Ryan T. Hartwig, Warren Bird InterVarsity April 6, 2015

One of the greatest theological insights embodied in the triune God, the biblical institution of marriage, and the local church is the worship-inspiring and transformational principle of unity in diversity,a vital concept for doxological and ministerial viability.

Teams That Thrive thoughtfully explores five disciplines for cultivating collaborative unity in diversity to help churches fulfill God’s call. Authors Hartwig and Bird prayerfully seek “to assist leadership teams in churches of every size to develop the disciplines necessary to grow more focused, effective, healthy and fruitful” (22).

Teams That Thrive is a practical resource for pastors and laypersons who want to take their church ministry teams to the next level of effectiveness. The authors approach the subject with a biblical foundation and a two-year (2012 and 2013) sociological study through the Leadership Network of over 250 local churches in North America. Furthermore, the authors’ personal and professional experience, along with commentary from thirteen contributors serving in a variety of church-based ministries, brings indispensable wisdom for today’s local church leader.

In Parts 1, 2, and 3, the authors develop a theological, biblical, and practical rationale for their research and writing topic and demonstrate the need for churches to consider how to develop fully functioning teams. Additionally, Hartwig and Bird press readers to carefully assess the health of their own teams. Part 4, the heart of the book, outlines and expounds on five collaborative disciplines of top-performing teams.

According to the authors, the first collaborative discipline for teams that thrive is to “focus on purpose, the invisible leader of your team” (97). Hartwig and Bird suggest that a clear, compelling, challenging, calling-oriented, and consistently held purpose statement is the most important element in fostering successful teams. Their research showed that many church leadership teams function as “work groups”—collections of individuals lacking shared purpose. In thriving teams, shared purpose “inspires team members, cultivates trust among them, bonds them together in its pursuit and compels them to perform at a high level” (108).

The second collaborative principle centers around fostering diversity. The authors provide practical advice for “leveraging differences among team members” (121) to bring the “right people to serve on the leadership team” (123). Their research suggests that top-performing teams in churches “comprise a small, yet diverse number of people with complementary skills and gifts who see serving on the team as a significant part of their role” (124). This is in stark contrast to “underperforming teams” that “have too many people with the same gifts, styles and backgrounds, seek to include too many persons” (ibid.), and fail to prioritize particular roles and responsibilities of team members. “The only reason a person should be on a leadership team is to bring critical talent, perspective or skill to the group that enables the team to accomplish its unique purpose” (132).

Third, the authors suggest that leaders should “rely on inspiration more than control to lead” (148). Church leaders can be tempted to seek control at the expense of empowering others to use their unique gifts and abilities. Leaders who make a difference must remain “fiercely committed to the authority of God’s Word and allow it to guide every facet of their leadership efforts” (151). These leaders are rooted in truth and can cast inspiring vision with the big picture in mind. Furthermore, these inspirational leaders prioritize relationships without being laissez-faire or autocratic. Hartwig and Bird emphasize that members of top-performing teams can disagree with each other and still maintain their working relationship. “These pastors had cultivated a climate that appreciates disagreement and cultivates debate while upholding positive relationships” (153).

The fourth collaborative discipline is to “intentionally structure decision making” (171). By developing an understanding and process for better decision making, teams can pursue the will of God together rather than falling into the traps of “best business practices without spiritual perspective” or of “listening and waiting on the Holy Spirit without input from others” (178) through whom God may speak. Leaders must forge a system for team decision-making that seeks biblical wisdom, best practices, and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, thriving leadership teams “build a culture of continuous collaboration” (211) both inside and outside formal meetings. The authors “found that meeting informally for more than one hour per week was a contributing factor to differences between top and mediocre teams” (215). In addition, several key factors empower continuous collaboration: First, guard against unnecessary overwork. Second, develop physical spaces where team interaction is promoted. Shared office space, break rooms, and common areas “creat[e] additional opportunities to continue the team’s important work outside of the boardroom” (ibid.). Third, distribute meeting agendas to all team members at least one day in advance. Fourth, involve the entire top team in setting the meeting agenda. Fifth, make sure the meeting agenda has been well thought out and “truly guide[s] the team’s discussion and progress through the meeting” (217).

In Part 5, this book explores cultural headwinds that can hinder teamwork. These include (1) embracing the status quo; (2) adopting the latest fad and then reverting to ineffective ministry patterns; (3) extreme spontaneity at the expense of careful planning; (4) putting the senior leader on an unrealistic pedestal; (5) minimizing the value of teams and instead depending on the senior pastor as a benevolent dictator; and (6) withdrawal and avoidance of conflict and accountability. Finally, the authors exhort readers to promote team growth through establishing a sustainable process of team evaluation and development.

One area of weakness is the authors’ failure to state a clear and concise definition of “purpose.” Perhaps this failure contributed to the disparity among the various team purpose statements in the book (100–1). Additionally, the authors do not explore their understanding of “mission” as distinct from “purpose.” “Purpose” in the book may overlap with the concepts of “mission,” “vision,” and “strategic goals” in other church ministry literature.

Nonetheless, this is an excellent book for ministry leaders intent on developing teams for greater effectiveness in the local church. Hartwig and Bird have published a helpful resource that can stimulate dialogue and growth for thriving team ministry.

About the Contributors

Scott Barfoot

Scott Barfoot

Dr. Barfoot aspires to equip and empower global executive, pastoral, and educational ministry leaders who impact the next generation for the cause of Christ. Having served in a variety of pastoral leadership capacities in rural Canadian and suburban Asian and American churches in Canada and the United States since 1992, he has a special heart for leadership development in the local church.

His most recent research surveyed pastors to assess their views on local church ministry in the midst of the global pandemic. He and his wife, Debbie, have three children, David, Joel, and Karissa.