Friday, 12 December 2014

Building a Team

‘THERE ARE SOME, you know, who - wherever you put them - blessings will be there.” 

One of Anglicanism’s most dynamic bishops ever, Alf Stanway, of Melbourne Australia, was speaking at the inauguration, years ago, of Trinity Episcopal School of Theology in Pittsburg, USA. He was to be its first Principal. He went on: “ I heard somebody say about a missionary,

Travelling bishop: Alf Stanway, pictured at Heathrow Airport

‘Leave him in a place long enough, and he’ll turn it into gold. Whatever he touches will go that way. God’s blessing will be upon him; it’s just a matter of time.”

Relationships – and attitudes to people – count for so much when someone is launched into Christian leadership, with the responsibility of forming and maintaining a team of volunteer workers. On a purely secular level, Alexander the Great knew this some twenty-three centuries ago. The soldiers who followed and fought with him all knew that he lived no more comfortably than they did. He woke earlier, worried more and suffered wounds more frequently than any of them.

          “I have no part of my body, in front at least, that is left without
          scars; there is no weapon, used at close quarters, or hurled from
          afar, of which I do not carry the mark.  I have been wounded by
          the  sword,  shot  with  arrows,  struck  from a catapult,  smitten
          many times with stones and clubs  –  for you,  for your glory, for
          your wealth” (The Mask of Command, John Keegan, Penguin, p 58)

That speech, given at Opis in Mesopotamia, suggests that the effective style of a true leader - whether of an army, a country, a business or a church - is to be understood in terms of servant-hood, rather than dictatorship. We have only to look at Jesus for this to be established for all time. “I come among you as one who serves”, he said (Luke 22:27).

Of course the leader must lead – as someone who is recognised as being in charge! But it is a pattern of Christian work that nothing, nothing of lasting worth will be accomplished by any of us leaders until we have proved our servant-hood. Once that has been established for all to recognise, then the sky is the limit.


And what are the component factors in the building of a team of Christian workers?  First, there is the sharing of the vision, the sitting down with colleagues and taking them into our confidence – for this is a shared work, even if one person is of necessity required to be the overall leader.

Eating & thinking with others: Billy and Ruth Graham listen at Amsterdam ’86
PHOTO: Russ Busby

Grumbling must take a back seat. It is not the slightest good complaining, “Our church, our fellowship, is pathetic; it has no vision.” It is up to us to create that vision!  As we pray about it and ask the Lord to direct and help us, we can believe that steadily the picture will clear, and we will be able to communicate the way ahead to our friends. The secret is to be one step ahead, and this comes about through patient and prayerful thought.  It may take time; we are not aiming for a ‘Eureka!’ type of revelation. Those who work in such a style too often feel ‘led’ to sudden switches of policy and reckless U-turns, and this does not build trust.

Very early on there must take place the selecting of the workers. For this, a good judgment is vital. There are some leaders who are superbly endowed and academically brilliant – but who possess a very inadequate discernment. In decision after decision they display an uncanny knack of getting it just wrong!  Is this why even Jesus, before appointing his twelve disciples, spent a night in prayer? (Luke 6: 12-16).

There is a fine appointed prayer for Whit Sunday (Pentecost Sunday), in the old Church of England Prayer Book. On that day, when there is so much focus upon the Holy Spirit, the prayer makes only one request – for ‘a right judgement in all things.’  When I was young, I used to think, What a dull request – on Whit Sunday of all days!  Later I have come to see that no Christian leader could ask for anything more valuable in the work ahead. When it comes to making appointments, when numerous decisions are going to have to be made; what a gift – to get it right …. every time! Such a leader will be a rock to others.

Then there must also take place the sharpening of the goals, to keep checking – is everyone moving in the same direction?  They did this at every successive Billy Graham congress for itinerant preachers – never taking it for granted that the thousands of delegates automatically knew what the Gospel was, and the way in which it should be proclaimed. Each time the same ground would be covered all over again. They were taking no chances!  

Regular team meetings help everyone in the boat to be rowing in the same direction. This is vital if - in the church at large - great numbers of people are being blown off course. We are not called to react to every initiative and emphasis that is going on around us, but to hold our nerve and keep on course (2 Timothy 4: 3-5).  

