Most churches know that they need to develop effective structures as a church grows. But how do you go about it? Here's some practical advice on how you can transition to teams.
The church is a lot like the British railway system.
Week by week, it has to keep running while trying to change and develop at the same time. The opportunity to build from new is rare, and most engineers have to modify what was inherited from Victorian hay-days.
Despite old locomotives and carriages which often come in for criticism, any change seems to lead to so much disruption that it doesn’t seem worth it. Twinned with that, it has never recovered from Beeching’s cuts in the 1960s.
Yes, the church is a lot like the railway system.
But also, like the numbers using the railways, there has been a significant proportion of churches reporting a steady increase in the number of attendees. Just like the railway comes the question, ‘How do we handle this?’ In Bedford the railway solution is to have trains of 12 carriages stopping at elongated platforms.
What is the church equivalent?
One of the key developments of coping with larger numbers is when a church constructs small group and task-team structures. Without this it becomes exceedingly difficult to keep growing a congregation much beyond 150 to 200 attendees. If a church just relies on core people working harder, it will plateau.
I have often been asked, ‘Just how do you make this change to a team structure? How do you, in real time, with everything else that regularly happens, actually make this transition?’ I sense leaders saying, ‘I can see the value of teams throughout the life of the church, but I don't know how to get them up and running in the first place.’
Here are some pointers which we learnt at Grace Community Church ‘the hard way’:
1. Healthy Small Groups
Start with the mid-week pattern. If you have one central Bible study and prayer meeting, it can be a good time to get people meeting and working together in small groups by introducing, and properly resourcing, a home/growth/discipleship group structure.
Larry Osborne’s very wise advice is to tie the Sunday teaching into the mid-week discussion.1 Groups shouldn't be too large; beyond 15 and they may lose much of their effectiveness. Give maximum freedom for individuals to choose to go to groups on different nights or at different times. Give permission to change groups easily. Start new groups by asking volunteers to help initiate them. Try to get newish people in groups together. Get the groups to worshipfully respond to the Lord's grace, to share the highs and lows of life together, and fervently pray for lost people.
Positive experience of small groups like this will provide momentum for further team developments.
2. The Team Concept
Trickier is the transition from tasks done by a small number of volunteers, perhaps overseen by an elder or deacon, to a fully developed team approach. You can start by explaining ‘team’ and its biblical significance – Jethro in Exodus 18, the ‘servants’ of Acts 6, Paul and the teams he mentions in his letters, and of course the Lord Jesus and the Twelve.
Explain how your church needs to develop proper teams. If you have grown to around 150 people you will often feel ‘the core/fringe tension’. Core people will be busy, overstretched, and getting tired. Their perception will be that the church may have grown by attracting people, but their fear is that these are consumers, not disciples.
Many leaders, at this point, are tempted to talk a lot about being a disciple-making church, and to teach a great deal about the need to be more committed. My observation is that fringe people often think that the church is working well, and they are not sure how they can fit in. They may even wonder if they are really needed at all. They feel that getting to know everyone is beyond them. Then they hear preaching telling them that they are lukewarm and aren't committed enough! No wonder it is often of little effect.
Is there a better way forward? At this juncture, having made the very mistakes I have just described, it dawned on us that we wanted two things to happen:
- The core had to get less busy; and
- We definitely wanted and needed everyone to serve.
We realised the way to do this would be by re-organising all the work we did as a church by developing a team approach.
We stated that we didn't want anyone in too many teams. Some who were used to being involved in every area of church life would have to trust others to do tasks for the church (Acts 6:5). They would have to let go of some control, knowledge, and activity, to let others take them up. We wanted core people in no more than two or three teams so that they could both do the job really well, and get some life and time back.
For everyone else (I don't like the word ‘fringe’), we explained that we wanted everyone serving somewhere. ‘No one in too much, but all serving somewhere’ became a phrase we repeated. All of this needed explaining and discussing.
3. Theory meets the real world
Then comes the practical reality of, ‘How do you actually set teams up?’ Some proto-teams may already be there – elders, deacons, and children’s work.
For everything else, we defined what tasks needed doing, recognising that many were done by just one or two individuals. We said we wanted each task done by a team, with three or more people involved if possible.
Sound, vision, coffee, set up, welcome, children, connecting to new people, pastoral, bereavement, and hospital visitation were some of the early ones. I think we started with about 15 teams (we now have about 45). We put dates in the diary when the new team would have its inaugural meeting. We invited people to step up and volunteer for a team, but no more than three.
