Pastoral Teams – the Whys and the Wherefores

Multi staff church leadership teams have long been a reality across churches of all denominations.  While most of these are found in urban settings, churches in larger regional and even rural centres have found the resources to add staff to form pastoral teams.

The reasons for additional pastors….

The expansion of the pastoral team is in response to specific realities, usually a combination of several:

  1. The attendance at worship services increases usually bringing a growing variety of pastoral needs. These most often relate to specific groups: young families, a growing youth or young adult population, the presence of a large number of singles, retired people, those of advanced years.
  2. With this rich diversity, it becomes patently obvious that no one pastor can begin to meet the needs. On the hand the congregation is blessed to have such diversity; on the other the needs arising go way beyond the ability of a single pastor to cope.
  3. As a consequence, churches identify the most specific groups needing care and create ministry roles intended to meet these needs. Hence the battalion of youth pastors around the churches, ministry to singles and seniors and so it goes.
  4. Along the way, the increase in the congregation creates a budget healthy enough to provide the stipends and other costs to enable the appointment of what may be called “specialist” pastors most often under the leadership of a senior pastor.

The obvious benefits of the pastoral team….

  1. While the appointment of additional staff hopefully addresses the needs of the groups targeted for specific attention, there are other side benefits too. A congregation is greatly blessed by a leadership team which has a mix of ages, personalities, experience, gifts and skills.  Such a team models for the people in the pew the way the Body of Christ works in microcosm – a joyful complementing of very different personalities, approaches and often theology too.
  2. Further, the team means that the subgroups within the congregation can relate directly to the pastor appointed to care for them. A healthy team complementing each other happily recognizes that some in the church relate better to one pastor than another. The senior pastor, for example, can relax knowing that the high-speed young people in the congregation have a youth pastor with the drive and energy not only to keep up with the younger set but to give them direction and care at the same time.
  3. It hardly needs to be said that an effective team not only helps to build the church but is well positioned to make good contact with the wider community too. Ministry exercised effectively within the congregation almost always leads to a word of mouth network which connects with those without faith or a church connection.
  4. The key to team health, therefore, is an informed and sensitive awareness of each other’s role and a keenness to offer mutual affirmation and support. Indeed, as team members affirm the gifts and contribution of their associates within the congregation, there is a working model of what it means to a genuine and caring people.

Maintaining team health….

  1. But effective and co-operative teamwork is no accident. It requires immense internal security, goodwill, mutual respect and commitment with ongoing communication grounded in honesty, clarity and focus.
  2. Good as this list is, it is not the whole truth. Team health is only sustained if there is a genuine and ongoing development of the team’s spirituality. Too often this slides into the background by the sheer force of the burden of ministry so that team meetings open with the mandatory prayer and then promptly get into the nuts and bolts of what this week holds.  Of course this can be defended that “we have a job to do here so let’s not waste too much time on the devotional angles.”
  3. A healthy team builds in time to reflect, to share, to pray, to ponder not as a sideline but as the very foundation of its work. The Lord of the Church is brought into the centre of the team’s life (where He should be anyway) with a genuine desire to be open to Him and to each other.
  4. This process of reflection and pondering calls for great courage and a disarming honesty. Without these qualities the team can become more of a charade than the meeting of hearts, minds and spirits. This raw courage and honesty release the freedom to share the concerns, the hurts, the struggles, the temptations that are all part of the ministry package. Once a team gets beyond the dreadful addiction to adjusting the nuts and bolts of programs, calendars and budgets, real people are allowed to emerge.
  5. A healthy team accepts the daily battle of maintaining one’s own spiritual journey of prayer, Bible study and witness. A caring accountability opens the doorway to team members holding each other carefully to account in the way their own spirit is being nurtured. Surprising as it may seem, a team can function for years without there being any genuine sharing of how members are exercising their own spiritual disciplines.
  6. Indeed, the point can be well made that, if there is no corporate discipline spiritually, then it is highly likely that the personal disciplines are soon to become casualties also. The end result is not one of health but an increasing, underlying dysfunction arising from team members becoming simply task focussed and not soul focussed. There is a world of a difference here.

