Leading a team takes time

Over the past few weeks, I have had a number of conversations with both new missionaries and team leaders in a few different countries.   An observation that I have made in the past has been reinforced: leading a team takes time and more time that the team leader expected.  In these conversations, I have noticed a common theme among new missionaries – leaders don’t have time for them.   Leaders are so busy with their own ministry that they directly say or inadvertently give the impression that helping a younger, less experienced team mate is a distraction from their “real ministry”.   A few months ago, we featured in this blog the testimony of one of our area directors who had learned the importance of mentoring new missionaries.  But unfortunately, for many of us, we learn this lesson slowly.

As team leaders, we often make two simple assumptions when we invite and accept new team members.

  1. Our team will be able to accomplish more ministry if we have more workers.  This assumption is correct if we are thinking long term.   On the short term, it is incorrect if we are talking about ministry “out there” – with others outside the team.  Whenever we incorporate another team member into our team, we will need to set aside significant time to “onboard” them, to rebuild the team with the new member as a vital component.   (Note how many times we find Jesus going away with his disciples to a remote place, and the amount of time that Jesus devoted to training his disciples.) Eventually, those new team members will be able to assume ministry responsibilities, and more people will be engaged, discipled and trained by the team as a whole.  
  2. After some initial orientation of new team members, I as team leader, will be able to continue my former ministry with the same intensity and time commitment that I had before the team members joined.   This assumption is incorrect.  It is a trap into which new team leaders are particularly prone to fall.  Often in missions situations, the team leader begins ministry alone (or with their spouse) for a period of several months or even years, before other new members join them. Some patterns and expectations of ministry are established.   These are all disrupted when new team members arrive, and inevitably and very understandably, the team leader longs to return to “normal life” and the ministries and projects that he or she found so fulfilling before the arrival of these newcomers.  But as team leader, you never return to the old “normal”.   This is the “new normal”.   Leading a team takes time, and from now on, a significant portion of your time will be devoted to investing in the mentoring, coaching and supervising of your teammates.   

For most teams with a number of new missionaries as part of the team, team leaders should anticipate that 50% of their time needs to be given to leading the team, and 50% can continue to be invested in their former ministries (preaching, teaching, evangelism, etc).   If team members are experienced, this percentage will go down, of course.   The larger the team, the less time the team leader will have for direct ministry themselves.

Daniel Sinclair in “A Vision of the Possible: Pioneer Church Planting in Teams” makes a strong case that church planting team leaders need to continue to be significantly involved in church planting themselves (p. 164-165).   Team leaders need to set an example and show how ministry is to be done.   Some team leaders fall into the trap of thinking team leadership is a full-time job and make no plans for any outside ministry. That is also a mistake.

But as Ram Charan in “The Leadership Pipeline” points out, a manager (or team leader) needs to make a number of fundamental shifts when they move from managing only themselves to managing a team.   They need to give time now to both individual ministry and the work of management and leadership.   They need to learn the following skills:

  • getting work done through others
  • planning and assigning work
  • supervising others
  • motivating and coaching others
  • measuring the work of others

They also need to adopt some new values.  They must transition from valuing their own work production to valuing (not just tolerating) the work of making others productive.

Leaders who successfully make this transition by adjusting their expectations of how they will use their time, learning the skills that need to be learned and adopting these new values will find the team leadership role a rewarding one.  Their team has a much better chance of becoming a high performing team, in which team members are growing in effectiveness, and the team is experiencing true synergy.

Team leaders who refuse to make this transition, and continue to see their team members as distractions from their “real ministry” will continue to be frustrated by the role.  Their team members will settle into less than productive patterns of communication and ministry, and many will eventually leave – or resign themselves to accomplishing less than what they felt called to do.   A few brave souls will endure and figure out ministry on their own – and hopefully not repeat the same mistakes of their first team leader when they become team leaders of their own.

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