Teamwork and Healthy Pastoring

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Today's churches offer more diverse programs than ever before, and church leaders must deal with increasingly complex issues. Pastors, too, are challenged by greater demands on their time and increasing stress levels. "Technology (the cell phone, E-mail, Internet and answering machines) makes it increasingly difficult for pastors to distance themselves from a constant stream of interruptions," stated the proposal submitted to the Lilly Endowment by the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), a proposal that resulted in a $2 million grant over five years to fund an initiative for "Sustaining Pastoral Excellence." This funding makes it possible to provide opportunities for pastors to engage in small peer learning groups, mentoring programs and continuing education. Underlying the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence initiative is the foundational belief that dealing with the challenges of church leadership today calls for strong, healthy pastors. But a strong, healthy pastor cannot become or remain so without working in concert with a strong, healthy council in the congregation. To sustain pastoral excellence, churches need to ensure that their pastor is not working in isolation but rather as part of a supportive, effective and active leadership team.

"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much." -Helen Keller 

Common sense tells us that people can accomplish more by working together than they can by working apart. Many workplaces today view teambuilding as an essential step toward achieving corporate success. In the church, too, teamwork plays a critical role--though the evaluation of effective teamwork in an ecclesiastical setting may focus less on "success" and more on the extent to which a congregation follows God's leading.

Effective teamwork involves a pastor who is willing to work as a member of team, sharing the load with other leaders in the church, participating in joint decision-making and encouraging mutual planning rather than approaching all tasks individually. Shared plans and goals mean shared responsibility and contribute to healthy pastoring, reducing the isolation and stress caused by carrying burdens alone. "Health does not mean that a leader is perfect in every way, or struggle-free, but health, to me, is a matter of being in balance," says Rev. Cecil VanNiejenhuis, pastor of First Christian Reformed Church, Edmonton, Alberta. "Health means knowing how to work as a member of the body, not as a substitute Messiah, or demigod." However, developing effective teamwork in churches is not solely the pastor's responsibility. Councils must be willing not only to share decision-making and planning but also to ensure support for the pastor in carrying out programs and developing ministry. Teamwork must extend from visioning and planning to implementation and evaluation, covering the whole gamut of leadership functions in a congregation. 

So how can pastors and councils work together to build a stronger team and contribute to pastoral health--and the health of the congregation as a whole? 

Communicate openly.
No team has ever worked effectively without effective communication. Pastors and councils who set aside time dedicated to communicating openly and honestly are clear about their expectations of each other, the congregation and their plans and goals for the church's future.  Where good communication is concerned, practice makes perfect. Some councils set aside time for structured communication on a monthly basis at their meetings, others prefer to do it annually or semi-annually at retreats or conferences. 

Establish plans and goals together in a mutual process.
Working together to establish plans and goals is not a task that can be done once and then put aside for a number of years. It is a constant process of communicating, adapting, evaluating and--especially--learning. "In my experience I have found out that most churches need to take several runs at a vision/planning process before it really takes hold," says Rev. Martin Contant, Regional Director with Christian Reformed Home Missions. He works with established congregations in western Canada who want to engage in visioning or planning. "Just doing a vision planning process once doesn't usually ensure enough traction to make a huge difference. Many churches make a good beginning, but they need to keep at it, keeping the ministry plan current." 

Build in accountability systems.
Accountability is also important for healthy teamwork and helps establish strong working relationships between pastors and councils. "Our default mode is to always revert back to what we know and what we have always done," says Rev. Contant. "We need to have our collective feet held to the fire, so we as leaders will do what we've said we would do, by God's help and blessings. I think it is good to have a person in council appointed who will 'ride point' on the vision and the goals, ensuring that the council, pastor, and other staff make decisions that are in line with established ministry plans and goals." 

Follow up.
Mutual review of outcomes is also essential to healthy working relationships between pastors and councils. A team cannot be effective unless it learns what has worked and what has not. Why go on repeating the same old mistakes? Without follow-up and review, this learning rarely takes place. Mutual review also leads to greater ownership of a program's success--or failure, offering a broader perspective for effective evaluation and increasing creative solutions for what can be improved to make a good program even better.

Celebrate together when goals are achieved.
Just as councils and pastors must take shared responsibility for failed programs or plans, shared celebration of accomplishments is essential, too. "Celebration of what God accomplishes is critically important," says Rev. Contant. When people simply move on to the next task without pausing to celebrate what has already been accomplished, an important step toward building a strong leadership team is missed. Pastors and councils who celebrate God's blessings on their vision and plans are increasingly motivated to move on to even greater goals. This is also true for the congregation. Taking the time to involve them in celebration of accomplished goals is especially valuable.

"We need to take frequent inventory of the blessings that God is giving us, and one way to do that is to celebrate and help people to see that God is truly at work among us," says Rev. Contant. "When goals are met, whether a financial one or a task accomplished, it is a good thing to recognize those and celebrate them. Such celebration helps us to see that the church is on the move and in step with the Spirit of God. It also makes people aware that there is a focus and a plan to what the congregation is doing together as they serve."

Working in teams is always better.
Some worry that an emphasis on teamwork means that the pastor should abdicate leadership entirely. This is certainly not the case, says Rev. Contant, who notes that the terms of most council members are typically three years with one in three retiring in any given year. So pastors play a pivotal role on leadership teams. In addition to his or her expertise, skills and experience, the pastor ensures continuity and consistency so that visions and plans can be implemented despite changes in the makeup of the leadership team. There is little doubt though, that pastors who work closely with a strong and supportive team are more effective in their work. "When a pastor and his or her leadership team work together to cast the vision and implement it through realistic, attainable goals, the over-all leadership of the pastor and council becomes more effective," says Rev. Contant. "Working in teams is always better."   

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