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Four Catalyst for Successful Team Leadership

Several years back while working on staff as a worship leader for a large megachurch, I recall a meeting with the main leadership of the church that our senior pastor called after a particularly rough year for the staff and ministry. Many key staff members had transitioned away, and church attendance was on a decline. This particular meeting was in the aftermath of our Easter weekend in which we saw a decrease of around 40% in attendance from the previous year (which had already seen a decrease from previous years). The purpose of this meeting was not exclusively to turn the ship, but to rather find the areas that we were strong in, and identify what made this area strong. Two of those areas fell under my umbrella: the worship ministry and our Sunday night service. While other ministries and services were aging in demographic without replacement and declining in attendance, both the ministries I had the opportunity to be a part of were outliers. The worship ministry was our most widely diverse team at the church (in age and ethnicity) and our Sunday night service was growing in involvement of families with children. While the average child-to-adult ratio at all other services was 12 adults for every 1 child, our Sunday night ratio was 2.5 adults for every 1 child. With the focus shifting toward attracting more families with kids to our church, and finding opportunities for younger adults to serve and feel included within the culture of the church, the worship ministry and Sunday nights seemed to be hitting the mark quite well - but why was this the case?

There’s difficulty in pointing to a specific method or philosophy of our success, because the reality is that we were not following one in particular. Replicating a method of leadership outside the ecosystem in which it is flourishing is often times a fool’s errand. Looking closely at success stories like was done by Jim Collins in the book Good to Great, or reading through the musings of other authors as in the book Raving Fans by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowels is absolutely a worthwhile endeavor, but at their root are stories- and every success story is told uniquely. The question raises: if these stories are unique, what universal principals and attributes are to be found and applied to others? As mentioned, there’s no shortage of books and seminars that aim to uncover the keys to success, but at their root there is a common thread of four catalysts that are present: passion, conviction, honesty and unity. These were present within my own leadership experiences (which were brought to light in that fateful meeting), and are also at the root many methods and processes found throughout the annals of the leadership category on Amazon books. While I cannot claim to have the answer to effective team leadership, I can bring to light the aforementioned principals in light of both case studies mention. Jim Collins puts into words the intent of discussing these catalysts quite well. He says “Leading from good to great does not mean coming up with the answers and then motivating everyone to follow your messianic vision. It means having the humility to grasp the fact that you do not yet understand enough to have the answers and then to ask the questions that will lead to the best possible insights.” (Good to Great, p.149) The formulation and recognition of these is not ‘the answer,’ but rather a vehicle for which a destination can be reached. When someone is consistently late or on time to work the credit/blame cannot rest solely on the mode of transportation, but a reliable car is always seen as a great investment. These four catalysts of effective team leadership are simply a reliable vehicle, but the safety measures and accuracy in which one drives it is just as important. For the sake of brevity and cohesion, perhaps the most appropriate place to focus is the experience through the worship ministry, since every aspect of it is uniquely placed to lead people, and cultivate other leaders while heading for a specific destination.

Catalysts one: Passion

Throughout my 18 years of leading teams and congregations there’s been ample time to hypothesize over, test/analyze and experience successes, failures and near miss-steps. Whether leading worship for a room of fifty people, or stepping onto a platform in Angel Stadium to lead fifty-thousand people, there are consistently these four catalysts that simultaneously exist in propelling teams into success. First is Passion: this cannot be instilled - only inspired, and If not cultivated and parlayed into a meaningful purpose it can easily become distilled. A team needs passion like a car needs fuel. The leader’s job is to watch the fuel gauge, and map the fuel stations along the route. The former Chick-fil-A president James Collins brings up a great point in his book chronicling his journey in the company stating “It is better to restrain mustangs than kick mules. By ‘mustangs,’ I mean the people who live and work on the edge of their authority and occasionally beyond. ‘Mules’ are those who reluctantly and stubbornly plod the same path and require constant pushing.” (Creative Followership, p.48) Many would look at the mustangs and assume they are built for running while seeing mules as those incapable of doing so, but I’d suggest the only difference between the two is their level of passion. If you load a mustang with luggage and put a mule in a race, the two will see equally uninterested in the task. An important aspect of inspiring passion is recognizing what your team members are passionate about, and funneling it to a purpose that contributes to the journey of the team as a whole.