A few additional subtleties….

  1. A deep and genuine team intimacy is a prize that has to be laboured for. There are no short cuts and the road is sufficiently challenging to scare off all bar the most daring. Every pastor is confronted with the daily juggling act of keeping the balance between the demands of home, church, community and all else that demands attention.
  2. This juggling act becomes increasingly complicated if the pastor’s spouse has their own professional or other employment demands to meet. In such situations the call to ministry may be regarded as belonging only to the pastor and not to his/her spouse. Where once the call to the pastorate was seen to embrace the gifts of both partners, times have changed for many in the pastoral ministry.
  3. If there is not great care and sensitivity, the call to ministry may end up being viewed simply as another professional option. This is a but a short step to working a day with fixed hours set at fixed times with an inner resistance to accepting responsibilities which require what are then regarded as out of hours energy and time.
  4. Here lies a wonderful recipe for a great team disaster. A team member who insists on working to set times and in set ways (yes, it does happen) is on a collision course with other team members for whom the call is expressed in meeting needs and exercising the pastoral task without too much concern about the when and the where.
  5. Tension soon develops in teams where this divergence is a reality with some team members carrying the heavy end while others give the appearance of opting out if the required hours on the job have been met. There is much scope here for ongoing stress in a team.
  6. On another front altogether a team may end up with a struggle arising from a team member who is simply not coping with their own personal world let alone the colourful and demanding life of the congregation. Personal problems including mental health issues – depression and anxiety especially – can be masked from team life with colleagues having little or no clue that there is something profoundly wrong with their team mate.
  7. But be assured that there will be an outcome to this sad and difficult circumstance. Sooner or later these inner, personal strains, stresses and pain will evidence themselves in team life and finally the church generally. How this happens may take various shapes and sizes.  But the end result is the same – there will be a crisis and the real cause – the inner battle – may not be recognized or understood by the team or church.
  8. The troubled pastor is not above cultivating a personal support group for all the wrong reasons – of building a base of unsuspecting but loyal followers for reasons not always clear but which seem to compensate for the inner, unresolved turmoil. The group will be useful when tension surfaces as they will happily but unhelpfully embrace the needy pastor’s cause which will rarely be in the best interests of the overall congregation.
  9. In the best case scenario the team will realize there is an issue and the one who struggles will be encouraged, required may be a better word, to seek help before they succumb to their increasingly darkening world.
  10. In the worst case scenario nothing will be done with behaviours becoming more obviously hard to manage by the team. Indeed, in these complex situations other relationships can form which can easily lead to serious and devastating mayhem.
  11. The healthy team recognizes the need, therefore, for an openness where it is safe to put up one’s hand for help with honesty and humility running the agenda rather than pride, the fear of failure and rank foolishness having the upper hand. Mutual pastoral support in a climate of affirmation and appreciation is a pearl of great price.

Why else does the wheel fall off a ministry team?