Fourth, there is the setting of the example. When I was training for the church pastoral ministry, I was told, “You wonder what ministry is?  You think you are just called to be up front and do ‘Word Ministry’?  Not a bit of it; you will be setting out chairs for the rest of your life!”  I saw my mum and dad do it in their time; Dad setting them out in tight rows ….. and then my Mum following behind him, weeding out the chairs and widening the gaps between them - for while Dad was the optimist and expected the room to be packed, Mum was the pessimist, and reasoned that they would be doing pretty well if anyone turned up at all!

My saintly missionary parents, Cecil & Sylvia Bewes

True leaders take their share of the chores. Again, let it be emphasised – we cannot get a thing done until we have proved our servant-hood.


It is a challenging question to ask leaders of any Christian organisation, however big or small: Do you inspire your team members – or do you exhaust them?!  We cannot escape the hard fact that the quality of the team’s fellowship, in a very great measure, will be a reflection of its leader’s attitude, outlook and personal walk with Christ. If you are a hard task-master (or mistress), the likelihood is that the team members will be task-driven, and permanently on edge.  The trick is to get the balance right – between spotting recruits who are quite evidently self-starters (and therefore will not need to be driven) - and those with less aptitude and experience, yet who display potential and who will, with your inspiring encouragement, be good learners. All in all, ‘Encouragement’ is the key word as we think of the factors that go into the building of a strong team fellowship.

First there is the coveted unity.  How is it that talented individuals can play together in an orchestra, and yet be teaming smoothly together, with

Prom Praise: Part of the 90-piece All Souls orchestra at the RoyalAlbert Hall

no hint of jarring strings or hideous discords?  The reason is obvious; they are all united under their conductor and are committed to the same musical score sheet.  The same principle applies in the case of the team that you and I may be called upon to assemble. The strength of its fellowship – and therefore effectiveness – is explained by one factor only; that from Day One each member is expected to be serving under the authority of the one Master – and the reliable Word that he has given to us – namely the Bible. 

Naturally there will be recruited to the team those who are inexperienced and have limited knowledge of the Scriptures. But if, from the beginning, it is understood that the Bible will be our inspired and trusted authority, we will enjoy unity, not only with each other, but with the apostles and prophets, right back to Abraham!

Unity does not mean dull uniformity. Fellowship is enhanced by the welcome diversity that enriches the family of God everywhere. The aim is not to produce clones of the leaders - be they church ministers, Sunday School leaders or student pastors. We are all made differently. Look at the twelve disciples; there were extroverts and introverts among them, the impulsive, the gloomy and the hot-tempered. And all of them had backgrounds. If you try to make members of the team to be like yourself (as contrasted with the supreme aim of us all becoming like Christ), you will be facing perpetual frustrations and conflict. For some will be tidy team members, some untidy; some will come from stable backgrounds, others from broken homes; some will be beautifully spoken, others will speak with delectable accents. One way or another, God has brought them to you, and it will not be long before strengths and weaknesses (including your own) will be laid bare for all to see.  It is one of the richest experiences of life – to see how Christ has united the most diverse groups that humanity can put together!

But think too of the learnt loyalty that can indissolubly knit together every effective team. It derives supremely from loyalty to Christ and the Gospel, and if this is genuine, it will be reflected in the loyalty accorded to the team leader – even if such a loyalty has to be earned slowly over weeks and months. Such a loyalty we see demonstrated in Scripture, in that of Luke, Barnabas and Timothy towards Paul, God’s appointed apostolic leader. In Christian history we see examples of it in the mutual reliance, one to each other, among members of The Clapham Sect - the evangelical reforming group of the late eighteenth century. How they supported each other!

This points to reliability and flexibility – to the ‘Can-do’ mentality, so desirable in a strong team.  A working team should never resemble a collection of compartmentalised ‘boxes’ – even though individual members have their own distinctive assignments. As a member brings a report to the team meeting, it is not for others to switch off, with the thought I need not listen to this; it’s not my particular concern. Each member’s concern is also to be the keen interest of everyone in the room (Philippians 2: 1-4).  In a crisis, members should be prepared to move over and ‘cover’for each other, even though the task is not within their own job description. If this attitude is not already present, then it must be taught and learnt. Prayer helps. It is as we pray for one another in the team that we learn of each other’s burdens and begin to share them.

