A. Trevor Sutton: How to ruin a team ministry in five easy steps

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Building a thriving team ministry is difficult, but ruining one is easy, says a Lutheran pastor. Follow these five simple steps, and any team ministry is certain to implode.

Practicing team ministry is like assembling Ikea furniture without the instructions. With both, there are many parts, each with a specific function, and no obvious clues for how everything fits together. And with both, you’re sometimes tempted to toss everything aside and quit in frustration. It is by God’s grace that bookshelves and ministry teams come together.

Whether in a congregation with many pastors, a church or school staff, or any other setting, ministering in partnership with others is a challenge. For it to work well, team ministry requires loyalty, patience, forgiveness and much, much more.

Building a thriving team ministry is difficult. But ruining a team ministry is easy. It is so easy, in fact, that it can be accomplished in just five simple steps. Follow these, and any team ministry is certain to implode.

Step 1. Have a large ego

If you want to destroy a team ministry, make sure that you always know best. Know, and make known, that your team members’ ideas are always at least slightly inferior to your own. Their sermons are less engaging than yours, and their work ethic -- well, let’s just say they could stand to work as hard as you do.

Egos destroy ministry teams. Keep the egos in check, and the ministry team can thrive. Easier said than done -- reining in the ego requires daily contrition, unending humility and being honest before God and others about your own failures.

Step 2. Keep score

Once you have established that you are the best person on the team, begin keeping a running tally of others’ failures. Keep a list of grievances, including such offenses as unanswered emails, overlooked details and botched sermons. Use your imagination! The possibilities are endless.

Watching for the mistakes of others is cancerous for team ministry. Scripture describes this as “counting up wrongdoing” (1 Corinthians 13:5).

Obviously, accountability should be a given in team ministry; clear expectations, high standards and mutual responsibility are vital. But if all you look for is others’ mistakes, then that is all you will find.

Step 3. Speak only for yourself

Don’t speak on behalf of your ministry teammates. Always, always avoid using words like “we” or “our.”

For example, don’t say, “We are working on …” or, “Let me tell you about our …” or, “ Our team is focusing on …”

Instead, try to use singular pronouns as much as possible. Teams that are bound to collapse say things like, “He is trying to get everyone to …” or, “I don’t know anything about that -- it’s not my area” or, “She thinks that our leaders …”

The difference is in the pronouns. Team ministry lives and dies by first person plural pronouns.

Working together in a team ministry requires speaking for others. You must answer questions about your teammates’ areas of responsibility. You will have to defend your colleagues and their work. You may even have to promote their ideas over your own ideas.

Suggestions, questions and skepticism must be given privately; praise, support and enthusiasm must be given publicly.

Step 4. Stop praying for the team

If you’ve followed Steps 1-3, the hard work is over. The next step in destroying a team ministry is easy: stop praying.

This can take many shapes. Maybe you stop praying for God to give you humility, patience and love in your interactions with your team. Perhaps you stop praying for the others on your team. Or perhaps you stop praying with each other. The options for how to stop praying are endless, but the results are always the same -- a dysfunctional team ministry.

Prayer makes or breaks team ministry. Coming before God, admitting your mutual failures and seeking Christ’s forgiveness will protect a team ministry from implosion. Paul was serious when he said to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Step 5. Lose trust

The coup de grâce for a battered team ministry is broken trust. A team may be able to survive inflated egos and petty score keeping. Partnerships might even endure long periods of ungenerous speech and prayerlessness. But broken trust spells the end of a team ministry.

Trust can be broken quickly. Lying and deceit, stealing and manipulation are certain to destroy it; such actions need happen only once. But trust can also be broken slowly. Minor breaches in trust -- fueled by the preceding four steps -- can build up to toxic levels. A ministry team without trust is done. Over. Gone.

So if you want to destroy a team ministry, follow those five easy steps. But if you want to build a team ministry that thrives, then do everything possible to avoid them.

Keep your ego in check. Keep no record of wrongdoing. Speak kindly and publicly on behalf of your teammates. Pray for them. And work with integrity so as to build and preserve trust.

God uses many different teammates to proclaim the gospel. Imperfect, broken, sinful people are on God’s team and doing the work of ministry. God leads us with the humility of Christ Jesus, unending forgiveness, generous speech, constant prayer and unbroken trust.

God’s kingdom is built with imperfect, broken, sinful people. And God can build a great ministry team in and through you.