Raising your leadership game

Teams that Thrive: Five Disciplines of Collaborative Church Leadership
Ryan T. Hartwig and Warren Bird
InterVarsity Press

Ryan Hartwig and Warren Bird’s Teams that Thrive is a beacon of hope for anyone on a senior church leadership team disillusioned by bad experiences of teamwork, and a challenge to teams that have serious untapped potential.

Exceptional team experiences don’t just happen: thus the word “disciplines” in the subtitle.

The authors constantly remind their audience that only those teams that are rigorously dedicated to doing whatever it takes in every meeting to be the best they can be will maximize their potential and lead truly effectively.

This desire to offer our best and most faithful work to God stands in contrast to what Hartwig and Bird identify as a leadership culture that often sees mediocre performance of teams as either acceptable or just the way it is in many churches. Combine this with persistent myths about teamwork (such as: a senior leadership team must be made up of the people at the top of organizational chart, or, a team must identify one consistent person to always give leadership to the team), and the reader can see there is a lot of work to be done to reshape and re-energize leadership teams.

Five disciplines

The book addresses five practices that help teams thrive.

  • Focus on purpose. Every team needs a clear and compelling purpose to call out the best in people, and help the team focus on critical decision-making: it is actually this, not any one person, that leads. The authors walk teams through a process to discern their unique focus.
  • Leverage differences in team membership. Every team needs to seek out the right mix of people and celebrate diversity on the team.
  • Lead through inspiration rather than control. Thriving teams don’t let anyone’s ego ruin what they are striving for. An effective team can turn disagreement to an advantage because they prioritize relationships and create an environment of trust based on competence, honesty and transparency.
  • Intentionally structure your decision-making process. Seek out the hard situations and take time to tend to and unravel them. The authors provide a step-by-step guide to help teams do this.
  • Build a culture of continuous collaboration. Team members need to dedicate time to work with each other beyond defined meetings. The authors emphasize that this means all people approach decision-making as equal players; no one person holding the trump card. This idea of a less hierarchical, more co-operative leadership structure fits well with an Anabaptist perspective.

After an introduction to the concept of the book, the authors defer to Sid Buzzell (Dean of the School of Theology at Colorado Christian University) for an analysis of leadership in the Bible. Their conclusion: the Bible strongly emphasizes a collaborative leadership style.

Collaborative leadership

One example is the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. That leadership team made the decision about the whether or not circumcision was necessary for Gentile converts based on open dialogue and listening together to the Holy Spirit: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (v. 28). That is the model of Anabaptist community hermeneutic.

While I don’t disagree with the conclusions, the chapter is too short to thoroughly engage the topic. Of course, that is not the focus of the book, so the reader ought not to expect it. But when the authors turn their attention to the meat of the study, the same cursory approach is evident.

There is plenty of original and thought-provoking material, but engagement with any one idea is too brief to allow for the authors to engage in robust analysis.

There is simply too much information packed into these 250 pages to allow the reader the time to really think things through. I felt rushed from one thought to the next. The concepts are clearly defined, but I would have liked more comprehensive development of fewer points.

The last two chapters examine possible barriers to effective teams and then propose a plan for how to move toward healthier group dynamics.

Data and researchers

This book is based on a survey of 1,026 senior leadership team members in 253 churches in the U.S., 2012–13. The authors use Harvard researchers’ Team Diagnostic Survey and a team communication questionnaire they designed themselves. Decades of experience in writing, researching, consulting on, and living out leadership inform their interpretation of data.

Ryan Hartwig teaches leadership communication at Azusa Pacific University and frequently presents to pastors and leaders about team work in church ministry. Warren Bird is the director of research for Leadership Network and has served in various pastoral ministry roles with the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

Because the audience of the book is senior church leadership teams, the discussion centres around churches with multiple staff. There are only a few places where the authors consider team arrangements that include volunteers (the case in smaller churches). It is unclear what modifications (if any) would need to be made for the principles of this book to be effective in a single-staff congregation, but the bias is worth noting.

I really appreciated several features of the book.

  • Each chapter includes discussion questions designed for teams studying the book together.
  • Shaded boxes with a “two-minute tip” create an immediate point of application.
  • Expert commentary from other leadership thinkers rounds out the content with other perspectives.
  • The authors use lots of stories from churches they visited during their research.

All these aspects make the book very easy to read and navigate. I would recommend this book to any team that is struggling to grow their capacity and increase their effectiveness.

—Kevin O’Coin is pastor of community life at The Meeting Place, Winnipeg.

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