All of this speaks of humility, and the readiness to learn. I have known  Christian workers who have apparently reached the ceiling of their abilities as early  as twenty-five – simply because they were not flexible enough to listen and learn any more.

It is perfectly normal – and indeed healthy – for tensions and frustrations to be present in the work of the Christian church. Any church that has no tensions at all is a dead church!  Naturally, we do not desire frustrations to grow to a point that we cannot deal with them, but every significant work of God in history flourished in and through the tensions that it was required to work through. Take such leaders as William Wilberforce and John Wesley, contemporaries of the eighteenth century. The difficulties

The Reformer and the Evangelist: William Wilberforce and John Wesley

they and their colleagues faced were colossal; yet the lives of millions were changed for ever as these leaders exercised what could be called ‘the art of frustration.’

Part of this is concerned with the art of entrusting. The apostle Paul urged Timothy, his protégé, to ‘entrust’ his associates with the great responsibility of teaching others (2 Timothy 2:2). Of course it can be frustrating  to delegate a task to others, when we could do it better ourselves! Yet all God’s leaders from Moses onwards had to learn this essential art.

There is also the art of affirming. Thank you…. Well done…. That was great. It is an exercise of habit – never to take the team for granted, but to to look for those things among its members that are deserving of encouragement and praise.  To affirm, where recognition is due, is a key way of building confidence and dispelling hurts and jealousies. The finest of leaders are subject to these things. What do we do when indeed one of our own team members does better than ourselves? How to deal with that pang of jealousy that settles on our heart?  Why, the way out is to praise the individual concerned – and if possible publicly: ‘I must thank John for the excellent talk he gave yesterday; it was better than anything I could have done.’

Providing it is done with sincerity, the result is a miracle of Gospel grace; the cold icicle that stabbed into our peace is replaced with the glow and warmth of the Holy Spirit…. and we have also reinforced the relationship with that team member. Test it if you don’t believe it!

All the team members need encouragement, and not only those who are publicly ‘up-front’ in their service, but the back-room people too, the administrators and the people who make things happen. For every servant of the church need to be filled with the Spirit of Christ whether you are an evangelist like Stephen the martyr, a dress-maker like Dorcas - who was greatly loved for what she did (Acts 9:36-43) - or whether you are a steward who takes up the money offerings at church worship. After all, would you be happyin the knowledge that the steward with the offerings was not filled with the Holy Spirit? Of course not!  Every team member has an important part to play; all need recognition and encouragement for what they do.

When it comes to petty upsets or disagreements within a team, a prime ability to be developed  by the leader is the art of de-fusing. Of course it is the Devil’s approach, to create divisions and magnify differences. The leader can adopt one of two basic attitudes, that of stern coldness, or receptive warmth. And within those two stances there are also the possibilities of either dominance or submission, Look at them:

Cold Dominance: ‘Now look, I’m the leader, and like it or not you’re going to have to accept it. Either you go along with what’s been decided, or you can leave the team – it’s up to you.’
Cold submission: ‘Well, of course, I’m only one voice among many; I’m nothing – only just a servant of servants. If you want my resignation I’ll write a letter straightaway.’

Warm dominance: ‘Hey, don’t get so uptight – it’s all going to work out fine!  Leave it to me; I’m sure I can get this sorted okay. Don’t worry about it anymore; be happy!’

Warm submission: ‘Thanks a lot. Yes, I can see what you’re getting at, and I do think that you may possibly have a point. I’d like to think it over in any case, and maybe we can come back to each other in a day or so.’

Which is the best approach? Undoubtedly it has to be on the warm side. But warm dominance alone is likely to be too overpowering; yet if warm submission alone is adopted, nothing may ever get achieved!  It is, perhaps a combination of warm dominance and warm submission that is to govern God’s leader - with the ability, therefore, to lean outwards towards those who are in dispute, in friendship and acceptance.

Building a Team - and overseeing it in its forming, its fellowship, and its frustrations - when, and if, it ever comes to us to undertake such a taxing responsibility, both anxious strain and sinful pride are lifted away, once we remember that it is never going to be our team or our flock but His. As we keep close to the Cross of Calvary, and pray Whit Sunday’s prayer for a right judgement in everything we are touching, we can expect that Christ, the Chief Shepherd will help us to rise to this privileged call he has bestowed upon us.

“The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it”
(1 Thess.5:24)