Teamwork: how the church should avoid shooting itself in the foot

What is God’s blessing?

Alec Motyer is very helpful here in his book Journey. He tells us that ‘blessing’ is a broad word for God’s gracious response to our needs. When Christians pray — as we often must when we are ignorant of a friend’s specific needs — ‘Lord, please bless so and so’, we are, in fact, asking the Lord to review our friend’s case and to react appropriately. It is actually not a bad way to pray (so long as it’s not thoughtless) because it brings our friends to God and his wisdom. ‘Blessing’ is the Lord himself drawing near to us in all his boundless sufficiency for every need.

Psalm 133 tells us that where ‘brothers [and sisters] live together in unity … there the LORD bestows his blessing’. As we think about teamwork, our conclusion must be that, in a church, missionary society and especially in a leadership team, we need relationships which are (in and under Christ) harmonious.

This leads us to ask a couple of questions. What does this unity look like? How do we achieve and maintain it? The great passage which addresses these questions is, of course, Philippians 2.

What does this unity look like?

Paul requires unity in the church (Philippians 1.27), and he spells out what he is looking for. ‘Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose’ (Philippians 2.2).

* One in mind

Literally Paul says: ‘Think the same thing…’. There is to be an agreement, first of all, in the truth. Positively, the truth of the gospel is that in which we can rejoice together and shapes the direction of a church’s ministry. Negatively, unless you agree on the fundamentals of the gospel, your leadership team will be pulling in different directions. Lack of doctrinal agreement in a leadership team, on fundamental areas, produces tension. A strong, biblical doctrinal statement for a church is a safeguard and stimulus to unity and should be honoured by all.

* One in love

Paul does not say, ‘loving the same things’, but ‘having the same love’. It is Alec Motyer once again who tells us: ‘This can be nothing other than a love identical with God’s love, his own love bestowed on us, so that we act and react as he would do’ (BST Philippians). God’s love is a redemptive love. It is a love which sacrifices itself for the benefit of the other person — to rescue that person and to bring them to fruition. There may be difficulties in a leadership team because this love is missing. We are following the agenda of promoting ourselves, rather than doing the best for our colleagues. The older minister can be touchy over his standing. The young buck, youth worker, can be keen to show his prowess to the detriment of others. God’s love works to build others up. Do relationships among leaders function so as to build the confidence of the other person, or to knock it?

With this in mind I would argue for a person-centred, rather than a programme-centred approach to church apprenticeships. Develop that youngster!

* One in purpose

For the NIV’s ‘spirit and purpose’, we might substitute ‘heart and soul’. What you put your ‘heart and soul’ into is what you are desperately seeking to achieve. What is the purpose for your church team? We might rightly say our aim must be the glory of God. But, having said that, there is still room for difficulty. The minister can focus on the glory of God in the Sunday services and among the grown-ups. Youth leaders can see the young people and God’s glory among them as top priority. A women’s group leader might have her own agenda. And sometimes those things can come into conflict, even when we all believe we are seeking God’s glory.

We can have our own little competitive kingdoms within the church. And that problem often surfaces when we cross one another’s boundary lines. ‘I thought I was counselling him, what are you getting involved for?’ We need to bear in mind that God’s concern is not just for the youth group or just the adults, but for the whole church. In fact, the glory of the gospel is that it is able to bring unity across otherwise unbridgeable divides, like race, gender and age. Don’t work counter to that glory.

Can you see what this unity looks like? It is a team spirit in which we are one in our thinking, our affections and our aims.

Achieving and maintaining unity?

Paul’s answer is Christ-like humility. ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus’ (2.3-5).

Humility not celebrity. The church is sadly falling into celebrity culture despite Paul’s warnings. ‘I am of Paul … I am of Apollos’, we read of the church in Corinth. The temptation is to become a ‘somebody’ in the Christian world. But Jesus ‘made himself nothing’ (v.7).

* Humility is vital because…

It enables us to submit ourselves to God’s truth. It enables us to love others. It enables us to see God’s glory as the purpose of our lives and not ourselves as the centre of the universe. In other words humility will facilitate the unity of mind, love and purpose we have been talking about and builds the team.

Humility will enable us to ‘consider others better than ourselves’ (v.3). One thing that means in a team is that humility will enable us to recognise other people’s gifts and give them the opportunity to use them. Humility will ‘look out for the interests of others’ (v.4). How unfortunate it is when a trainee pastor is taken on but is hardly ever allowed to preach. But humility will give him the opportunity to develop.

Humility will also enable us to accept and work at our place in the team. Have you ever come across the Belbin analysis* of the roles which make a good management team? It is quite often used in business and industry. A good team, we are told, needs nine gifts. (Of course you can have more than one gift in one person.) It needs an implementer, someone who turns ideas into practical actions. It needs a co-ordinator, a chairperson who clarifies goals and promotes decision making. It needs a creative ideas person, a resource investigator, a monitor (who sees the problems), team workers (diplomats who avert friction), a completer/finisher who is painstaking and delivers on time, and specialists who supply rare knowledge and skills, etc. Humility will help you to accept your role and not be vying with others. ‘I want to be the chairman’, etc. It will also enable you not to misuse your role. Chairmen can be manipulative, completer/finishers can be reluctant to delegate, etc.

Humility will aid us in building up mutual trust in a team. It brings reliability. Pride says: ‘I’m too important to be expected to keep to the schedule. I couldn’t care how my unreliability will affect others. They’ve got to cut me slack’. But humility does the opposite and makes us people of our word whom others can trust. Also it is true that, where leaders are humble enough to show a little vulnerability, they often generate more commitment from others. It builds the team. Others say: ‘I see he/she needs me’. We see Jesus showing his vulnerability in Gethsemane (Mark 14.34).

* Humility is achieved by…

How do we find humility? The text of Philippians suggests two things.

First, we find humility by being aware of our weaknesses. Why does Paul mention ‘selfish ambition and vain conceit’ (v.3)? He does so because that is our natural bent as sinners. Pride promotes self. That means that naturally we are likely to act so as to ruin the unity of the team. Recognise you are a dreadful sinner apart from God’s grace. You are well able to wreck the unity and so close off God’s blessing.

Second, we find humility by focussing our gaze continually on the Lord Jesus Christ, ‘Who being in very nature God…made himself nothing…and became obedient to death — even death on a cross’ (vv.5-9). Jesus Christ is God in all the fullness of what it means to be God, infinite, eternal, unchangeable, almighty, perfect, the proper object of all worship and adoration for the whole universe. Yet he humbled himself. If God has been humble, who do we think we are to be proud?

Monkeys and donkeys

There is that great picture in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia story, The Last Battle, of the donkey Puzzle, who, at the wicked monkey’s instigation, dresses himself up in an old lion skin and pretends to be Aslan. The monkey, of course, manipulates him to cause havoc in Narnia. When we are proud we put ourselves at the devil’s disposal and make donkeys of ourselves.

No, no. We are sinners; that alone should humble us. We have been saved alone by the amazing grace of God and the love of Christ. And love for him who so loved us should lead us to imitate him in his redemptive love and humility. We must translate this into our relationships as we work in the team of God’s church.

Management Teams: Why they succeed or fail? by R. Meredith Belbin (Butterworth / Heinemann, 1981)

Dr. John Benton – Editor of Evangelicals Now