A number of years ago in this blog, I wrote about three different types of teams that we find in our mission organization.1I am indebted to Liz Givens who first identified these three different types of teams in SEND. Basketball teams are made up of multiple team members, working together closely and interacting frequently with each other about their various ministries. Track teams have a common purpose and team members support one another, but each person on the team works independently. X-Teams (expedition teams) are small teams found where a single expatriate missionary (or missionary couple) and a national Christian worker (pastor, missionary, or a lay Christian) partner together closely in ministry.
A fourth type – combo teams
But after discussing these different types with our teams around the world, I began to realize that there was yet a fourth type that was becoming increasingly popular. We are calling it a combo team. This type of team is not a single team, but a collection of multiple X-teams. In this scenario, missionaries serve on two teams simultaneously.
The ministry team is an X-team
The missionary serves with a national worker or a few national workers. This serves as their ministry team. The X-team is committed to a common purpose and provides direction and companionship in church planting and ministry. Normally, in these combo teams, the missionary is not the team leader of the X-team but serves under the leadership of a national pastor.
The mission team is a support team
In a combo team, the missionary also is part of another “team”, made up of other SEND missionaries. This second team is not a real team, in that it does not meet the definition of a team in our mission’s manual.
SEND is committed to teaming and seeks to assign personnel to teams which are committed to a common purpose, goal and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.SEND International Manual, 5.3 Teaming, p. 22.
This mission “team” does not generally have a well-defined goal and team members do not hold themselves mutually accountable for their work. But within our organization, this grouping of missionaries is regularly called a team. So, for the purposes of this article, we will refer to it as a team as well.
Despite not having a well-defined common goal and mutual accountability, this mission team does play an important role. It provides member care for the expatriate missionaries. It often provides logistical support (in obtaining visas and housing) for them as well.
Now the mission team is not nearly as active as the X-team. The expatriate missionaries generally meet only about once a month with their fellow mission team members. But they will often meet several times a week with their national coworker.
Examples of combo teams
We find such combo teams in places like Japan and throughout Eurasia. Often the church plant or church to which the missionary is assigned does not need multiple expatriate workers. So, the missionaries in these locations are assigned to various different new churches or church plants. Their role is to assist the Japanese, Russian, or Ukrainian church planter (or planters) working in these locations.
At one point in the tsunami-devastated area of Tohoku, Japan, one of our SEND combo teams had 13 missionaries assigned to 8 different locations. Each ministry location was led by a different Japanese leader. But one centrally-located SEND leader served as team leader for the missionaries. He and his wife supported the expatriate workers, calling them together monthly for prayer times and connecting them to the broader missionary organization. Because these combo teams were so far apart, team members rarely if ever visited one another’s ministry locations. The northern-most team members were several hours away from those living on the southern edge. In fact, this combo team has since divided itself up into three separate combo teams, led by three different team leaders.
Balancing dual commitments
What is key to the effectiveness of such a combo team? First of all, it is critical that the missionary recognizes that he or she is part of two teams. Often, we only consider the mission team when we talk about our team. But this does a disservice to the ministry team (the X-team). It disregards X-team’s role in providing direction, accountability, and even training and member care.
Members of these teams need to learn how to balance their commitments to both their X-team and the mission team. Admittedly, it can be very difficult to serve on two teams at once. National co-workers do not always understand the obligations that are part of serving on a SEND team. Why is the missionary absent so often during ministry events? Why are mission team meetings and mission conferences important? The expatriate combo team struggles to find meeting times that work with everyone’s highly varied ministry schedules.
Negotiating these dual commitments also means that all the parties clearly understand what is expected from each party. Sometimes expatriate members can become very frustrated at the lack of direction they receive from their mission leadership. They do realize that they should be seeking that leadership primarily from their X-team. Possibly, the X-team leader does not realize that they need to provide direction and accountability for their expatriate team members.
Clarifying expectations on combo teams
Therefore, I would encourage the mission team leader to discuss these expectations with the national leader prior to the beginning of the assignment. Write down what you decide in some type of agreement. Give a copy of the agreement to the missionary and the national leader in charge of the work.
We tell our new missionaries that they can expect supervision in these five aspects:
- Direction (vision, planning, assignments)
- Development (mentoring, training, coaching)
- Support (visas, housing, problem-solving)
- Encouragement (listening, caring)
- Assessment (monitoring and evaluating performance)
But not all of these will come from their SEND team leader. This is particularly true in a combo team, where most of this supervision comes from the X-team. The agreement between the mission and the national ministry leader needs to assign responsibility for each of these five aspects of supervision.
After agreeing on who will provide the various supervisory functions for the missionary, the two leaders should then work on a job description for the missionary. The job description can be developed jointly by the mission team leader and the X-team leader, and should include input from the missionary.
Building trust between leaders
After that initial agreement, it is important that the SEND team leader continues to spend time with the national leader. They will need to build a level of trust that will allow them to freely discuss concerns about the missionary’s productivity, emotional health, or behavior. The SEND team leader can explain the perspective of a cultural outsider. The national co-worker can explain expectations and observations as a cultural insider and ministry leader.
The SEND leader also needs to make sure that the X-team national co-workers all understand the expectations of being a SEND team member.
Communicating in two directions
The SEND team members themselves need to learn to communicate well in two directions: with their local indigenous co-workers on their X-team and with their mission team leader on the track team. Often the communication styles will need to be vastly different. With their mission team leader, often an informal style of communication will be normal. They will treat the team leader as a near equal. But in a high-power distance culture, the national pastor will expect to be addressed with respect and deference. Sometimes the team member will need to ask their mission team leader to serve as a go-between in this communication process with the national pastor.
Expectations for mentoring
When new missionaries think about teaming, they are generally thinking about what we have call a basketball team. They want to receive mentoring and training in ministry. Generally, they assume that mentoring and training will come from fellow expatriate missionaries.
But when we create combo teams, we also need to create different expectations. These teams do not provide the same type of mentoring and training that a basketball team does. Most of the mentoring and training in ministry will come from one’s national co-workers. It will be primarily on-the-job training. Often the mission organization will need to supplement this with additional training in the missionary’s first language. The national co-worker is likely an expert in working in their own culture. But they often do not understand the unique limitations and strengths of an expatriate worker.
As is true of any X-team, the mission needs to be confident that the national co-workers in a combo team understand and are willing to work with expatriates. They need to be good examples of what it means to be Christ-like witnesses in their home culture. But they also need to understand how to help an outsider (the missionary) become an acceptable outsider. An acceptable outsider functions effectively and credibly as a worker in their adopted culture, even without ever fully becoming an insider. To get to this stage, the missionary will need the coaching or mentoring of his or her national co-workers
Expectations of emotional support
Those who belong to a combo team will also need to adjust their expectations for emotional support. In a basketball team, the expatriate team members interact face-to-face a few times a week and often do ministry together. In contrast, in a combo team, one sees fellow expatriates much less frequently. Hence the coaching and encouragement that a team member receives from their national co-workers will often not seem as helpful. Those who understand the particular challenges of serving in another language and culture are more effective in these roles. In a combo team, the mission team addresses this gap. But members of such teams will need to wait for this emotional support until their next monthly meeting. Or they will need to find ways of connecting with fellow expatriates through video-conference or telephone calls.
With a growing emphasis on partnership and collaboration with indigenous workers and churches, combo teams are here to stay. Yes, it is difficult to manage relationships and commitments on two very different teams. But combo teams can provide both the direction and support that an expatriate missionary needs. The missionary will be deeply connected to the local culture and also connected to and supported by their mission agency.