by Jordan Ellis
What is the theological explanation for a missionary team meltdown?
Sorrowful. Distraught. Unhappy. Distressed. I wondered if I’d reached my breaking point, my threshold for pain. Tears of frustration streamed down my face. My arms and legs shook. My stomach twisted in anxious knots. Inside, I was broken. After all, I was being imperfectly human. As a child of Adam, I was drowning in a cesspool of interpersonal team failure.
What contributed to this emotional abyss? Sadly, a team relationship with a missionary partner wasn’t working. Time had taken its toll. Relational accounts were depleted. As in any conflict, there was mutual hurt, offense and wounds. Enough said. Ultimately, God will judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart, where good and evil, love and hate, fairness and injustice coexist. Nevertheless, let’s get real about missionary team chemistry.
What is the theological explanation for a missionary team meltdown?
On the human plane, it is caused by the sinful imperfections of people—what the Bible calls “flesh.” Candidly, other “flesh” outside the immediate team may also add fuel to the fire. Then there is Satan and his horde of demons. Okay, and maybe we can throw in other stuff like personalities, preferences, opinions, convictions, beliefs and so on.
Therefore, why should we be surprised that an eruption in team chemistry may happen? Moreover, why aren’t we doing more to calculate the risk of forming missionary teams? And what about creating contingency plans if a team fails? Is bad team chemistry on the mission field a dirty little secret?
Surprised by my candor? Don’t be. It’s hardly a secret among missionaries, though it may be to those who support them. Working relationships on the mission field are a major source of interpersonal conflict. It’s such a common occurrence, in fact, that a counselor friend has made it a focus of his doctoral research. I’m in his corner. It’s a very serious problem, one that I suspect adds to the rate of missionary attrition. Rightly or wrongly, justly or unjustly, few missionaries over the course of lifetime service will go unscathed. Try asking a few transparent, seasoned missionaries; they will nod and vulnerably tell their own war stories. Team conflict is a liability of ministry, and missionaries aren’t immune to it. If you’ve avoided it so far, be alert. You don’t need to be the cause of it for it to happen. All it takes is one very unhappy person. Just ask Jesus, Paul or God’s prophets of old.
As much as we may loathe disunity, no matter how many interpersonal skills workshops we attend, the potential for failed team chemistry is here to stay. Pretending it couldn’t happen to me is naïve. A wise mentor once asked me, “Have you gotten over your idealism yet?” Working with people has its hazards. Hurt, disappointment, disillusionment and frustration are inevitable.
Paul gave some good advice when he said to do your best to get along with people and to give relationships your best shot. Yet, he had his fair share of conflict, heartache and sorrow brought about by his relationships with people.
Unfortunately, good intentions may not be enough. Something may go horribly wrong. People get wounded. Partnerships fracture. It’s the reality of living in a fallen world. Admittedly, it’s less than ideal. Ultimately, the cause is prevailing human sin. But dare we forget to add, the devious incursions of spiritually dark forces? Yes, we live in a less than ideal world.
Sadly, proven and effective missionaries may choose to leave a mission agency, if not the mission field, because of poor team chemistry. Let’s be blunt: Who wants to work on a missionary team that’s your biggest source of daily aggravation and annoyance? Eventually, that arrangement wears you down. It saps your energy and leaves you spiritually dry.
Sucking it up is not the solution. Hanging in there, convincing yourself that you need thicker skin, trying to ignore the fact that the team has imploded, or acting like the problem will magically go away, isn’t the responsible solution. On this point, mission leaders need to take note: For the individual missionary, that hands-off approach feels like abandonment, especially when you as a leader with authority fail to intervene and end the misery in an equitable resolution. Therefore, mission leaders must act upon the knowledge that good team chemistry depends on proactive management, not just improving their missionaries’ interpersonal skills—however beneficial. Mission leaders must also demonstrate by non-retaliatory action that they understand the risk that is inherent to missionary teamwork, and that if it fails, it isn’t the end of the world or the missionary’s career in the mission agency!
