by Kevin Dyer
What can be accomplished together is so much greater than what can be accomplished by individuals working on their own.
John and Jean Wilson were new recruits joining a team of North American and British missionaries in Europe. The team’s objective was to plant a church in a city where there was no evangelical witness. After language study, they arrived at the location and participated in the ministry. They soon found frustration and difference of opinion to be a common occurrence. The emotional strain of new workers clashing with older, more experienced missionaries took its toll. Cultural differences, health problems, difficult interpersonal relations, lack of results and disunity among the team members tore them apart. John and Jean lasted two years; they returned home disillusioned and defeated.
In vivid contrast, Jack and Rene Austin were members of a team to Brazil. The eight missionaries were determined to impact their particular area for Christ. Although all were from different church backgrounds with a variety of opinions on methodology and doctrine, they were enormously successful in their ministry. Today all of them are continuing in vibrant service for the Lord.
WHAT MADE THE DIFFERENCE?
For the past 25 years I have been involved with International Teams in sending groups of missionaries to Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. During that time we have sent well over 100 teams to more than 55 countries. We are thoroughly convinced of the value of the team effort. What can be accomplished together is so much greater than what can be accomplished by individuals working on their own.
When we began back in the early 60s, we just went to the field and began the work. It wasn’t long before we realized that if teams were going to be effective, they needed to be trained together before going to the field.
Merely bringing people together and sending them to the field wasn’t enough. They needed time for indepth preparation and interpersonal bonding. They came from all kinds of sub-cultures and religious backgrounds and minor differences in personal taste became magnified when living and working in the team situation.
TRAINING, THE KEY
So training became the indispensable key to success for building and developing our teams. Since we began a six-month intensive training program, our casualty rate on the field has plummeted to four percent. Many missionary groups have suggested that if we would reduce the preparation time they would avail themselves of the opportunity of training with us. But we have found that six months is about the optimum time. Most prospective missionaries can put on a spiritual front for about six weeks, but after that the cracks begin to appear under intense pressure. At about the four month stage, another crucial time is faced. The reality of what is ahead has clearly been faced and the team has or has not jelled.
At the International Teams Missions Center each team lives in a large, eight-bedroom, bi-level home. They live, work, study, cook, tea, play, pray, cry, disagree and share together. The intensity of this daily personal interaction is something that cannot be duplicated in a dormitory or in locations where living together is impossible. The family style process results in uniting and bonding a team in a way that produces tremendous results once they arrive on the field. Although we don’t continue this close living situation on the field, in the training process it is a vital part of unifying a team for service. It is also invaluable in helping those who can’t make it on the team to opt out gracefully. About 10 percent do.
The training revolves around six areas of preparation: (1) language; (2) cross-cultural communication; (3) interpersonal relations and team building; (4) evangelism and church planting; (5) missions; (6) special studies for specific fields; e.g., relief and development, ministering to Christians in communist countries, etc.
The primary focus of this article is related to the crucial area of interpersonal relations and team building. During the six months of preparation a major focus is placed on seven important areas of team building.
1. Godly leadership. The team leader must see himself primarily as an enabler to the team. His major focus is the team members. He oils the machinery of team life. He encourages the spiritual life of the group. He helps them reach their goals. When a team leader is primarily concerned with what he personally is going to do, the team often is less successful. If the leader commits himself to helping each member of the team become successful, great things begin to happen.
Phil was the leader of the team going to Zambia. He and his wife had long-term goals of their own. They went in the program for what they could get out of it themselves. They weren’t interested and weren’t capable of handling a group of missionaries. Once we changed leaders the tone of the team greatly improved. Unity and cooperation developed, and the team planted a church with great success.
2. Commitment to one another. This takes time. But as team members learn to trust one another they begin to share and open their hearts to each other. This commitment process helps bring about a crucial change of attitudes. Independent spirits are replaced with interdependence. The missionaries begin to develop a servant attitude. Team members see themselves in the role of a servant, and the biblical injunctions of submitting to one another and serving one another shines through.
On one team a national from another country was a part of the group. His financial support was very low but other team members picked up the responsibility and he went overseas with full provision.
3. Communication. A key element in the training process is to learn how to communicate openly with each other. The great majority of new missionaries in our program have never learned to do this. Our evangelical churches and parachurch organizations seem to have given many people a good biblical background but communication skills are desperately lacking.
Most don’t really know how to resolve conflicts. Few have learned to say, "I was wrong, please forgive me." Many have never learned to compromise where they can so that the whole team can benefit.
Two men on one team in the Caribbean had great difficulty confronting each other over differences. Both eventually returned home because they could not communicate effectively. Unless each team member is willing to subject his own personal desires to the needs of the team, there will be many difficulties.
Obviously, we want them to stick to their guns if they are right as far as God and his Word are concerned. But often minor issues gnaw at the life of a team and selfishness destroys effectiveness. Only time spent together in training can reveal whether there will be problems in this area.
4. Agreed objectives. One interesting facet of training revolves around setting goals and strategies for the project ahead. In-depth discussion and united approval of the plan are vital to developing a common, unified focus. Each team spends hours preparing a strategy and finding where each person fits the plan.
5. Recognition of gifts. Learning to accept each other is crucial in developing unity. Not everybody has the same gifts. Some are excellent Bible teachers, others terrific evangelists, some work well with children, and some are good small group leaders. This diversity strengthens the total input of the team. Yet each one contributes to the whole. It is very rewarding to understand that no one is inferior or superior because they have certain gifts. Administrators, nurses, nutrition teachers, evangelists, Bible teachers, and builders all combine their efforts and a church is established. Just having the team accept you for who you are is very important.
6. United prayer. We have said it many times, but it is still true: the missionary family that prays together stays together. Praying and ministering to each other help to bind the team together. There is tremendous power in a unified group of 10 missionaries with a common goal crying out to God to work mightily among them. Six months of praying, combined with six months of language study, and six months of deep interpersonal involvement is a powerful program that can lead to successful team ministries.
7. Accountability. The team leader is accountable to the field director, and the team is accountable to the leader. Both set personal goals which are reviewed by their supervisors. Monitoring progress on a monthly or quarterly basis is very important. New missionaries can then regularly evaluate how they are doing. And the peer pressure of other team members who urge you on to meet your goals can be extremely beneficial in developing personal maturity and an effective ministry.
In our experience, six months of training in interpersonal relations prior to going to the field has been the key to building and developing successful teams.
Team life is not for everyone, but a powerful work for the Lord can be accomplished by well-trained missionaries with a united goal and a commitment to each other to share their life and work for the glory of God.
Copyright © 1986 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.