Passion is a familiar word in christendom, as it ties closely to the suffering of Christ on the cross for the world’s salvation. In christ it is more that merely a strong feeling or uncontrollable emotion, it is what one is willing to suffer for. When leading teams, it’s particularly imperative to identify what each individual on your team is willing to suffer to attain. This is different for each person, and should be carefully considered and cultivated. Does a particular member of the team spend extreme amount of time writing and recording songs? A helpful shepherding of that passion might look like challenging them to fill some holes in the repertoire of worship songs by writing from particular theological perspectives. Even with those that tend toward more personal ambition to write/record/release music, the opportunity to use this gift and calling to fill a need in the church and have their work heard and used in such a meaningful way creates a buy-in that is not easily abandoned. One should be careful not to use a one-size-fits-all approach as well. Some on the team might have tremendous vocal talent and aspirations to use their voice, but not passion for songwriting. Challenging a person like this to write songs will lead to feelings of inadequacy and frustration, while a more worthwhile endeavor might be creating music videos or recordings that feature this person’s vocal ability for the edification of the church and team. Recognizing and utilizing these individual passions within team members cannot be done from an ivory tower. It will take a desire and fortitude to spend ample time with those on your team, and a close (thoughtful) watch on understanding what their heart beats for. This comes out in conversation, and tends to rise to the surface of every decision they make, but cannot be recognized outside of real relationship. As often stated in management and leadership circles: Managers manage and leaders lead. The goal in cultivation passion is not merely organizing opportunity and managing their progress, but leading them to a new horizon they had not considered, and doing it for the good and edification for the team as a whole, and the congregation they are leading. Stepping into and recognizing each team member’s passion is key to keeping the fuel tank full.

Catalysts two: Conviction

Conviction is the second catalyst present in thriving leadership teams. If passion is the fuel, then conviction is the steering wheel. A leader’s job is to keep the car from veering off the route. For worship teams, this often starts with inspiring a culture of a worship lifestyle above musical styles. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church he states “whether you eat, drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31 ESV). Accomplishments without a true belief in the importance of the work is merely a task completed. The difference between a victory and a success is conviction. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the talents, and at the close of the first sections includes the phrase “well done good and faithful servant…” (Matt. 25:23 ESV) While the parable is sure to show the results of each of the men who were given talents to invest, at the core of the story is faithfulness tied to the conviction of these men. Notice that the passage doesn’t not say “well done successful servant.” The success measurement is secondary to the faithfulness, and therein lies the victory. The first two men in the story invest and multiply their talents (with varying results), while the third man buries his. This third man’s response is telling of his conviction when he states “master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.” (Matt. 25:24-25). The direction team members will go is often tied to the conviction they have about the direction they are headed. As leaders, it is imperative that everyone understands that the opportunities they’ve been given are not merely unowned assets to be cared for, but precious gifts to be cultivated. Jocko Willink writes in his book Extreme Ownership about the idea of ‘pushing the yes down.’ In order to have a shared conviction about something, you first have to feel ownership in that ideal.

For the purposes of worship teams, this might entail including the team in the song selection or flow of the service. Even when the leader is gifted and capable of making this selections and plans themselves, it may be more advantageous (even if it takes a bit longer) to include those around you in the decision on a macro level. One needs to be careful, because this doesn’t suggest to lead by committee (someone needs to make the final decisions), but to include insight from the team that is invested in the whole. Practically, this may look less like asking what songs should be programed, and more like asking opinions on the type or style of music that seems to be missing in the liturgy. Having a pulse on what others may be feeling about the direction of the car will ultimately help keep everyone aligned with the destination. When everyone in the car is excited about the destination, they all enjoy being in the car together.

Having an open dialogue and transparency also gives opportunities to instill your own conviction in your team members. Simon Sinek writes in his book Find your Why “The goal is not simply for you to cross the finish line, but to see how many people you can inspire to run with you.” (Simon Sinek, Find Your Why, p.17) In his famous TedTalk he mentions “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” If a team is showing up to complete tasks that sere decided to be important, but not given the reason they are important, then those tasks hold less conviction than a task that is comprehensively understood at its core value and not just its face value. This is particularly important when leading congregations as well. Sometimes the difference between a well played song in a service and an impactful worship moment is the context in which that song is presented. Congregations will appreciate the song It Is Well for its beautiful poetry, but the song will take on so much more power when sung against the backdrop of the writer Horatio Spafford’s story of unwavering faith in the face of tragic loss. Conviction is often infectious.

Catalysts three: Honesty

Honesty is where trust is forged - it is the brake system in this proverbial leadership vehicle. No person in their right mind would ever get in a car in which they aren’t sure the brakes will work. This is true among those on the platform and as observed from the pews. In the age of click bait and supposed fake news, the culture is becoming very keen in recognizing a counterfeit. A Barna study titled Making Space for Millennials revealed that “substantial majorities of Millennials who don’t go to church say they see Christians as judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%).” (Making Space for Millennials p.37) The idea of hypocrisy might sound like a tired reason for people abandoning the Church, but it is one that persists from generation to generation. It’s hard enough to witness it in attendees, but when this experience begins becoming a norm with platformed leaders, something must be done. There’s no shortage of seminars and online conferences addressing stage presence and exuberance in performance, but these attributes, while still important to discuss, are backseat issues to that of spiritual health.

