Four questions to help build strong teams
Written by Graham Stanton, Principal of Youthworks College
The importance of great teams
Children’s and youth ministry workers are team players; or at least they should be. Given our church structures, the children’s or youth minister is generally the second or third member of a leadership team; and given our patterns of children’s and youth ministry, they are generally also leading a team of volunteers.
When relations in these teams are good, they can be very, very good; but when they are bad, they are horrid.
Learning how to work as team members becomes particularly important for children’s and youth ministry.
Each week, students at Youthworks College are led in a group process of critical reflection on ministry practice. Together with a member of the faculty, students meet once a week for an hour, to think together about different experiences that have come out of their work in children’s and youth ministry during the week. This practice has proven to be something that has helped College students develop their ability to work as members of teams.
Questions that can improve your teams
Here’s an outline of what we do at the college each week. Perhaps it’s a practice that could be usefully employed in your staff teams and volunteer teams as well.
The basic structure for reflection works through four standard questions, taken from four tasks of practical theology outlined by Richard Osmer, Practical Theology: an introduction (Eerdmans, 2008):
- Descriptive task: what happened?
- Analytic task: why did it happen?
- Normative task: what ought to happen?
- Pragmatic task: what will we do in response?
The groups start by sharing experiences from their ministry placements. Sometimes we might do a quick ‘round the circle’ sharing of something that happened during the week, that group members are still thinking about (it’s often those experiences that are still rattling about in our brains days after the event, that are calling out for some careful theological reflection).
From what has been shared, we might pick on one issue that sounds engaging, or a group of issues that are on a common theme. If there are a number of important or useful ideas, we might set a schedule for discussions over the next few weeks.
One thing to remember is that ‘success stories’ can be just as fruitful for theological reflection, as problems can be. Good teams are good at shared celebration, as well as shared problem solving.
Describing what happened
The discussion proceeds as we work through the four questions of practical theology in turn....
In the descriptive phase, the group asks clarifying questions, to help each member be aware of exactly what happened. This may include:
- Asking the classic 'what, when, where, how, who?' questions
- Exploring what was said as well as what was left unsaid
- Examining the verbal and non-verbal communication
- Discussing thoughts and feelings, along with words and actions
One of the lessons in teamwork that comes out of this stage, is the value of a well asked question. Often, the combined focus of a group helps the person sharing, to deepen their own understanding of the event.
Analysing and explaining
Once the group is satisfied with the description, we can move to a possible analysis of, or explanation for the experience. The value of working in a team comes through the different perspectives we each bring to a particular context, helping us see things in a new, and often more helpful light.
It’s important for a group leader to shepherd the process: slowing the group down to finish a careful description, before jumping ahead to analysis; or moving the group on to explanation, when further description isn’t adding much value. At this point, we’re drawing on a wide range of different ways of looking at human behaviour: questions of developmental psychology, group dynamics, cultural influences; as well as theological explanations (such as sin, evil, and the sovereign work of the Spirit of God).
At some point, the leader needs to guide the group to narrow down on one aspect of the analysis and work from that perspective to formulate a theologically informed response. In this stage of the enquiry, the particulars of one person’s experience becomes generalised to issues that are experienced in varied ways by other members of a team. The normative work of asking what ought to happen involves sharing biblical passages, theological themes, and/or established faithful practices.
Once again, the mind of the group can be richer than the mind of an individual – different themes will be drawn out, and a variety of ideas can make up for gaps in each other’s thinking: “Doesn’t Paul say something about discipline?” As group leaders, it’s important to draw out the insights and ideas of the group members, rather than being the expert who provides all the input.
In the final stage, we take the theological ideas we’ve discussed together, and help each other determine what faithful practice would look like, in light of this understanding. Each of the members of the group should offer a suggestion to whoever first raised the issue we’ve been discussing. The intention is to see that the insight of the team can provide more light than the solitary reflections of the individual.
Each member of the group is also asked to respond with one thing that they would do, in response to the discussion we’ve had. The intention here is to point out how each individual has learnt things, as a result of engaging with another student’s context and experience.
‘Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another’ (Proverbs 27:17). This process of practical theological enquiry has helped us at Youthworks College sharpen one another. Is this perhaps a process that can strengthen your ministry team also?