled practice. Larger teams need special meetings, chalk talks, and film sessions to keep everyone on the same page. And if the group grows large enough, you'll have to break it down into smaller groups to facilitate communication.

That's not as easy as it sounds. Expect resistance when shifting between sizes. Duffers who thrive on leisurely fairway talks will feel cheated when you suddenly call an in-bounds play for the last shot. They don't want to substitute rambling conversations with agenda-driven meetings.

For many of them, it's not the game but the relationships that count most. And hoopsters who once knew everything about the game plan aren't usually thrilled with a new structure that leaves them focusing on only part of the picture. For them, knowledge holds the key to power and prestige.

Because of this resistance (and the fact that some of us like the old game better than the new game), it's tempting to communicate in the old ways long after they no longer work. That might keep one or two players happy, but the rest of the team will flounder. The coach can either help the team adapt to the new reality, or wait until serious conflict solves the problem by shrinking the group to a more comfortable size.

Conflict over decisions. Many ministry teams are hamstrung when it comes to making decisions. Their structures remain stuck in the past, appropriate for a game they are no longer playing.

Sometimes the trouble comes from making decisions too quickly. This usually happens when a long-time track-star pastor adds staff or moves to a new ministry with existing staff. Used to being his own counsel, the pastor continues to make decisions without consulting (or at times even informing) the rest of the team. This is a serious breech of golf etiquette. If continued, the new partners usually start looking for another partner.

More commonly the bottlenecks occur when we try to include too many people in the process. Some years ago we added just one person to a key team. Previously, this tight golf team made great decisions and enjoyed the process. But suddenly things fell apart. A group that once reached consensus quickly started debating every little thing. Coalitions formed, relationships suffered. What were once enjoyable strategy sessions became dreaded staff meetings.

What happened? The game had changed, but the players didn't know it. The problem was not the newest member. The problem was adding one player too many without changing the rules.

Look what happens each time a new person joins the decision-making mix: With two people, you have to maintain just two lines of communication. Adding a third creates six lines. A fourth, 12. A fifth, 20. Add a sixth person and you now have 30 lines of communication to monitor!

No wonder growing leadership teams find their old processes breaking down.

The basic principle: daily operational decisions need to be pushed out to the frontline while decisions about vision and direction are made by an ever-narrowing group at the top. This ensures that those close to the action make good decisions and those who shape vision are not bogged down by relational overload.

As a church grows, directional decision-making shifts from congregation to board to staff. At the same time, operational decisions once vested in the solo pastor and a few lay members shift to staff or to specialized team leaders.

Unfortunately, it's here that many church leadership teams get stuck. As a result, important decisions become bottlenecked and meetings turn combative. The real issue is not who makes decisions, but that the decision-making architecture remains appropriate to the game. When it no longer fits, we must be willing to change it.

Play ball!

As a kid I played a variety of sports. I certainly had a favorite. But once a season began, it didn't matter which one I liked the best or which one came most naturally. All that mattered was my ability to adapt to the game we were currently playing.

That was great training for ministry. Some leaders choose their game without considering their church's season, and they keep playing it no matter the results. It's a tough way to do ministry. The odds of success are about the same as Tiger Woods dropping a 15-foot putt with a basketball. Some things just won't happen, no matter how hard we try.

In contrast, successful leaders play the game that's in season. They accept the conditions and the rules. They discern which kind of leadership is needed and they adjust their structures, roles, and relationships accordingly. And they play ball!

Larry Osborne is senior pastor of North Coast Church in Vista, California.

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