How Teams Work: A Case Study in Senegal, West Africa

by By Richard G. Lewis

The concept of North American missionaries serving overseas as part of a team is popular. The present generation of missionaries feels more comfortable working with others rather than launching out on their own. Mission agencies have picked up on this phenomenon and recruit people to be a part of a team for their organization as a mission strategy. While the idea is admirable, what is the difference between a team and a group?  

 src=

Fifteen years ago, I met with a group of missionaries, five families who were living and working in Dakar, Senegal. With a team leader facilitating the meeting, they came together every Wednesday for a team meeting and prayer. Each member gave a report of his or her projects. None of the ministry activities were related. No decisions were made at these meetings. There were suggestions, perhaps, on how a problem might be resolved within a particular work—but little to no integrated effort in any of the programs throughout the city. At the conclusion of our time in Dakar, we collectively agreed that they were not a team at all, but a group. A good group to be sure, as they clearly supported each other and enjoyed getting together, but they were certainly not a team.

The concept of North American missionaries serving overseas as part of a team is popular. The present generation of missionaries feels more comfortable working with others rather than launching out on their own. Mission agencies have picked up on this phenomenon and recruit people to be a part of a team for their organization as a mission strategy. While the idea is admirable, what is the difference between a team and a group?  

More recently, I visited an agricultural venture called the Beersheba Project (BP) that is located outside of Mbour, Senegal. Although I have been acquainted with this project for three years, the study was just three weeks in length and conducted through interviews and attending team meetings. I acknowledge that this assessment is limited in scope and may have some chronological disparities. Further, my classifications of the dynamics of the team may also need refining. In spite of these limitations, I believe this analysis provides a good overview of the dynamics of how this teams function. Hopefully, this study will provide insights for other cross-cultural workers on how teams work.

Historical Overview

The Beersheba Project (BP) began operation in 2011. Ten years prior, Eric, the founder and leader of the project, secured one hundred hectors in a remote area approximately forty kilometers outside the coastal city of Mbour. A former director for a large aid organization, Eric believed that if he could build a fence around a piece of land then the natural habitat would be restored from overgrazing and cutting down of trees. His theory worked, and he hoped that one day he would be able to develop the land into a functioning farm.

Over the course of time, through Eric’s discussion with other workers in the country, a shared vision of what could be accomplished with this one hundred hectors formed the initial team of the BP.  

The stated goal of the BP is to teach appropriate technology agriculture to Christian men and women in the community. The Sereer people in this region of Senegal are comprised of Muslims and nominal Christians. The strategy behind BP is a realization that the evangelical churches in the area are not sustained due to economic hardships, and many young people leave their home area for the capital city of Dakar to seek employment. If the area could be developed through sustainable farming, then fewer people would leave for the city and economic growth would obviously be a benefit for the communities as well as the church. Further, through a successful model of farming, this would provide outreach opportunity for witness to non-believers.

 src=Over the past three years, the BP has instituted several training programs including Foundations for Farming Principles, animal husbandry, and daily Bible study. In addition to these regular classes are modules which range from financial management to butchery and other appropriate technology classes. The students or interns recruited for training are recommended from local churches. The student body is approximately fifteen in size and takes residence on the farm for one year. Although the program is relatively new, there is a concentrated effort to follow up on the graduates in their home districts to see how they are using the training they have received and offer assistance in helping these graduates on their own farms.

Team Dynamics

The BP is in its initial stages of formation with the present team made up of various tier members. The titles of these members are entirely my own and not used within the team. 

Tier One: Stakeholders

a. The leader, visionary, and founder 

b. Operations officer, who takes care of finances as well as helps coordinate activity

c. Operations farmer 

Tier Two: Shareholders (they share, but may not have as much at stake in BP as the founding team members). Two families joined the BP within the past year, giving added value ministry service. The two men give direction to biblical studies. Another single man, who came earlier into the BP, provides discipleship to interns and coordinates class activity on campus.

Tier Three: Limited Contributors (short-term project specialists)

a. Electrical technician 

b. Agricultural developer 

c. Three nationals providing ministry, language, and cultural imperatives

Tier Four: Contract Staff

a. Campus staff

b. Any volunteer for limited ministry activity (a visiting teacher on finance management and any other person or groups that does not have a stake or long-term investment in BP)

 src=

It is important to note that the graph above does not have a top-down structure. What separates the different tiers of the team have more to do with position based on time—their past, present, and future commitment to the BP. Although the tiers do represent positional ownership, I have tried to describe the structure as an egalitarian unit (discussed later) in which each member of the team has an equal role in the function of BP.

I define stakeholders as people who were part of the foundation development. Certainly, the founder was and is a major stakeholder as he began the process. The operations and farm manager both joined the founder to launch the project. Each of these stakeholders is committed to the project both by obligation to the work, as well as finances for the ongoing budget of BP.

