Imagine being part of a ministry team in which each member’s unique, God-given talents are understood, affirmed, and meshed together in a way that energizes the whole group and makes you more effective in meeting your goals!
If only that was the reality for more church staffs! The sad truth is that too many ministry teams hang together like sand. They are full of dedicated Christians doing ministry as individuals, each one responsible for a slice of the ministry pie. Staff meetings, when they happen, function as “check-in” exercises to ensure that everyone is doing their job. Whether for lack of interest, leadership, or funding, “staff development” doesn’t happen. “What’s to develop? We know what our roles are. We are responsible people. We just have to go and get it done!”
Remember when you joined the staff? You were excited to be part of the church’s ministry, using your gifts to advance the mission of Christ’s church. But as time passes you feel disappointed at the level of morale on the team, at the lack of growth you are experiencing and encouragement you thought you would receive. You expected that serving on a ministry team would be deeply fulfilling, but that hasn’t been your experience.
Over the years I have heard from a number of dedicated people whose work on a church staff was a let-down. My own journey with staff ministry, particularly as the one responsible to build the staff, was a challenging one. There was no seminary class to teach me how to do it. What I learned about building and developing a flourishing staff came by intuition, studying best practices, advice from mentors, and more than a few failures along the way.
This I know for sure: building a flourishing staff culture doesn’t happen by accident. It doesn’t happen by simply recruiting a team of dedicated Christ-followers and handing them a job description. It takes a high level of intentionality and persistence.
As the pastor responsible for coordinating the ministry of the staff at Third Church (Kalamazoo) for over 25 years, I was deeply grateful to have played a role in building such a team. We were blessed to experience a high degree of energy in our shared ministry. We enjoyed mutual support and encouragement. We cheered for each other’s success. We loved each other and loved working together. We cared for each other as whole persons whose lives were more than church ministry. When there was an opening on our staff I was often humbled by the number of applicants that wanted to join us because they had heard what a stimulating environment it was for ministry.
One significant reason we flourished is a decision that I gladly own, a commitment to build our capacity using the resources of the Gallup organization, specifically Clifton Strengths (formerly “StrengthsFinder”). Every member of our staff took the online Clifton Strengths assessment and received a personalized Strengths Profile, which identified their dominant talent themes.* I then coached them individually and collectively to be sure we operated with a deep appreciation for the collection of distinct gifts we brought to our ministry.
Here is what Gallup’s extensive study of high-functioning teams has found, and it is consistent with my own experience in forming and leading a church staff and in coaching teams in other churches and organizations: Individuals are more motivated, energized, and fulfilled when they are encouraged to meet their job expectations in ways that align best with their God-given gifts.
This doesn’t mean changing job expectations to suit a person’s gifts. Rather, it allows a person to meet those expectations in ways that suit his/her gifts. We didn’t want our job descriptions to be straight-jackets. We designed them to identify the desired outcomes that our church leadership expected for each area of ministry. That left a lot of room for a staff member’s distinct gifts to operate and flourish.
Using our Strengths Profiles we explored how each individual was wired and would operate most effectively. We were intent on affirming the particular gifts that God entrusted to each of us that would enable us to meet the ministry objectives and flourish doing so. Never mind that a new staff member’s approach was different from that of her predecessor in that role. Never mind that she will fulfill her ministry tasks differently than I would! We were serious about gifts-based ministry. If you are as well, then I encourage you to use the Clifton Strengths assessment to help your staff members identify their unique set of gifts and turn them loose to put them to full use. I assure you they will bring more energy and enthusiasm to their work!
Teams that excel exhibit three characteristics:
- They share a mission and purpose. It should be a given that a ministry team would share a mission and purpose, but reality (and numerous studies of dysfunctional teams) suggests that far too often the over-arching organizational mission is lost in the shuffle of the individual staff members’ sense of personal mission and priorities. Losing sight of the Big Picture often results in compartmentalized ministry, with each staff member working in a personal ministry silo. We found that keeping the core mission in front of the team fostered a ministry culture in which team members were willing to come alongside each other to help out—because we understood that the success of the team and the mission is more important than our individual successes.
- They understand that each team member is great at some things and not so good at others. The objective is not that each member of the team be well-rounded and able to do all things equally well. The objective is for each to function at a high level, to serve effectively and joyfully, by leaning into the dominant gifts that God has given her/him. Where individuals are not as strong, they learn to lean on others for support. My dominant talents (gifts) are in the area of strategic thinking (to use Gallup’s terms). I’m most effective and energized by planning processes—studying, thinking, pulling together ideas, mapping the best path forward. What this meant for our ministry at Third Church was that I was happy to hand off some of the implementation responsibilities to other team members and/or congregants who excelled at pulling it together and making it happen. To me that end of the project was “busy work” that simply drained me. It was not fun for me. So whenever possible I handed it off to people who had the gifts to manage the details and were energized doing so. This is the complementarity that Paul commends in his teaching on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12.
- They are aware of each other’s talent filters, as well as their own. Self-awareness means that I understand my own lens on life and ministry. As someone gifted in the Strategic Domain of Talents, I understand that this is the filter through which I naturally process input, decisions, and opportunities. I engage with my mind. It was especially important for me in my role as staff leader to understand that this is my filter. It was equally important that I understood that others on my team did not share this filter! We had team members who led from the Executing Domain of talents. They were itching to get going and were not inclined to spend more time strategizing and studying. “Let’s just make it happen and figure it out as we go!” And we some who led from the Relationship-Building Domain. Their impulse (and strength!) with new initiatives was to consider first who should be included in the process and who we should recruit. When it comes to sharing ministry, It’s not a matter of one filter being better than another. It’s a matter of recognizing and valuing the complementarity of gifts and perspectives on the team. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’…”
In summary, I submit that the key to flourishing in ministry—as individuals and teams—is to cultivate and nurture a Strengths (Gifts)-based model that affirms the complementary gifts on the team and enables staff members to fulfil their ministries in ways that are congruent with their dominant strengths/gifts.
*In full transparency, I must tell you that I was so impressed by the Clifton Strengths philosophy and its compatibility with biblical principles that I earned my certification as a Clifton Strengths Coach.
Note also that when I teach and coach in Christian settings, I always use the language of Strengths and Gifts interchangeably. I do this because of my conviction that any natural ability or talent that comes under the influence of the Holy Spirit and is directed to service in the kingdom of God can thereby be understood as a “spiritual gift”. (For this understanding I am indebted to the seminal reformed study on Christian worldview by Albert Wolters, Creation Regained.) In my experience, I know of no resource more helpful in identifying one’s spiritual gifts than Clifton Strengths.
Rev. Ken Baker