Bill Smith, Copyright 2019
An assistant pastor described the ministry culture he used to work in by telling me, “My former senior pastor isolated the staff from each other and kept each of us dependent on him.”
Have you ever worked in an environment like that? How about one where the team leader was prickly and unapproachable? Or one where people used what they knew of you to control you. Or one where a staff divided into warring factions?
There are lots of ways to describe unhealthy team cultures—toxic, crushing, dysfunctional, draining, demoralizing—cultures that drive people away from you and pit them against each other. But how do you build the opposite?
That’s the same challenge that God faces as he mobilizes his people for mission in this world. God’s people are not always on the same page with him or with each other. If he lets that situation continue, it will keep his church immature and his kingdom from advancing.
So, God steps in to address it, but he does something that’s easy to overlook because it’s so incredibly mundane. He talks. He takes the same words that you and I use all day long in ordinary conversations, but he uses them to draw people to himself and to each other.
In one sense, any time God speaks, you can learn something about building the kinds of healthy cultures where ministry thrives. Let’s take what Jesus says to seven churches in Revelation 2-3 and see what we can learn from his approach. If you recall, he’s talking to people that he has already bought with his blood and brought into a relationship with himself. But something has weakened their relationship with him, and he’s not ok with that. Here’s how he goes about calling them back.
First, he starts the conversation. He’s proactive, not reactive. He pursues them and says, “I have something to say that you need to hear.”
If you want to build a healthy team, you have to take the initiative to go to them and talk with them; you can’t wait for them to come to you. This is part of your role as a ministry leader.
Second, Jesus tells his people that he knows them. To each church he says at least once, “I know you.” I know your deeds both good (Rev. 2:2, 19; 3:8) and bad (Rev. 3:1, 8), I know how hard life is for you (Rev. 2:9, 13) and I know how you feel about me (Rev. 2:13; 3:8, 15). Over and over, “I know you. I know you. I know you.” And “I tell you what I know. You don’t have to guess where you stand with me. I will come to you and tell you directly what I’m thinking.
As a ministry leader, you also have to let your people know that you understand them. That means you’ll have to carve out time to study your team so that you do know them, both where they’re strong and where they need to grow. And then you need to talk to them, not about them.
Third, Jesus is fair in what he sees. He doesn’t let a church’s negative issues blind him to the good things about them. Nor does he pull his punches with another because he likes them and decides to overlook some of what they’re doing. Instead, he offers most of them a combination of detailed positive elements with equally detailed things that are not.
If you want to build a healthy ministry culture, then it has to be characterized by honesty, which means you have to talk about both the good and the bad. If you predominantly see and call out negatives, you’ll dishearten your team and cause them to pull away from you. If you favor the opposite extreme and only point out positives, you’ll chip away at your credibility because they won’t trust you to see things accurately.
Fourth, even when Jesus is clear that they need to change, his words are not punitive. He’s not sarcastic, caustic, condemning or manipulative. Instead he’s direct and matter-of-fact, without being cold or distant. He does encourage them (Rev. 2:10, 24-25; 3:4, 10) and warn them (Rev. 2:5, 16; 3:16) and gives them reasons to hear him (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 26-28; 3:5, 12, 21), but he doesn’t use pressure-tactics to get them to respond.
Your words also need to avoid coercing or maneuvering the people around you. This is obvious: you want people on your team who want to be part of the team. But that means they have to make that decision freely. Sure, offer them as much encouragement and incentive as possible, but don’t paint them into a corner with your words. Give them freedom to say an enthusiastic, “Yes!” to being part of the team or an honest, “No.”
And fifth, Jesus is deeply invested in the conversation. It matters to him that they’re disheartened or not on the same page with him, and the only reason that he’s talking to them is to reconnect them with him. You hear his heart and how much he loves them in what he says to them (Rev. 3:19-20).
Your team also needs to sense your heart. They need to know that you care about each of them and that’s why you’re saying what you are; that regardless of how good or bad the relational culture is right now, that you want to see it be even better. Let them hear your heart in the way you use your words.
Jesus invests himself in conversations that call us to work with him, not against him, as he continues rescuing this broken world. Part of our work as leaders is to give ourselves just as intentionally to restorative conversations with our teams. Restored relationships build restored communities that are a critical means by which Christ sends his gospel into the world to change individual lives and reshape societies. The healthier his people are collectively, the greater their impact will be.