Shareholders are as vital as the stakeholders of the BP, although their involvement came about as a result of the already-established program. Their membership into BP is with equal commitment, being a part of the whole rather than their individual interests (though their interests and giftedness is what made them attractive and attracted to BP). They also have some financial commitment to the project, although not at the same level as the stakeholders.

Limited contributors are those who are committed to the BP, although the membership is perhaps not as long term as the stakeholders or shareholders. Their roles and responsibilities are in direct relation to their skills and/or service. Limited contributors are part of team meetings and decisions.  

The Senegalese co-workers I have placed in this category are vital to the success and growth of BP. They no doubt embrace the vision and purpose of BP, but, like other limited contributors, their role is possibly transient due to other future interests or financial opportunities.

Contract workers are involved in BP because of a specific task, either in teaching a modular course or as paid staff. Their loyalty to the group is on a contract basis, and they are not a part of the decision-making process.

Grid/Group and Classification

In analyzing a social environment, whether it is a church, business, religion, or family, I use the culture theory model devised by British anthropologist Mary Douglas. Her classification of social structure is through sorting environments based on grid and group.

Grid is defined by roles. Many roles in an environment mean that it is high grid (the military, large corporation of maybe even a family of twelve children). Low grid social environments mean there are fewer roles (a special forces unit, a small business or family with one child). All social environments have a grid based on roles.

Group is defined by membership in a social environment, how they enter into a community and the loyalty to that group. In a high group environment, loyalty to the group is more important than even their role, often because of family ties or a cause that is seen as vital to society (political activists, environmentalists, clans). Low group social environments are less loyal to the group or community (nomadic herdsmen, salaried employees).

The matrix of grid and group is identified in the graphic below (Lingenfelter 1998). Low grid/low group social environments are classified as
Individualists; high grid/low group are Bureaucratic; high grid/high group are Corporate (hierarchical); and low group/high grid are Collectivist (egalitarian).

 src=

General examples of social environments classified broadly are North Americans and some European countries as Individualist, holding strongly to independence and autonomy. Russia and many Eastern European countries are Bureaucratic, with high structure, and each person in the society relegated to tasks within that structure. In India and other Asian countries, people lean toward the Corporate model, with high hierarchy based on family, kin, and caste. People who are inclined toward Collectivism are found many times in African tribal societies.  

Analysis of Beersheba Project Based on Grid and Group

In its present structure, BP is a low grid/high group Collectivism based on these observations:

1. BP is a multinational team, comprised of people from France, Canada, the United States, the U.K., and Senegal. Team meetings are conducted in French (the official language of Senegal), as well as English. Although having a similar outlook from each particular country, being a multinational means that no one culture dominates how the project is structured (i.e., it is not done the French or American way).

2. The theological makeup of the BP team is comprised of people of different denominational backgrounds. Although all members are evangelicals, the BP team does not stress any one denominational teaching. This allows each person to hold on to his or her own beliefs but not allow his or her doctrinal differences to be an obstacle in the overall goal of the project.  

In blending a team with different doctrinal positions, it is important for each member to agree on the foundational doctrines and to see other denominational teachings as secondary. For example, if the issue is speaking in tongues or immersion baptism, a team member cannot insist that belief will be a part of the curriculum. The BP team is committed to keeping the main thing the main thing in their training and not allow personal theological preferences to hinder them from their objective.

3. It is the task that brings people to be a part of the team. Some on the team are agriculturalists; others are Bible teachers, while others have expertise in business development. Each member of the BP has a role, not by decree or assignment, but because of giftedness, which compliments the functioning of the project. Task is one of the reasons the team remains relatively small. People are not invited to be a part of the team unless they have a specific task that compliments the goal of BP. 

4. Objective, present and future, is through vision. “What is the purpose of Beersheba?” is a reoccurring theme among team members. In team meetings, ideas or new programs are regularly brought up. This is in part because BP is becoming known as a successful program in and out of the country. Outside church groups, missionaries, and foundations want to be a part of a successful program in a difficult part of the world. The BP receives requests monthly from others to join. While enticing, some of the ministry proposals are outside the original intent of the vision. Doing one or two things well is more important to the BP than having fifteen projects done poorly.

While in the country I had occasion to visit another project that allowed activities to define the ministry. What started out to be a small water project, providing clean drinking water in villages, has now established schools, building churches, feeding programs, and a four-story hospital. Outside donors drove the vision to “add one more thing.” Unfortunately, all of the projects are in jeopardy and some are no longer in operation.  The hospital has limited staff, broken equipment, and virtually no medicine. Opportunity is not always a sign of God’s leading. The BP recognizes this and therefore guards its vision and purpose.

