By Mark Johnston with Ryan Hartwig
Editor’s note: In our research for Teams That Thrive: Five Disciplines of Collaborative Church (recently named Outreach magazine’s Leadership Resource of the Year), Ryan Hartwig and I got to meet a lot of great leaders and thriving leadership teams. One of those was the directional leadership team at the Journey Church in Newark, Delaware. Journey’s lead pastor Mark Johnston actually gave us the final line of our book when he stated during our interview with him: “I used to lead our church. . . . Now I lead our team and they lead our church.”
We asked Journey’s directional leadership team to tell us the principles that guide their work as a leadership team. Here’s what they told us (along with some commentary from Ryan Hartwig on what the research says about why this works so well). – Warren Bird
Principle 1: We live by this mantra: “This team is my team. Its success is my success. I win if this team wins. I lose if this team loses.”
Our directional team has adopted this mantra as a philosophical umbrella for how our team will operate. It’s a saying that reminds us of the importance of collaborative decision-making and perpetuates our “best idea wins” culture.
We recognize that silos begin to develop as an organization grows, and using a shared risk and reward approach to ministry helps minimize silos so we can move our mission forward. (Our definition of a “silo” is when a ministry area has three attributes: the leader is or feels like he is operating alone; there is competition instead of cooperation with other areas; and communication is fragmented, resulting in team members lacking a clear picture of what’s happening outside of their little world.)
So, how do we disrupt the silos phenomenon? We probe beyond our own expertise — asking good, hard questions about any ministry area without feeling intimidated because we’re not the “experts”. We’ve created a culture where people share knowledge, and we’re not afraid to lend our gift set outside of an area we’re not directly responsible to manage. For example, we have a team of people who meet every week to provide feedback on the previous weekend’s gathering, as well as to plan for the coming weeks. Each member of that team has various operational responsibilities, but they are all encouraged to come prepared to share feedback about all areas, not just their own. When silos are disrupted, a natural synergy occurs, ideas flow freely back and forth, and everyone recognizes that there is really only one big team at the end of the day.
Action Step: In your next meeting, ask good, hard questions beyond your expertise and note the response/openness of your team members. If they’re surprised (or suspicious) that you care, you have silos to disrupt.
Ryan’s Research Comment: Too many teams are built through representation, like a representative democracy, where each member is chosen to represent a certain group (such as youth) and then believes their role is to advocate for their particular area (such as the youth group). But those aren’t great teams. In fact, one of the chief predictors of team performance in our Teams That Thrive study was the amount of time team members adopted a church-wide perspective rather than a narrow, position-only or area-based perspective. Creating avenues for your team members to think beyond silos makes great sense.
Principle 2: We commit to five “Will Do’s.”
In addition to our mantra, our directional team has adopted five “will do’s” based on the writings of Patrick Lencioni. We review these “will do’s” regularly when our team meets:
- We know and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We pay attention to the day to day realities and results of each other’s leadership and know when someone is operating either within or outside their gift set.
- We engage in constructive, ideological conflict. Simply put, we fight; but we fight fair. Because we’re all deeply committed to the mission, conflict is never personal (if it is, we find out why and correct that). The best idea wins, period – and for the best idea to get to the surface, we’ll likely have to hash it out.
- We hold each other accountable for behaviors and actions. We believe what Dr. Henry Cloud said: “leaders get what they create and allow” (Boundaries for Leaders). We are kindly insistent that each team member obtain the right results the right way, and we’re not afraid to point out when that’s not happening – whether the person responsible is above, beside, or below us organizationally.
- We make and execute decisions. Teams exist to make things happen. Action is what moves our mission and vision forward.
- We have fun. On a fast-paced, performance-oriented team, it’s important to laugh a lot and shoot Nerf guns at each other regularly. Why? Because fun, shared experiences create memories, and memories bond us to each other. Fun brands our psyche in a powerful way.
