June 21, 2024
This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Types of mission teams

Our mission organization and many other agencies are committed to teaming. Our mission’s policy manual says that we seek to place our personnel in areas where they can meet and minister with other Christian workers (missionaries and/or national workers) who are committed to a common purpose, goal and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

A desire to serve on a team

The majority of our new missionaries want to serve on teams. Yes, many of them are assigned to isolated locations, but nevertheless they want to be working together with other missionaries.

So it should come as no surprise that almost all missionaries talk about their “team”. Our staff meetings are called “team meetings” and our supervisors are called “team leaders”. Commonly, whenever more than one missionary family are located in the same city, they are considered a team.  This is not only true of our organization.

Not all teams are alike

But not all teams are alike. Over the years, we have come to realize that teams operate in different ways. Just as basketball teams differ from track teams, so not all mission teams function in the same way.  Sometimes team members work together closely, side-by-side, and sometimes they work on their various projects quite independently. One of our learning objectives in our pre-field training is to broaden our new missionaries’ appreciation for different types of teams.

But even if we account for this diversity, are all of our missionary teams truly teams? Is it legitimate to call every geographical grouping of missionaries a “team?”   If a number of missionaries from the same organization live in the same city, and meet together on a monthly basis for prayer and fellowship, but are each assigned to totally different ministries, is that a team?

A definition of a team

The word “team” as a reference to a group of people does not appear in Scripture. So we don’t have a biblical basis for arguing for a particular definition of teaming. Merriam-Webster defines “team” as “a group of people who work together.” That fairly broad definition doesn’t help us much because it does not define what it means to “work together”.

Patrick Lencioni defines a team this way:

“a relatively small number of people (anywhere from 3-12) that shares common goals as well as the rewards and responsibilities for achieving them. Team members readily set aside their individual or personal needs for the greater good of the group.”

Lencioni, Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team), p. 9.

A common goal

Commitment to common goals, an agreed-upon approach and mutual accountability are mentioned in the SEND understanding of teaming in the policy manual (“committed to a common purpose, goal and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable”).

It seems to me that the term “common goal” must be an objective that is shared by the whole team and is specifically for that team. This common goal is not also shared by the rest of the organization. In other words, if our only common goal is the mission statement of the organization, then we are not a team, any more than the entire organization is one team.

Mutual accountability

In the context of common goals, mutual accountability means that each member of the team expects the other members of the team to do their job because the success of the goal and the team depends on it. If other members are not carrying their load, the whole team suffers and the work of the team is at risk. I am not serving on a real team if I can accomplish  my goals and be successful in my ministry even if my team members are not fulfilling their commitments to the team. The opposite is true as well. In a real team, we depend on one another’s contribution to the shared task.

Not a real team

By these definitions, many of our groupings of missionaries are not truly teams.

So if we are not a team, then what are we?   What do we call ourselves? Suggestions that I come across are “work group” or “fellowship cluster”.    Any other suggestions?

The consequences

Does it make any difference what we call ourselves?  What are the consequences of calling a group of missionaries a team if they are not really a team?

  1.  We are creating unrealistic expectations on the part of those who are joining the team.   If we are not really a team, and don’t function as a team, we will need to deal with the disappointment stemming from unmet expectations.
  2. We may be overlooking or undermining other teams to which we belong and which should hold us accountable for ministry. Maybe primary ministry is done with national believers, and not other expatriate missionaries. That is the group that we should call “our team”. Or maybe our team could be a smaller grouping of the larger group of missionaries found in our city. In my case, my ministry team is actually a virtual team spread out through multiple countries.
  3. We set our leaders up for failure and frustration. A “team leader” of a collection of missionaries without a common goal becomes an announcement maker and a social and logistics coordinator or maybe a pastoral care person. He or she does not have the joy and satisfaction of seeing their efforts in team building resulting in synergy and the accomplishment of shared goals. He or she is expected to lead, but has no destination towards which to head. I would find that very frustrating.

What do you think?  Should we use the term “team” more sparingly than it commonly is used in mission circles?

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