What does unity look like in a church board or ministry staff? How can we know what we're aiming for?
Unfortunately, unity can be hard to define. It's a vague term. While we easily recognize its presence or absence, few of us have taken the time to carefully spell out its essential elements. Yet defining exactly what we're looking for is an all-important first step if we're serious about developing and maintaining a unified leadership team on any level.
When I first decided to make unity a priority, I realized that I had no way to measure it. When I started asking practical questions about what it looked like, the answers weren't as clear as I'd expected.
Did unity allow room for doctrinal disagreement? If so, how much was too much? Could we have a split vote and still be unified, or did unity mean unanimity? How close were our relationships supposed to be? Did unity mean being best buds? Did we have to share Thanksgiving dinner?
Eventually, I settled on three irreducible minimums that defined what I was looking for. They became the grid through which I judged how we were doing and what we were aiming for on both a board and a staff level. They form my working definition of a unified leadership team. Your list may differ. But this is a good place to start:
By doctrinal unity, I mean agreement with our church's statement of faith, not necessarily total theological or political uniformity.
Every church has an irreducible theological minimum. For some, it's a lengthy and detailed document. For others, it's a few brief statements. Either way, for the sake of integrity, it's important that those in leadership honestly adhere to it.
But after that, we're wide open. If Jesus put Simon the Zealot (an insurrectionist who hated the Roman occupiers) on the same team as Matthew the tax collector (a collaborator with the Romans) and then made them room together, I'm not sure why we can't have some strong differences on hot-button issues of our day and still march together under the banner of unity.
In fact, unity that insists on uniformity isn't unity at all. It's a cheap counterfeit. Genuine and biblical unity is found in the midst of real and passionate differences that we set aside in the recognition that the differences we have are nowhere as important as the King we serve.
Our Christian hot buttons constantly change. One decade's battleground is another decade's yawn. Today the battles tend to be found in other realms: politics, the environment, or the finer points of theology. No doubt your church has your own hot buttons that flow out of the unique cultural setting, background, and theological pedigree of your ministry.
So how can we allow for this kind of diversity without blowing everything up? The key is to clearly determine ahead of time the things we won't fight about and then make it crystal clear to everyone that these issues are off-limits.
That doesn't mean that our board members and staff aren't free to have strong opinions. It simply means they can't try to force everyone into their mold. It's okay if they see something as an important issue, even a very important issue. It's not okay if they treat it as the most important issue, one to divide and fight over.
Making clear what you will and won't fight over will save you lots of grief. In nearly every theological tussle I've been asked to moderate, the battle hasn't been over something spelled out in the church's doctrinal statement. It's been over a peripheral issue that someone felt should have been an essential issue.
If we don't spell out ahead of time what we won't fight over, sooner or later someone will add their favorite doctrine or political issue to the list of essentials and then wage war on all those who disagree.
Respect and Friendship
The second component of a unified and healthy ministry team is respect and friendship. That doesn't mean everyone has to be best friends. But it does mean that we must get along well enough to avoid the miscommunication, stereotyping, and personality conflicts that so easily get in the way when it's time to tackle a tough or difficult issue.
Yet I've found that many boards (and even some staffs) are filled with strangers. They may know one another's name and have a casual acquaintance, but that's about it.
When I arrived at North Coast Church, one board member was going through serious psychological difficulties, and another's marriage was on the rocks. Yet none of the rest of us had a clue. With those kinds of superficial relationships, it's no wonder we found unity hard to come by.
Concentrating on developing camaraderie paid rich dividends. It made serving on the board an enjoyable experience. Instead of having a hard time getting people to serve, we suddenly had a hard time getting anyone to leave.
It also radically changed the dynamic of our meetings. Friends and strangers have very different patterns of relating to one another. Friends are vulnerable, while strangers hold their cards close to the vest; friends tend to give each other the benefit of the doubt, while strangers are cautious and suspicious; and when it comes to dicey issues, friends debate, while strangers argue.
The third component of a healthy and unified team is philosophical unity. Simply put, this means having a basic agreement about our priorities and methods of ministry.
Philosophical unity is harder to develop than doctrinal unity or sincere friendships because it can take a long time to hammer out a consensus. In our case, it was nearly four years before I could honestly say we were all headed in the same direction and in agreement as to the best path to get there.
But once we were in agreement, everything became easier. We no longer had to go back to square one on every issue or with every new board member or staff hire. We'd already established our basic direction and how we would get there.
Just as with doctrinal unity, philosophical unity doesn't mean everyone has to think alike. It's not a casting call for clones or even unanimity; there's plenty of room for disagreement. But if we're going to work together effectively, we have to be reading off the same sheet of music.
If you think about it, most church fights aren't over theology or even ministry goals; they're over priorities and methodology. When Dave and Pat argue over how to spend money (whether to set it aside for a new building or use it to hire a youth pastor), they're arguing over priorities. When Kelly and Walt debate the merits of a choir versus guitars and big subwoofers, they're arguing over methods. Both want to worship the Lord; they just disagree on the best way to go about it.
That's why developing and nourishing a shared philosophy of ministry is one of the most important things a pastor, board, and staff can do to maintain unity.
—Larry Osborne, adapted from Sticky Teams, © 2010 Zondervan.
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