Counter-intuitively, when team chemistry fails, mission leaders may discover that congratulating the missionaries for trying, even if the solution is disbanding the team, will in turn deflate the conflict. Ultimately, it will create an invigorating corporate environment for teamwork and release the missionary core to risk failure without fear of retribution. Such a climate will avoid the blame game, juvenile scolding and condescending finger wagging. Yet is that what happens? If not, it may be a major reason why missionaries, who already feel frustrated, abandoned, ostracized and in the lurch, resign. They feel that they have no choice. However, that doesn’t have to be the solution if mission leaders learn to effectively manage missionary scenarios where team chemistry fails to gel.
“So where’s your coworker I saw you with last year?,” I asked a fellow missionary at a nationwide conference of Christian workers. I recalled how the two men seemed happy, both enthusiastic about the vision of planting a church together.
Cryptically, his body language foretold his answer. I felt like I’d put my foot in my mouth.
His answer was an open, odious sore. Squirming a little, he muttered, “Oh, he went home. So did another couple.” Then he added with a gulp, “They couldn’t get along with each other.”
I nodded. What right did I have to judge the situation? Actually, it was none of my business. I had no idea who was at fault and my opinion really didn’t matter, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for this man and the people who left the mission field. In one tumultuous year, the team of three family units was reduced to one—a sixty-six percent reduction rate!
I wondered to myself, Why didn’t the mission agency intervene—or did they? Moreover, if the mission agency intervened, was disbanding the team and encouraging the three family units to go their separate ways discussed as an option? I doubt it.
In a land far from me, I have an amazing missionary friend who is enjoying a successful ministry. The strange thing is, he’s almost completely cut off from the rest of his missionary field team. He’s a lone soldier, an isolated spiritual warrior. But it doesn’t seem to matter, and from what I know of him, I have only admiration. He enjoys a great relationship with the national leaders and the church he serves. In other words, the national leaders and that church are his team, not his fellow missionaries. Therefore, is it possible that this mixture of team chemistry (i.e., only one missionary unit working with nationals) may be the better solution in certain situations? Would some missionaries be better off not working with other missionaries from their own or a different mission agency? I wonder.
Chemistry isn’t something you should fool around with. Many years ago, my creative nature got the best of me while in a chemistry lab. I foolishly chose to dabble with the “toys” in my laboratory. Normally, I had some idea of what I was doing, but that day was different. I did something I shouldn’t have done. I was being stupid. I acted irresponsibly. Carelessly, I blindly mixed two chemicals together.
Within seconds, the small vial that I held in my gloved hand became extremely hot. Fear gripped me. The only intelligent thing I did was quickly put the vial down.
Boom! The vial shattered. Thankfully, the enclosed contraption, a glove box, kept the fumes from ever entering the atmosphere, especially the air I was breathing. Nevertheless, I learned my lesson at the risk of injury—chemistry isn’t a neophyte’s game!
Team chemistry isn’t a game either. It’s very risky. However, unlike other types of chemistry, people chemistry will always risk explosion. Why? Because predicting how two or more people will respond to each other as a team is very difficult. Understanding personality profiles isn’t a failsafe predictor, as highly effective teams may be made up of very diverse personalities that, even under normal circumstances, rub each other the wrong way.
However, on the mission field, the composition of teams may be even riskier because missionaries who agree to team up may not have a prior history of working together. Culture, church backgrounds, convictions, beliefs, personalities—all of these are potential catalysts for conflict. Thus, no one really knows with any degree of certainty if the newly formed team is a good match. Trying is the only way to find out. If it works—great! Yet if it fails to work, then the mission agency must intervene in a timely and non-retaliatory manner to disband the team before an explosion erupts.
Thus, if it’s impossible to predict the chemistry of missionary teams with guaranteed accuracy, then how is it possible for mission leaders to know when it’s time to intervene before a ministry meltdown? What follows is a list of my suggestions for mission leaders.
First, at the beginning of a new missionary team, get the people together and do what is known as a preliminary hazard analysis. Openly discuss with team members the risk of working together. Risk assumes there is a calculated chance of success or failure. By all means, don’t be afraid to call it risky, because it is risky. Openly admit that while it’s hoped the team will gel, it’s also understood that it may not.