4. With the egalitarian BP team, decisions are made through consensus. Eric is both the leader and the visionary. Whenever a new opportunity is proposed, his immediate response is generally, “Yes. Let’s do it.” In the team meetings, however, nothing is decided until it is discussed and there is general agreement. Consensus is neither fifty-one percent nor one hundred percent agreement. It’s usually in the seventy-five percent range. Recently, a new member was being considered. Eric was very enthusiastic to bring this person on board. However, there was opposition, as some of the team did not believe this person was a good fit for the program. It took over six weeks of discussion about this person before a decision was made. Because three-quarters of the team felt okay about the addition, this person was invited to the team with clear guidelines for her participation. If she only gained half of the support, then she would have never been accepted. Any decision within the BP must have broad consensus before things can move forward and not even the team leader takes on the authority to make unilateral decisions.

5. Although the BP social environment is egalitarian, the team is made up of individuals who have their own values and ideas. Individualism is both a strength and weakness.  Individualism allows each person to use their gifts, creating an atmosphere of creativity and dynamic activity. However, multi-individualism also can lead to dissention if individual interests become more important than group values. The difference between a team and a group is multi-individualism working toward the same goal.

The snapshot of analysis here demonstrates how decisions are made.

 

 src=

Going Forward: Suggestions and Cautions

Let me suggest three reminders for us as we move forward. 

1. High group social environments have a tendency to be closed and exclusive. (This was the problem with Judaizers desiring the first church to function as a Jewish extension sect). There may be a tendency, even fear, in both the stakeholders and shareholders to remain small so that they will not become a bureaucracy. That is a legitimate and valid concern, but as God can and does use a boutique ministry, he also can and does use large bureaucratic institutions.

2. Cultural understanding always requires attention. Through the years, I have observed missionaries, social workers, and government officials who worked with nationals, but never really understood the people they interacted with on a daily basis. Western development has a propensity to teach subjects and programs without truly understanding the context of those they seek to serve. Although all of the members of the BP team are familiar with West African culture and no doubt understand much of what people do (traditions, rituals, and practices), how much study has been dedicated to understand why people do what they do? Perhaps a study of social structure once a month would be helpful to enhance the teams teaching and training in context.

3. Facilitators are not pioneers. The main function of the BP is to facilitate a better way to farm and promote spiritual growth in the students. It is not the role of the team to do pioneer church planting. Although it is critical that the team understands the Senegalese culture and not be isolated within the confines of the farm, to become too engaged in the community with hands-on involvement could result in losing focus on the main purpose of the project. This is not to suggest that an expatriate cannot or should not do pioneer work; it’s just that this is not the purpose of the BP.

Conclusion

Every member of the BP team is a seasoned cross-cultural worker. Many have lived or served in West Africa for several years, having already had they’re cultural shins skinned in other ministries, and all have a good command of the language. For the members of the BP, my report is perhaps a reminder as well as a category for how they work as a team.  

For outsiders reading this study, BP is a model (not the model), for how a team environment works. In missions today, team is trend concept. As I noted earlier, most missionary and secular organizations I have observed are not teams at all, but groups of people who may belong to the same organization but for the most part function either through a bureaucratic structure or as individuals. Although the members of the BP team are individuals, they work as a team, sharing resources, including vehicle and tools, and coordinating tasks. Sharing property is not easy for individualists and this is another unique quality of the BP team.

The Beersheba Project is a success story. But like the Early Church, it will have growing pains that will present challenges in the future. Will they retreat and be closed and exclusive, or will they grow with a bureaucratic structure? Perhaps they will find the elusive balance that is not typical of many new ventures.  Apple computers and some megachurches started small and expanded without losing their identity. The Beersheba Project has the potential to find that balance and contribute significantly to the cause of Christ.

(Acknowledgments: My appreciation to Eric and the entire Beersheba team for allowing me to sit in on the team meetings and asking questions. Prior to submitting the article, it was presented to the BP team for their comments.).

References

Douglas, Mary. 1994. Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory. Oxford: Routledge.

Lingenfelter, Sherwood. 1998. Transforming Culture: A Challenge for Christian Mission. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academics.

….

Richard Lewis is president of Lewis Cross-Cultural Training, Inc. His ministry experience includes pioneer church planting in Kenya, trainer of national missionaries in over forty countries. He holds a DMiss from Biola University.  More information on Richard can be found at http://Lewis-Training.com. 

EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 4 pp. 414-422. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

Questions for Reflection

1. Identify the issues that keep your group from being a team. Is it the task, leadership, or something else?

2. Where in the grid and group matrix would you place your team? Why?

3. How well does your team understand the host culture? Does your team intentionally study the host culture, or do they merely teach (discipleship, leadership, theology, etc.)?

 

The latest missions content delivered right to your inbox!

Stay up-to-date with Missio Nexus and the Great Commission community.

Related Articles

Welcoming the Stranger

Presenter: Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization, World Relief Description: Refugee and immigration issues have dominated headlines globally recently. While many American Christians view these…

Upcoming Events