Not much thought is necessary to conclude that a group of people is not necessarily a team. A team has a common objective and all the members must rise above personal preferences and work together to reach the goal.
If we think of sports teams, some excel and some never seem to “get it together” for the big victory. What makes the difference? Some would say money and others would say luck. Those may be factors in the world, but how about team work in the church such as a group of church elders? Obviously, the requirements and rewards are very different in spiritual things.
Let’s consider briefly the importance and benefits of real team work among overseers, some suggestions to encourage unity and fruitfulness in team building, and some dangers to watch out for.
Team Work is Biblical and Important
Every local church described in the New Testament had a plurality of mature men serving together as a leadership group, often referred to today as the “board of elders,” or simply “the oversight.” Actually, “team” might be a better term for church leadership, because it emphasizes serving through unity and self discipline rather than through authority and decision making.
Reasons why the church should be led by a plurality and not a single individual are not difficult to discover. Church leaders are ordinary men, most often working men with homes and families, not highly trained professionals. Scripture and history provide abundant examples of how God uses a plurality of servants to carry on His work in the church. In addition, a proverb tells us that there is safety in the multitude of counselors (Prov. 11:14 KJV).
Then too, different personalities, spiritual gifts and life experience in their leaders allow the people of the church the freedom to relate to the shepherds they feel understand them. Another benefit is that sharing the work load among a group helps prevent “burnout.”
Finally, as individual elders retire from active work or are called home to the Lord, and younger men are added to the number, the church is spared the trauma that often accompanies leadership change in churches with a single authority figure.
Building and Preserving Team Spirit
Those who provide spiritual feeding and direction for the flock will understandably occupy a prominent place in the perception of the people. Paul admonished elders to take heed, not only to the flock of God, but also “to yourselves” (Acts 20:28). It is of vital importance to the well being of the church that church leaders be held in honor – not just because the Bible demands it – but because the individuals have developed a team spirit and approach to ministry. They have gained the credibility that results from facing difficult people and issues together with wisdom and grace, all the while demonstrating a kind regard for one another.
These things can strengthen the leadership team or they can become the source of competitiveness, jealousy or arrogance. How can a leadership group cultivate a team spirit in a balanced way? The answer is a blend of spiritual virtues and practical experience. Here are some thoughts about each.
The Spiritual Side to Teamwork.
Every elder should remember that his assignment from Christ the Head is not only to shepherd the flock, but also to shepherd his fellow elders! He must love them, pray for them, and seek to serve them. If he cannot do this, how will he do it for the rest of the saints? Earnestly desiring to see his fellow workers grow in their spiritual development, the use of their gifts and the esteem of the congregation is a deeply spiritual matter, ideas foreign to the old nature and the flesh. These endeavors require humility and a work of the Spirit of God in the heart.
Also important is an environment where mutual encouragement and acceptance can blossom. The adversary will constantly seek to spoil the team spirit by attitudes and actions that bring individuals in leadership into competition with one another. To resist this, each must function “with brotherly love in honor preferring one another.” (Rom. 12:10) A genuine spirit of love and deference will go a long way to compensate for differences of age, experience or special gift.
The Practical Side to Teamwork.
In order for the team to work together smoothly, each individual must be committed to the team and willing to make personal sacrifice for the good of all. But this must be more than theory; it must manifest itself in the day to day business of overseeing the affairs of the church; it must be intensely practical. Do all the brothers have some visibility in leading the church? Are each brother’s viewpoints and concerns on matters of discussion sought out and listened to carefully in the elders meetings? Do all the brothers stand together in difficult situations requiring discipline or major change? Do the brothers speak well of one another and defend one another when possible? Is it agreed that all the brothers must all be in unity before the church moves ahead with changes? (See the ESN July 2003 Volume 4, Number 4 issue for dealing with an elder who continually hinders unanimity with “veto” like power)
Another practical point in the life of any team is the need for rest and refreshing; those special times of getting together (including wives!) just to get to know one another and deepen friendships – apart from “the work.” I remember one young man in an assembly years ago who confided in me, “Everyone in our assembly wishes he were an elder because we see how much our leaders encourage one another and enjoy working together.”
Avoiding the Pitfalls.
Most good things are not preserved by letting “nature take its course,” and relationships are no exception. As in a marriage, serious prayer and conscious effort are needed to safeguard friendships. Here are a few suggestions to prevent the team spirit from going sour.
1. Accept your differences. Note how different the twelve disciples chosen by the Lord Jesus were, and He never compared one disciple to another. That there are differences right within the eldership is clearly implied by verses such as I Tim. 5:17.
2. Make it a never ending work to seek balance in the team. True, strong personalities will never trade places with the quiet brothers, and that’s OK. But don’t allow the team to become lopsided by one or two strong voices dominating everything. Strive to bring out the quiet strengths of brothers who might be content to hide in the background.
3. No matter how many struggles over difficult issues take place behind closed doors, present a united stand to the church. This is not hypocrisy but a valuable exercise in looking for areas of common agreement, even though small. The word is still needed today, “Honor all men; love the brotherhood…” (I Peter 2:17)
4. Don’t allow things to get stale. There are creative ways to refresh the group. Go on a retreat, take a sabbatical, meet with elders from other assemblies to bring some fresh insights, take advantage of the wonderful array of resources available today in good books, seminars or online.
5. Insist that the next generation get involved, no matter how reluctant they may seem. No church structure is more conducive to equipping the saints and training leaders than the true New Testament church with its practical exercise of the priesthood of all believers and absence of a professional clergy! You might even consider honoring a self-imposed age limit on elders.
Most elders are rightly content to wait for a coming day, when elders will receive “a crown of glory that fadeth not away.” (I Peter 5:4). But there is nothing wrong with the joy and morale boost on the team when hard work and determination yields a few spiritual touchdowns in the present!