by David Sedlacek
Do teams work? What does it take to develop and maintain a healthy team? Is it worth the effort? Does a healthy team really produce better results than a dysfunctional team?
Photos courtesy David Sedlacek
Do teams work? What does it take to develop and maintain a healthy team? Is it worth the effort? Does a healthy team really produce better results than a dysfunctional team?
Teamwork has been a popular concept in missions theory and practice for decades, but there is a persistent sense among missionaries that teams may be more work than they are worth. Working alongside others, especially those of different cultures, is no easy task. It takes time, effort, and energy to work in a team, and it doesn’t always produce the fruit we look for.
We’ve all heard this comment: our younger generation values teamwork, but the older generation doesn’t get it. Twenty-five years ago, as a member of the new generation of missionaries, I nodded my head in agreement. I thought, Yes, we value teamwork and the older generation doesn’t get it. Today, I am a member of the older generation. When I hear the familiar refrain, I’m tempted to respond, “Yes, the younger generation values teamwork, and we don’t get it.”
Why is that? Is it because veteran missionaries have learned from experience that the ideal of teamwork is unrealistic? Personally, I have experienced enough frustration and disappointment in working with others that I have justifiable cause to question an idealistic view of teamwork in missions. And yet I always come back to the principle I have believed since I started my missionary journey: We can do it better than I can. I believe we have more to gain by working together than we have to lose.
In this article, I share my own missionary journey of working with others in teams. It is a journey characterized by both joy and frustration. This prompted a search for a deeper understanding of how teams work and how mission organizations can support them. Finally, I offer a few key principles for creating and supporting healthy and effective teams in mission.
Disappointments with the Team
I first tasted the wonder of teams during my initial cross-cultural ministry experience. I spent the summer of 1988 in Eastern Europe with a team of fellow university students. The exhilarating experience of serving refugees alongside a diverse group of brothers and sisters in Christ forged in me a deep appreciation for teamwork. I wanted to become a church planter, but I knew I didn’t have all the gifts for the job.
When I heard that it was possible to plant a church as a member of a team, I was thrilled. I even joined a mission named TEAM. When my wife and I arrived as long-term missionaries in Japan in 1995, we had no intention of going it alone. In fact, we already knew who our teammates were going to be.
Then, a few months before we began our service in Japan, our prospective teammates resigned from our mission and left Japan. After we arrived in Japan, we learned that working in teams wasn’t a universal ideal among church-planting missionaries. In fact, there were some strident voices against it.
One argument against church-planting teams in Japan was pragmatic. A typical church in Japan is twenty-five to thirty people—the size of some church-planting teams in the United States. New church plants were usually launched with a small handful of five or fewer people. The Sunday worship service often consisted of the missionary family and one or two Japanese believers or seekers. If we put together a missionary team of four to seven foreigners, then it would be a distinctly un-Japanese church and any guest would feel out of place from the moment he or she walked in the door.
It could be that a commitment to a certain methodology of church planting—namely, to start the church by launching a worship service—was the culprit that precluded many missionaries from trying to work in teams. But methodology aside, a more compelling argument against church-planting teams was the experience of teams that failed through interpersonal conflict and disunity.
From our first encounter with other missionaries in Japan, we heard poignant stories of teams that had tried and failed. Several team efforts bore little fruit but pain, division, and frustration. We heard that it was best not to put too much hope in teams.
It’s often said that most missionaries who leave the field do so because of difficulty getting along with other missionaries. Although I have never found research that fully confirms this conclusion, most of us who have served in missionary contexts personally know the pain of conflict with other missionaries. It is not fun, it has derailed many teams, and it is a potent argument against teamwork in missions.
Restoring the Team
Nevertheless, I believe teams are worth the effort. We have certainly had many opportunities to learn from the successes and failures of the past. The topic has been visited often in the pages of EMQ since 1971, when Waldron Scott wrote about the advantages and disadvantages of teams (Scott 1971). Although most have focused on the positives of teamwork, a few have observed the dark side of teams (Zehner 2005; Ellis 2005). In 2015, Richard Lewis presented an informative case study of a missionary team that is producing fruit (Lewis 2015, 414-422). Many of us would love to work in such a team.
My wife and I successfully developed a healthy and effective multicultural team in Okayama. Our team started a church in a place where none had ever existed. Eight years after we finished our ministry there, some of our Japanese teammates continue to lead the church. This fellowship on the northeast side of the city continues to bring Jesus to the community and make disciples in one of the most spiritually-resistant cultures of the world. And other teammates are involved in cross-cultural ministry around the world.
While I worked in Okayama, I began looking for principles and practices that would help church-planting teams to thrive in cross-cultural ministry. In my research, I asked questions like the ones at the beginning of this article: Do teams work? Are they worth the effort? What does it take to develop and maintain a healthy team?
I found examples of teams that bore fruit and examined them to learn what we can apply from successful models to inform new church-planting teams. I found examples of teams that did not work so well, and learned some things about what to avoid.
I became familiar with the research on teams in the business sector, in non-profit organizations, and in the North American Church. I learned that there are very few resources on multicultural teams or on teams engaged in cross-cultural ministry. One excellent book is Leading Multicultural Teams (Hibbert and Hibbert 2014).
The conclusion of my research is this: teams can work, when done well. When they work, they are worth the effort. The corollary is this: teams produce great pain and frustration when not done well. So it is worth the effort to do it well.
So how can we do teams well? Leaders and mission organization need to attend to three critical factors in the support of our teams:
1. Be a real team.
2. Be a healthy team.
3. Answer six key questions.
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 a 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.
What is a team?
a group of people
with a common goal
that compels its members
to work together
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.
Six Questions for Healthy Teams
|Mission||Why are we a team?|
|Goals||What will we do?|
|Roles||What do my teammates and I do?|
|Communication||How do we relate to each other?|
|Decision-making||How do we make decisions?|
|Conflict||How do we handle conflict?|
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 do 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 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.
. . . .
David Sedlacek and his wife, Kathy, serve with The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM) in Prague. They spent sixteen years in church-planting ministry in Japan, where they gained a heart for coaching multicultural teams and leaders. In his quest to better serve others, David earned a PhD from Fielding Graduate University and has learned from teams and leaders on four continents. He shares resources and ideas at www.lifelearner.org/teams.
EMQ, Vol. 53, No. 2. Copyright © 2017 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. Has your experience working in teams ever led you to believe, “This isn’t worth it!” Where did your team struggle—purpose, commitment, communication, trust?
2. What’s something that you could do this week that could improve trust in your team? A word of encouragement, or admonition? An act of self-disclosure? Do you need to follow through on something you told your teammates you would do last month? Identify one way to build trust in your team. And do it.
3. Which of the “Six Questions for Healthy Teams” does your team need to talk over? How might a one-hour discussion on that topic help you perform better this year?