  1. There are a multitude of other reasons and the following is not comprehensive. In the first place and often for the simplest of explanations, tensions can arise because ministry roles were not satisfactorily clarified when a new team member was appointed. It is really possible for a team member to interpret their role and responsibility in one light without realizing that that the original reason for their appointment was quite different. There has been a fundamental failure in communication.
  2. In the normal course of events, this should be easily rectified through conversation and negotiation. But don’t take this for granted. It only takes one team member who has a fixed, inflexible view of how their ministry should be pursued to place the whole enterprise in jeopardy.  And matters can degenerate very easily as it is then only a relatively short step for such a team member to become increasingly critical of the whole team, even the overall vision and direction of the church.
  3. Behind much team tension is the subtle issue of ego. A team member who is running light on maturity and inner security will often be wanting maximum exposure and kudos. Jesus’ servant model of leadership has long been discarded by a driving ambition to be seen to be the most effective operator on this or that line of ministry.
  4. Curiously, such a team member is almost the last one to realize how painful their behaviour is for their associates. This lack of security leads to a growing incapacity to affirm publicly other team members and their contribution to the team and the life of the church. They like to be noticed and recognized for their ministry but are mostly blind to, or dismissive of, the labours of those who serve with them.
  5. In some situations, the pulpit becomes a quiet battleground. The larger the team, the greater the possibility of confusion arising from how the pulpit roster is shaped. Almost every pastoral team has at least one team member who considers that their preaching gift is being undervalued and that they are actually rather more gifted than their colleagues, including the senior pastor.
  6. All this breeds an environment where it is extremely difficult to enjoy transparent communication and effective problem solving. The reasons for this are obvious: the real issues fail to be identified because they are too personal and threatening. No one is quite sure how to deal with a team member who has tickets on themselves and who is feeling constantly undervalued, for example.
  7. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, a spirit of competition is more likely to emerge – all with great subtlety of course – in a team where members are of similar age and experience. It is less likely, for example, for an older senior pastor to have clashes with a much younger youth pastor since the relationship is more likely to be more along the lines of mentoring and encouragement. Competition is almost irrelevant.
  8. But this is not so in a team where there are similar generations working together. Occasionally a team will attempt to function without a “senior” figure or leader but this rarely works well. Even in the company of Jesus, the “buck” has to land somewhere, like it or not.
  9. Another threat to team tension stems from differences of view, approach or theology which are always on the cards in a larger congregation. Without great wisdom, perseverance and patience, there is the very real danger that some in the congregation will begin to identify with one team member over another so that in a mostly indefinable way, pressure groups develop.
  10. In the worst case scenario – and this does happen sadly – such groups will only attend worship when “their” pastor is preaching and will be noticeably absent when others are leading the service. What has happened in reality is that unattended divisions within the team have not been addressed and the breakdown in the team has now translated into breakdown in the church.

Getting back on track….

  1. As with a marriage that has gone awry, it takes a great investment of effort spiritually, mentally and physically to rescue a team which has basically lost its way – that is, the ability to function with mutual joy, encouragement, spirit and good humour.
  2. It is almost impossible to find the right road back without genuine and sometimes very painful confession, the willingness to accept personal responsibility for wrongs done, for the holding of a critical and bitter spirit, breaches of confidentiality, and lack of support – to identify some of the primary black spots.
  3. In extreme situations of fracturing and breakdown, the departure of one or more team members has to be on the cards too. If a team member is unable and/or unwilling to accept the agreed and understood vision and mission of the congregation, or the way ministry overall is being conducted, then there is no good reason for them to remain a team member. In fact to wish to do so is an exercise in total futility.
  4. But these are last resort actions: with a shared commitment to move to safer and greener pastures, there has to be a concentrated effort to identify all the demons so they can be dealt with creatively and well. It can be done but this almost requires changes in behavioural patterns, sometimes a reworking of roles, often a willingness for the renewal of each team member’s commitment to Christ and His people.
  5. If the congregation is aware of team tensions, then this has to be addressed too. This is not easy and requires immense wisdom and the right timing. A congregation cannot be expected to function healthily and effectively if the leadership team is in disarray or at least heading that way.
  6. Add to the mix the need for abundant humility. Ministry is about serving Jesus not our egos and their many complex and addictive needs. It is not about being noticed and applauded.  The company of Jesus argued on at least two occasions about who was the greatest and, unfortunately, that debate remains on the agenda all too often for His contemporary friends.

For personal and shared consideration….

A ministry team will do well to reflect upon the following:

  • Identify any three of the above points which make particular sense to you, or which address in some manner your own role as a team member, or a concern which you have currently. Be prepared to give a reason for each with your team.
  • Think about the six sections above. See if you can add at least one point of your own to each as a way of highlighting your own insights and current experience.  Again, share your addition with your team.
  • Which of the above points do you feel strongly about? Is it because you agree or disagree with the point being made? Explain your response to your team.
  • How would you measure the health of the pastoral team to which you belong? Give some reasons for your assessment. If you feel there is a need for cutting and polishing, what might you suggest to your team?

Rev John Simpson