All of our “will do’s” are important, but making and executing decisions is an especially crucial function of our team. Many church leadership teams are plagued by lots of talking with little implementation. When it comes to our team, we don’t meet for fireside chats, clearing our minds, or getting things off our chests; we meet to accomplish things that matter.
This is why the principle of empowerment is so important to us. We operate through an Ephesians 4 ministry model, believing that the role of our senior leaders is to “equip the saints for ministry” rather than simply doing ministry. We use a simple framework adopted from Matt Keller, Lead Pastor of Next Level Church, called “guidelines, deadlines, butts on the line” to create clarity around what we’re planning to accomplish (guidelines), when it will be accomplished (deadlines), and who is ultimately responsible to ensure it’s accomplished (butts on the line).
Action Step: Take the last five minutes of your next meeting and revisit all specific actionables from that meeting to ensure each has a clear next step, deadline, and team member ultimately responsible. If there are none or it isn’t clear when they’ll be done or who is responsible, you’ll need to change the way you meet to focus less on philosophizing and more on execution.
Ryan’s Research Comment: Meetings that focus on sharing information or advising the senior leader—two activities that dominate far too many leadership team meetings—are a waste of time. There are better and easier ways to accomplish those tasks. Great team meetings are those where work gets done, such as making consequential decisions, but that requires getting above the minutia that crowds our meaningful conversation from too many meeting agendas.
Journey Church Leadership Team Meeting
Pictured left to right: Laura Hepp, Andrea Beemler, Dana Bird, Pete Krummel, Abby Ecker, Jillian Patterson, Dave Jackson, Melissa Maestri, Susan Johnston, Brad Dreibelbis, and Mel Johnson
Principle 3: We start our meetings by reviewing the mission, vision, culture, target demographic, and celebrating the life-change stories that illustrate success.
We regularly set the stage for meetings by reviewing the hinges our church swings upon. We review our:
- Mission: This is what we do. (We help people find Jesus and follow him fully.)
- Vision: This is how we do it. (Through people gathering, connecting, and serving.)
- Culture: This is who we are. (We are real church for real people.)
- Target Demographic: This is where we aim our outreach energy. (Unchurched men, ages 20 through 44.)
- Life-change stories: This is why we do what we do.
We begin every weekly staff meeting by celebrating stories of changed lives – people finding Jesus and following him fully by gathering, connecting, and serving. A life-change story has these important characteristics: it is a story about a person with a name who is experiencing God in one of our ministry environments. (“The band sounded great this past week” is encouraging feedback… but it’s not a life-change story!) This keeps us focused on the “why” of our work. Recently, a staff member shared a story of a man named Brandon who is smack in the middle of our target demographic. Brandon is a recovering addict who joined a recovery small group a few months ago, put his faith in Jesus, got baptized, and eventually went on to complete our Growth Track and begin serving on our hospitality team. Recently, Brandon confided that he went an entire day before realizing he forgot to take his anxiety medication. Although it seems simple, this small act is an indication of the true work Jesus is doing in Brandon’s life — he’s gone from a guy with no faith in God or himself to someone who loves Jesus, has gone public with his faith, is serving others, and is learning to “be anxious for nothing”.
Action Step: Open your next meeting with a clear reminder of your mission, vision, culture, and target demographic, and by celebrating life-change stories around them. If you haven’t nailed down the first four of those, do that in your next meeting.
Ryan’s Research Comment: It’s so easy to forget why we do what we are doing and to lose focus on what’s most important. As such, we must be constantly reminded. Talking vision and mission at the front end of team meetings dials everyone in and reminds everyone of what needs to be accomplished through the decision-making and coordinating that happens next.
Principle 4: We prioritize metrics that matter. We believe that numbers don’t lie. Emotions do. “Feel” does. But ultimately, numbers don’t.
We look at our metrics on a weekly basis in different areas, but every quarter, we review metrics across the organization for several hours. We have 15 key metrics (far beyond attendance and giving), which all play off of each other; and when reviewing these, we ask five questions:
- Did we hit our goal, and why or why not?
