Sticky teams

I’ve been a pastor in an independent church for some time now. We don’t own any property, but we’ve been meeting regularly in community centres, clubs, schools, and universities. Our church is free of many of the trappings and restrictions of traditional churches. We’re not big on ceremony. We’re not into dressing up to go to church. You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of a particular denomination to get involved. In fact, a lot of what we do is being worked out ‘on the run’ and could probably described as pretty amateur.

Our church culture and community doesn’t have a lot of history. We’ve had to invent a few wheels and learn a fair bit from trial and error. It’s not that we’re making up new doctrines or teaching. We’re not abandoning the traditional understanding of the Christian faith. In fact, we’re very keen to be shaped and directed by the Bible in all we believe. It’s more to do with how things are done around here. 

Many of my friends in ministry don’t have to think too much about leadership structures in their churches – they simply are what they are. They’re Presbyterian, so they have elders, sessions, presbyteries and committees of management. Or they’re Baptist, so they have deacons and congregational meetings and pastors and water! But how do things work when you’re independent?

Last year, I made a particular focus of reading widely on issues of leadership and church life. I read, so as to better diagnose our own condition and to digest ideas and input for moving our church forward. One book that was very stimulating and resonated with many of our issues and concerns was, Sticky Teams by Larry Osborne.

The basic idea of Sticky Teams is to achieve unity in alignment. Getting people on the same page, with the same goals, and headed in the same direction. In particular, it focuses on getting the church, the staff, and the governing body of the church united in vision and purpose. A number of our leaders read this book and they had various reactions to it. Some were sold on the ideas, while others were more reflective and circumspect. The value lies in working through these things together.

Unity is fundamental to the church. At heart, it’s not something we can create for ourselves, but something achieved by God himself. As it says in Ephesians 4:4-6:

4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

God unites Christians together spiritually, but then he calls us to live this out practically. It’s not enough to pay lip service to unity. It raises real challenges for how we treat one another, and how churches are to function. See the previous verses in Ephesians 4:1-3:

1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Osborne values three types of unity in the church – doctrinal unity (what we believe), respect and friendship (how we treat each other), and philosophical unity (how we do things around here). The importance of philosophical unity is often overlooked, but it is critical to getting people headed in the same direction. It is often harder to achieve than the first two.

There’s nothing academic about this book. It’s been worked out in practice and we’re invited to learn from the experience of the author. It offers many practical tips and great ideas that we might easily take for granted. For example, as we seek to build unity in our church leadership teams and meetings, consider if these issues might be making it hard:

Does our venue help or hinder our meetings?
Are we ignoring the relationships of the people on the team?
Are we meeting often enough or too often?
Is there a constant turnover of people or is it a closed group?
Are there too many members on the team to be productive?

If you want to avoid politics shaping the agenda of your church’s governing body, then there are lessons to be learned here. One gem, is the importance of looking for leaders, not representatives. Representatives are more likely to see themselves as lobbyists for their particular area. This can reinforce the silo mentality, polarise areas of the church, and hinder progress through controversial issues. Leaders should be people of spiritual maturity, who fit well into the team relationally and organisationally, and who are aligned with the vision of the church. And remember that CVs always look better than people, and that character matters more than ability.

Osborne offers helpful insight to how an organisation changes its shape and function as it grows. He illustrates this with a sporting analogy:

The changes we had to work through at each stage of growth resembled the changes an athlete must make every time he or she switches from playing one sport to another.

Growth produces predictable changes in the way leaders and leadership teams relate and carry out their functions, changes that are remarkably parallel to the changes an athlete must go through to transition from running track, to playing golf, basketball or football.

How does this translate? He sees a solo leader or pastor as being like a track athlete, who works with others, but basically performs alone. As things grow they become more relational, like a game of golf, where buddies work together doing much the same thing. As we grow further, we resemble more a basketball team, where complementary roles and positions are vital to making things work. With significant growth, multiple staff, congregations, departments and so on, the organisation resembles more the complexity of an American Football team. The important thing is that we must change as we grow, and we must help people navigate these changes.

There is so much detail in Sticky Teams worth digesting. But it’s also worth highlighting its overall shape and structure. There are three parts. The first highlights the problems, the second seeks to get people on the same page, and the third aims to keep people aligned. We mustn’t stop with the first bit. Diagnosing a problem is not enough – we need to prescribe a way forward. This book works to help us stay united through clarity about where we’re going, equipping people to get there, and communicating what is expected.

Sticky Teams can be treated as a workbook or a manual. It’s worth picking up again and again, reading and re-reading, with a highlight pen or a pencil. I suggest it’s best read in community with others – there are discussion questions at the back of the book. Remember, it’s not the Bible. It’s not fool-proof. And it’s not the only way to think about or do things. But it’s aim is to get us thinking and doing, and not to leave us stuck in the vortex that simply repeats the same old failures year after year.

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