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Every team – whether in the home, workplace, or church – experiences periods of stress, tension, and even conflict. Too often these seasons result in teams fracturing, productivity decreasing, or people leaving. Waiting until a crisis occurs to consider how your team will navigate difficulty will likely produce negative results. Leaders must proactively prepare their teams for challenging times, like a ship captain prepares his crew and ship for inevitable storms at sea.

So, how does one prepare a team to survive difficult seasons? The foundation of any great team is trust. When miscommunications happen, when accusations arise, when programs or efforts fail, every member of your team must trust the others. If they do not, the seeds of criticism, frustration, and disunity take root and begin to erode the health and effectiveness of your team. Building trust takes time and effort that often seems wasteful in light of the many pressing concerns of work or ministry. As a result, many leaders fail to ensure a solid foundation for their team. Wise leaders, however, recognize that the cost of failing to build trust and suffering disunity can undermine the best efforts and plans.

It is hard to trust someone you do not know. If relationships on your team revolve primarily around work, individuals will have less grace and understanding toward one another, and less appreciation for the diverse skills and perspectives each person brings to the team. Building strong relationships requires a multi-dimensional approach. First, the leader has to be trusted. If the team leader is not authentic, caring, and trustworthy, it is unlikely the rest of the team will be healthy. Second, a trusted leader should facilitate or create space for formal team-building activities on a regular basis. This is especially essential when new members join a team, or when vision casting or change occurs. Third, informal opportunities should allow for ongoing team-building to maintain the health of your work group or ministry team! Let’s look at some strategies for implementing each of these elements.

Most leaders feel they are trustworthy. What really matters, though, is whether or not others perceive them as trustworthy. There is only one way to truly know how teams perceive their leader: ask them! One effective way of doing this is a 360 review, where anonymous feedback is gathered from staff and other important stakeholders by a trusted point person and reviewed with the leader. In many cases, it is best to have an outside consultant conduct this review and provide a simplified report to the leader with some analysis and considerations. Leaders can also encourage ongoing input by being approachable, actively listening to others, and consistently soliciting feedback.

Regular team-building opportunities must be a priority on staff training agendas! While some can occur during weekly or monthly staff meetings, the best opportunities for in-depth team-building are during extended periods of time such as a staff retreat, a vision-casting day, or a special dinner or celebration in a more intimate setting like the leader’s home. While many activities and strategies exist for building teams, several components are important. One, staff members need to get to know one another on a more personal level. This might include each person giving a short personal history or sharing about significant life moments. Two, individuals need to understand the calling and heart of their teammates; What makes them click, what keeps them awake at night? Third, teams should discuss the strengths, gifts, and personalities of each member. This allows for deeper understanding of gifts represented in the group, appreciation of strengths rather than frustration with weaknesses, and awareness of how a diverse team can complement one another. Sometimes formal team-building sessions are best facilitated by leaders themselves, in other instances, bringing in an outside trainer can allow the leader to participate as one of the team.

Trust on a team is further cultivated and maintained by creating a consistent culture of camaraderie. Each team should do what works best in its context. I heard of one church team that had a 20-minute “check-in” every morning as staff arrived in the office. This allowed for any work updates or announcements to be made, but also allowed everyone to see each other and chat for a few minutes before the day began. Another team provided a central coffee maker for the staff. As individuals ran into each other refilling their cup throughout the morning, they were able to reinforce relationships. Another team had lawn games set up outside their offices for individuals to gather and play during lunch breaks. Be creative and spontaneous. Learn what your team enjoys and find a way to make it part of a team culture!

Jolene Erlacher

Author Jolene Erlacher

Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy of twin toddlers, author of Millennials in Ministry (Judson Press), speaker, and college instructor. In 2013, she founded Leading Tomorrow (www.leadingtomorrow.org) with the aim of equipping ministries and non-profit organizations for effective inter-generational leadership. Jolene lives in North Carolina, and enjoys reading and drinking coffee!

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