I attended a lot of meetings in a short space of time (we launched all teams within a two-month time frame). You will have to clear some time for this so that you can give it the attention it deserves.
Elders and deacons were briefed to be at various new team meetings. But they weren't there necessarily as team leaders. Their key role was to support, encourage, and facilitate the decisions the new teams would arrive at.
This often involved expenditure. My brief to them was that the answer was to be, ‘Yes’ if at all possible. As well as advertising when these new meetings were happening, we also approached people who we felt had leadership potential as made an ask for them to serve in that capacity. We trained them in what the team approach was all about.
4. The CARE Plan
We found the CARE plan invaluable.2 Too many Christians think they are in teams when they are just on rotas. The ‘genius’ of teams that actually deliver high performance on tasks, is that they reflect on their practice, and don't, ‘just do it’. Teams must sit back and have a good think before they go back into delivering their ministry. The CARE plan helps make this happen better than anything else I have come across.
It also releases one of the key benefits of team dynamics, and that is it allows everyone's voice to be heard. For the team leader’s role is to facilitate open discussion, including disagreements, so that the team together arrives at good outcomes. The CARE plan helps structure this. It isn't just a talking-shop, but a group of people serving the Lord and being a blessing to others.
So team leaders got to know the CARE plan and then used it when the team meetings were convened. I tried to be present at all those early meetings to initiate conversations about the big 'C' of the plan, Clarify the mission. The team needs to sense how it is part of ‘the big thing’ the Lord is doing. Then came team discussion around the structure of Agree on goals, Review progress and Equip people.
At all the inaugural meetings we scheduled subsequent ones. Most teams now meet three or four times a year (once a term, or once a quarter). Many of these early team meetings generated lots of new, good, ideas about how to improve what was being done. Ordinary members felt their ideas were shaping a significant task, and that they were not just listening to the delegated diktats of remote leaders.
People soon enthused. Core people began to breathe again, and although the fringe didn’t quite disappear, it changed dramatically. These believers who previously couldn't see how they could serve, began to get involved in larger numbers.
5. Ongoing review
Teams need support if they are to continue to flourish. We put resources (staff time, and expertise) into supporting team leaders. We produced a teams’ booklet in which every team could explain what they did, what they had achieved, what they were planning to do in the future, who was in the team, and if they needed more volunteers. This booklet has come out every 18 months or so.3 It helps highlight the importance of service, and it shows how that can actually happen in our church.
New teams have been started. This happens in a variety of ways. A member might come up with a great idea, which leaders then encourage. Some teams may arise because the leader spots an opportunity.
For example, a church elder read a book about developing better public Bible reading, and that lead to the genesis of our ‘Bible reading team’.
6. Recruitment into teams
There is nothing better than existing members enthusing people they meet to join their team. Such ‘organic’ connections really help people, since they sense from that personal contact that they are wanted and needed.
Organisationally, team leaders need to be aware of who is new, and who they need for their team. Leaders who are aware of both aspects can help recruit new people into the team.
But as the church grows it has to get even more organised. Leaders won't know all the new people coming, let alone what their capacities and interests are. So we have put staff resources into this.
We talk about the AIIA process: Attraction, Identification, Integration, and Assimilation.
At the Integration stage we have tasked a senior leader to help new people in the journey from coming along regularly to the church, to joining the membership, and to actual involvement in a team. His role is to liaise with each new person and our team leaders, and then follow up on how this is going.
Just putting information in bulletins or emails doesn’t work. What does work is face-to-face contact around a meal table when human connection leads to a better engagement in a team. If the team leaders also can extend hospitality to potential new team members, so much the better.
As with home groups, we encourage people to join, and then move on from teams as their circumstances change.
Some teams require ‘talent’ as well as ‘willingness’, music is an example. In these cases a discussion about ‘capability’ will be necessary, and perhaps training given.
So, these have just been some hints and tips about how you might transition into a better team structure if you are at that ‘awkward church size’, or how you might improve the teams you have already got.
1. Larry Osborne, Sticky Church (Zondervan, 2008)
2. Also see Ray Evans, Ready, Steady, Grow (IVP, 2014, pp 135-138)
3. It is entitled, Grace in Action and copies are available from the author. Contact Ray.