‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ —African proverb
Leadership in twenty-first-century organisations, including parishes, is becoming more and more complex. Factors such as safeguarding, workplace law, declining church attendance, aging leadership and an aggressively secular culture make our traditional model of parish leadership—of the priest who lives alone, ministers alone and makes decisions alone—increasingly untenable and ineffective. This is definitely not how Jesus led. The reality is that the skill set of any one person, on its own, is inadequate. To achieve fruitful parishes, we need to work in teams.
At the very start of his public life, Jesus chose a team of twelve who accompanied him throughout his ministry and who were then commissioned (in Matthew 28:16–20) to go out to the world. Peter, James and John were Jesus’ ‘inner circle’, his closest co-workers, and they led the early church we read about in Acts.
After the Ascension, the church (as described in Acts 2:42–47) is characterised by unity, fruitfulness, charity and rapid expansion. This ideal unity, however, soon gives way to complaints and division. The church was growing so quickly that the apostles couldn’t do all the work that needed to be done. In Acts 6, we read about a complaint made to the Hebrew apostles that a group of Hellenist (Greek) widows were missing out on the daily food distribution. (It’s reassuring to hear that they also got complaints!)
At a meeting, they decided that they needed to increase their capacity by commissioning new leaders so that both evangelising and pastoral work could be done. By addressing this major issue as a team and listening attentively to the Holy Spirit, they were able to make a decision that accelerated their growth (Acts 6:7). Would we have heard of Jesus today if the apostles had decided to stop evangelising to concentrate on looking after the community they already had?
The tension between maintaining our flock and going out to find lost sheep is at the core of the disciple-making conundrum our parishes face. To grow disciples, we need to adopt the leadership model the early church successfully demonstrated: we must recruit and form teams.
Peter, James and John were the ‘inner circle’ among the apostles. A parish priest also needs his Peter, James and John (and Mary)—a group of 3–5 people whom the priest trusts and who can co-responsibly share leadership by helping make the tactical decisions necessary to implement the missionary strategy of the parish. They are people who:
We usually form parish teams for particular ministries or to accomplish specific tasks. We recruit people to work in these teams who are reliable, competent and available. We recruit ‘doers’. To lead more effectively, however, we need to form ‘leaders’—people who share the pastor’s vision for the parish and to whom we can delegate authority, not just tasks. Leaders are people we entrust with real responsibility. We are looking for ‘FACT’ people:
Leadership might theoretically be best exercised as a team, but how often have we been in teams that achieve little and that are filled with rancour and conflict? Experiencing teams like this can make us decide to lead alone, or to use a lone decision-making and task-delegation model. It seems easier. In this model, though, the widows might get fed, but there will be little mission.
So what do we need to do to avoid the toxic, ineffective and boring meetings we frequently have, and instead grow teams that are effective, fruitful and fun to be part of?
Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is an entertaining parable about the struggle to build an effective team. He identifies five key dysfunctions that can make teams unproductive and toxic.
A foundation of trust is crucial to an effective team. Teams that trust each other are able to admit weaknesses and mistakes, ask for help and take risks in offering feedback. By building trust, team members are able to say what they really think, without fear of retribution.
Teams that are afraid of conflict tend to have boring meetings that avoid critical issues and fail to tap into the honest perspectives of team members. They ignore the ‘elephant in the room’. When people trust each other, critical topics can be openly and robustly engaged with, leading to more lively and interesting meetings.
A team that fails to commit creates ambiguity around priorities as it watches windows of opportunity close and as it revisits the same decisions again and again. Lack of commitment is often caused by a need for complete consensus or certainty—both of which are rarely possible. Dysfunctional teams waffle, trying to hedge their bets and hence delaying important decisions. They suffer ‘analysis paralysis’. The axiom that a decision is better than no decision applies to effective teams. Once all opinions have been sought, the team needs to rally around a decision, while remaining agile enough to change direction without hesitation if necessary.
Too often, particularly in church circles, we avoid difficult conversations about people’s behaviour and performance in the name of Christian charity or kindness. We tolerate impolite behaviour and accept missed deadlines and inaction, thereby creating resentment and encouraging mediocrity. Teams that make each other accountable ensure that poor performers feel pressure to improve and that potential problems are averted quickly by questioning approaches and behaviours that are unhelpful to the team.
The most serious team dysfunction is the tendency of members to disregard the collective performance of the group, never measuring their results. The nobility of the sacred mission with which we are entrusted does not excuse ineffectiveness and fruitlessness. Our God-given, world-changing mission must be tackled by passionate parish teams eager to see real lives changed. How many lives have been transformed in your parish in the last twelve months? A parish leadership team not focussed on fruitfulness will result in a parish that stagnates and fails to grow.
Effective teams recognise that not all meetings are the same. One of the reasons that teams become unproductive and that meetings are boring is that we try to do everything in every meeting—we try to check in, analyse, strategise and make decisions in one ineffective ‘meeting stew’. Patrick Lencioni, in his book Death by Meeting, identifies three types of meeting that each team should have in its schedule:
This includes a quick, one-minute overview by each team member of what they are working on, a brief progress review of the main projects and then the creation of an agenda to resolve issues and make decisions about the day-to-day running of the parish. Any issues requiring a longer, strategic ‘deep dive’ are ‘parked’ for the next meeting type.
This allows for a planned and deep discussion of a complex strategic issue that affects the overall parish, in order to make a decision. This requires preparation and may include the attendance of a stakeholder in the relevant area. For example, a review of the parish baptismal program would require a lengthy discussion of statistics and feedback on the current program, consideration of any research into the available options, and the attendance of the leader of that ministry.
This allows leaders to step back from day-to-day issues and look more widely at church and/or community trends and their impact on the parish, the tracking and development of long-term strategic plans, and team composition and development.
Effective parish leadership is as vital as it is complex. The stakes are scarily high. People’s spiritual lives are literally saved and transformed in communities in which they encounter and fall in love with Jesus. This task goes beyond personal agendas and preferences, and requires more than any one person’s strengths and vision—Jesus led from a team, and we need to as well.
Working in a team
Planning and process
Melbourne Catholic19 November 2023
Melbourne Catholic17 November 2023