- How are the systems in this area: are they up to date and being followed?
- How is the pipeline in this area: is the bench deep, shallow, or non-existent?
- Who is coaching us in this area: who does this better than we do?
- What are the next actions, when are they due, and by whom?
Our focus on metrics is a result of our philosophy of church growth. We believe that only God can grow his church. We believe that he is highly-motivated to grow his church. We believe that our job as leaders is to get things out of God’s way so he can grow his church. When a ministry area is not numerically growing, we assume something is in God’s way, and he’s called us to figure it out and get it out of his way so growth can resume.
Focusing on the metrics takes the emotion out of ministry and gets everyone focused on fixing the problem rather than wasting energy trying to figure out if something is actually wrong. We did this last year with our student ministry – after seeing a negative trend line (indicating that it wasn’t only not growing, but actually declining), we had to make a decision to course correct. (To be completely transparent, we course corrected twice before finally beginning to make progress and see our student ministry grow again… but it was the metrics that kept us focused.)
Action Step: Create time in your calendar to focus on your metrics, not just for a few minutes but for a few hours. You’ll be amazed at the conversations that result and the clarity you uncover.
Ryan’s Research Comment: Goal setting research over the decades has shown that holding people accountable to specific and measurable goals has a much greater effect on performance than inspiring people to work better or harder. On teams, mutual accountability–where everyone holds everyone else accountable—is essential. This directional team uses metrics to set goals, measure progress against them, and hold themselves (and others) accountable to accomplish what they have set out to do.
Principle 5: We’re guided by a strategic plan.
Over the past five years, we’ve put four key strategic plans in play in our church, and seen weekend attendance grow by over 650%. The first one came out of a place of frustration with our inability to break the 200 barrier. We found out that our lack of strategic focus was in God’s way.
Our current strategic plan is aimed at creating capacity for 3,500 people to gather on the weekend, 180 J-Groups to connect throughout the week, and 1,200 members to serve on our J-Team. We’ve found that a good strategic plan covers the “S’s” of ministry: structure; staffing; space; and stewardship. It focuses the team on:
- How ministry will be re-structured. How does the organization need to fundamentally change? What needs to be done differently in core ministry areas of the church? How will we spread ministry over a broader base?
- How staff will be expanded/re-focused. How will existing team members be developed to prepare them for growth? Who are the next five hires?
- How space will be enlarged. Is there new construction/expansion in the future? Additional campuses? How will more parking spots, seats, classrooms, conversation areas, and workspaces be added/opened up?
- How all of the above will be paid for. What will all of this cost? Is there a financial initiative in play? How will people be moved from occasional donors to radically generous givers?
We don’t implement strategic plans to create growth because we don’t believe we are capable of growing our church (that’s God’s job). We create strategic plans to create capacity for growth. Growth is God’s job; capacity is ours.
Action step: Figure out the two or three most important steps your church will need to take to create capacity for growth in the four “S’s” above and create a simple, clear strategic plan to move forward in them.
Ryan’s Research Comment: A strategic plan is a great example of the kind of thorny, high-stakes work that teams are meant to do. Teams are a terrible choice for simple work, but a great plan for tackling substantial projects. By engaging the team in crafting and/or implementing a strategic plan, the team must work together in a way that each person brings his/her strengths to the effort. Through that work, team members are able to create strong, trusting relationships, which will fuel current and future projects. The directional leadership team at Journey is smart — as everything they are doing here falls nicely in line with contemporary literature and research on effective leadership teams.
So there you have it. Five principles with five action steps from a real-life thriving team. We hope you’ll put into practice what you’ve learned here. For more tips on how to build strong, thriving teams based on the latest research in the church, check out Teams That Thrive: Five Disciplines of Collaborative Church Leadership. And for additional information on the book and other resources, check out www.TeamsThatThriveBook.com.