Corporate worship leading should be an exaggerated outflowing of an inward consistency. As Luke says “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:45 ESV) Passion can be faked (for a time), conviction can be parodied, but honesty is a foundation on which these will stand. Pastor Greg Laurie once said in his variation on a quote by Abraham Lincoln “you can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool God any of the time.” Piety is displayed and not purveyed, and similarly, trust in the legitimacy an competency of a leader’s ability to take others on a journey worth taking weighs heavily on the unseen daily disciplines. The pulse of piety is always taken at home and is amplified in the public square. This is not to say that dishonest people cannot lead, but when it comes to the health of a team and mission as a whole, longevity and effectiveness will thrive under a person leading from an authentic place. A dishonest leader is merely a time bomb ticking toward destruction that unfortunately claims more casualties than converts. Like a car speeding down a highway - it will be an exhilarating ride until the brakes are needed, and the ride comes to a crashing halt.

The question raises: how can one instill utmost honesty in their team and leaders, and avoid this inevitable collision? For insight into this we can once again look to the book Good to Great by Jim Collins as he states “One of the dominant themes that runs throughout this book is that if you successfully implement its findings, you will not need to spend time and energy “motivating” people. If you have the right people on the bus, they will be self-motivated.” The best way to ensure an honest team is to first seek to get the right people on it, and the wrong ones off of it. The latter is a particularly difficult to accomplish once the seat is filled, which is why it is often times more effective (albeit more difficult in operations) to leave the seat open until the right person is found. In a talk given to Dallas Theological Seminary by Dr. Charles Swindoll titled Boars in God’s Vineyard he warns against the idea of having difficult people that take the joy out of the ministry in which he calls boars in the vineyard. In the talk Dr. Swindoll speaks at length about his experiences with having the wrong people on his particular bus (some inherited, and others poorly placed) and warns against “treacherous wolves” and say a faithful minister will have a “mind of a scholar, heart of a child, and a hide of a rhinoceros.” As Paul admonishes in Galatians “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal. 1:10 ESV) A prevailing reason leaders will leave the wrong people on the team is to avoid conflict, or to appear kind, but as Paul states, and Dr. Swindoll underscores in his talk - this will have long term ramifications far beyond hurt feelings or momentary woes due to the decision to remove a “boar.” Honesty is not only a virtue one should seek within their teammates, but should consistently be practicing in there own life. If we are leading people where we have already been, then we can ensure it’s a place that is good for them to go.

Conclusion: Unity

Finally, unity is the road we should desire to drive on- freshly paved with mission and painted with lanes of vision. Music is one of the greatest representations of this word. Different notes, beats, instruments and tones working together to create a beautiful chord. Passion, Conviction and Honesty all make the perfect triad when all playing in the right key. Leaders should spend ample time and energy creating proper synergy amongst team members, because without unity silos can begin to form. Patrick H. Lencioni writes at length about these dangers, and purports that there are methods, found in his book Silos, Politics and Turf wars, that help to combat this. Lencioni writes that teams should employ “a single, qualitative focus that is shared by the entire leadership team, and ultimately, by the entire organization, and it applies for only a specified period of time,” (p287) which he calls a Thematic Goal. Rally points and micro-summits within the larger goal of the organization or team help to re-stoke passion and conviction, and when done from an authentic place can bring deeper unity to a team. Practically in worship ministry these might look like a live worship recording, or night of worship in which creative license is employed and carefully curated with passion, conviction and honesty in mind. A caution to leaders: handle these opportunities with great care, because with new horizons also comes a new opportunity for division to creep in. Being upfront about the goal to serve the congregation and glorify the Lord by employing and utilizing the team’s strengths is key. As Harry S. Truman once said “it’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.” For this reason, leaders should consider employing more of a “we” and “us” type of language rather than “you” and “me” type of separation. There cannot be unity when there are arbitrary barriers between each other. There is a “top of the chain,” true, but that chain should never become a shackle to others.

There will come challenges that come against the team’s unity. Some will be external, and other will rise from within. When the inevitable strife occurs, one should be confident that every precaution was taken to prevent it, and every effort is made to snuff it out. One great defense (as pertains to church ministry) is to not let your only time together be when you are working (or serving) together. If the only time you are with your team is spent accomplishing tasks, then you run the risk of becoming a task-master as opposed to a team leader. Leaders know their team members struggles, fears and strengths (and these are not only found in the apparent talents of an individual). Spending ample time with those you lead outside the context of what your are leading them in will give you a greater affinity toward them beyond what they can offer the organization, and deposit more equity in your trust bank. As vulnerable as it is to step out from behind the wheel of the car, these rest stops are often just what is needed to increase or rekindle passion, conviction, honesty and unity. And these are the catalyst to a strong leadership team.


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