One advantage to this approach is recognizing that the potential for failure ought to include a face saving mechanism for managing team incompatibility if it happens. Help your missionaries to strive for unity and success, but also ensure them an equitable escape route short of resigning from the mission agency or leaving the mission field. In the final analysis, losing missionaries because the mission leaders have failed to manage broken teams is the real tragedy—a tragedy that can be avoided by good management practices.
Looking back on my own ministry failures, I now think that a preliminary hazard analysis is essential, given the risk two or more people assume by agreeing to work together. More so, I strongly believe that a prearranged, documented plan for disbanding a team (should that become necessary) ought to be in writing. Mission leaders could save their missionary workforce a lot of grief—and possibly lower missionary attrition—if they implemented this career-saving step.
Second, mission leaders must set specific dates, spaced one to three months apart—or sooner if requested—to review with individual team members if they feel continuing the team is a good or bad idea. While teams may storm before they norm, individuals must be given the assurance that resigning from the team or disbanding it is an option. Storming never guarantees that a team will norm. We need to remember that. Often, storming is an excuse for prolonging the unnecessary agony of bad team chemistry.
Mission leaders need to insist that these reviews will happen periodically and with regularity. It only takes a week or one hurtful event for relationships to break down. That is why if a problem emerges, a meeting to discuss the viability of the missionary team must immediately take place. Postponement is never the answer—that is management by avoidance, and it is an unacceptable solution. Missionary leaders, if they want to be true leaders, must act decisively. Management by inaction is irresponsibility.
I wish that my mission leaders had intervened much sooner (though to their credit they eventually did). Our team failure was a cry for intervention. It wasn’t about who needed to be punished or who was right and who was wrong. Pain and offense was felt on both sides. We simply needed assistance, and mission management had the authority, mechanism and wisdom to help us heal.
Finally, mission leaders must assure team members that resigning from or disbanding the team isn’t a sign of failure. Give your assurance, and then be consistent with your actions if that happens. As mission leaders, recognizing the dynamics of team chemistry must include written, documented, established procedures for forming and disbanding missionary teams in a timely and non-retaliatory manner.
I’m convinced that many missionaries would be spared the disgrace of leaving the mission field or the hurt of leaving a mission agency if mission leaders would take a hard look at how their organization manages poor team chemistry. My suspicion is that in Christian circles there is a tendency to do nothing, and then justify our inaction by appealing to God’s sovereignty. “Let God fix it!” we muse, while our missionary teams self-destruct and no one wins. Yes—God is sovereign, but we aren’t excused from responsibility either.
In the midst of my own trial, I took great comfort when Bill Hybels’ book, Courageous Leadership, happened across my desk. Hybels, who claims it took thirty years before he was ready to publish this book, admits he didn’t begin to enjoy team ministry until he learned the lesson of team chemistry. My question is, Are we listening to what Hybels is saying? Are we ready to address team chemistry as a manageable challenge?
We can theorize and theologize about what makes for good team chemistry, but are mission leaders prepared to calculate the risk, then develop procedures for managing team failure if or when it happens? I believe effective managers of missionary teams will proactively manage the potential of risk for team failure. They will do so because they want to neither lose missionaries nor lose the opposite potential for forming great teams.
While the emphasis in this article is on the potential for poor team chemistry, the hope for great team chemistry lies just beyond the risk of failure. In a mission environment where missionaries know team failure is a manageable risk, and that it will be equitably managed, there will be a greater willingness to assume that risk. In organizations where team failure leads to retribution or inflicts ostracizing penalties, missionaries may give up on the idea of working in a team for want of personal preservation. However, that unhappy scenario is avoidable if mission agencies proactively manage team chemistry as a calculated risk with a clear exit strategy (i.e., disbanding the team).
Hybels, Bill. 2002. Courageous Leadership. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Jordan Ellis (pseudonym) is a co-laborer in God’s global vineyard.
Copyright © 2005 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.