"Teams That Thrive" by Hartwig and Bird. A Review

Teams That Thrive: Five Disciplines of Collaborative Church LeadershipTeams That Thrive: Five Disciplines of Collaborative Church Leadership by Ryan T. Hartwig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It would be pretty safe to say that most Christian congregations are led or driven by some form of leadership team. Even in churches directed by a lone pastor there is very likely a body of people who in some way, formally or informally, participate in his or her leadership. Further, from my own experiences and conversations with fellow ministers, I think it is pretty normal that a majority of parish parsons would like to see the leadership team (Session, parish council, vestry, board of elders, etc.) become more efficient and effective. Ryan Hartwig, Ph.D., associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Azusa Pacific University, and Warren Bird, Ph.D., director of research and intellectual capital support for Leadership Network, have pulled together a plan to aid church leadership teams in becoming more competent and capable. It’s all found in their new 272 page paperback, “Teams That Thrive: Five Disciplines of Collaborative Church Leadership”. The authors have surveyed, investigated, examined and interviewed members of leadership teams in 253 churches, culled and packaged their findings, and now presented them for the public. Hartwig and Bird maintain that the aim of their book, “is about teams doing the most substantial leadership work for any church – that of making key strategic decisions – together as a team, and thereby shaping the direction and success of the church” (20).

“Teams That Thrive” is a very involved volume, working through the authors’ analysis, filled with “whys and wherefores,” and mildly technical. The fourteen chapters are grouped in five segments, each section building on the previous. Every chapter but the first ends with an “Expert Commentary” written by successful leaders and authors from a variety of backgrounds. And each chapter finishes off with reflection and discussion questions that are ideal for stirring up dialogue in leadership teams.

The first division of “Teams That Thrive” is concerned with quickly debunking leadership fables. But also it is focused on assisting the readers to more clearly evaluate how their church’s teams work. This evaluation challenges with valuable “who” and “how” questions. Hartwig and Bird make a clear, and repeated, distinction between groups and teams, and carefully walk through the various ways a church is led; everything from an organic/informal team, to the inner circle, to partnerships, cheerleaders, first responders and fire department, to thriving. Whatever way your team leads, for better or for worse, it will “shape the culture, direct the mission, establish the vision and model the values of your church” because “as goes the senior leadership team so go most other teams in your church” (33-4).

The second part of the book gives both a biblical reason for team leadership, and ten practical reasons for following this pattern. After surveying the Biblical material, Hartwig and Bird deduce that “the practice of multiple leadership – or teams – existed from the church’s birth” (48). They then turn their attention to numerous down-to-earth reasons for having a plurality of leaders; greater productivity, less stress, extra leadership development, more creativity, better decision making, enhanced accountability, fewer reasons to feel lonely, a larger sense of joy and satisfaction, builds a deeper trust among the congregation, and improves congregational leadership.

Part three of “Teams That Thrive” dives into the eight common reasons that teams fail and introduces the five disciplines that foster thriving teams. The authors see failure riding the rails where everything is a priority for leadership, the team lacks skill, no inspiration, undisciplined exertions, the absence of godly character, confusion about its purpose, heavy dependence on the lead pastor, and most importantly, communication practices that are seriously defective. As Hartwig and Bird describe, “the greatest predictor of leadership team performance was the amount of stress the team members experienced related to dysfunctional communication practices” (78).

Chapter six along with the fourth portion of the book covers the five disciplines that build thriving teams. To begin, teams must focus on purpose.  The authors explain the 5cs of what a good purpose is and how to own it: clear, compelling, challenging, calling-oriented and consistently held (104). Once the purpose of the team is identified and possessed, it then becomes “the invisible leader of exceptional teams” (117). The next discipline is learning to influence differences in team members, specifically getting the right people to make up the right-sized team. Thirdly is the important step of relying on inspiration rather than control and how to get there. At the heart of this discipline is trust, and the best way “to build trust is to first be trustworthy” (156). Then the authors move to the importance of structuring the team’s decision making process. This requires two separate chapters that cover both making decisions while seeking God’s direction, and in the midst of conflict. Finally, “Teams That Thrive” unpacks the systems by which teams can continuously collaborate and build community.

The book wraps up with the last section, explaining six ways to ensure teams are not sabotaged, and how to catalyze your team’s growth. Here Hartwig and Bird quickly cover the five disciplines with a slightly different view in place, and then remind the reader of what they have been hammering on all along, that your “leadership team is the primary determinant of the health, effectiveness and impact of your church” (249).

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that church revitalization and renewal methods come with assumed views of how to do church. “Teams That Thrive” is no exception. Almost every example of a church with a thriving leadership team is large, multi-staff, and thoroughly “contemporary”. Of course, that’s fine as it stands, but it does create some concern for ministers who, like me, have pastored smaller churches for years. The first is that most churches in America are less than 200 in membership, and therefore don’t likely have the resources, recruits or reverends to build a thriving team in the image Hartwig and Bird are promoting. Does this mean, then, that a smaller church’s leadership isn’t thriving? Which leads to the next issue: holding up bigger churches with their larger quantities of fiscal means and people tools as the model of magnificence all congregations should strive for. Finally, are only churches that are contemporary, rather than conventional or liturgical, able to have thriving teams? Neither author is saying these things. The questions arise from the overabundance of their examples which almost completely lean in one direction: large, multi-staff and thoroughly “contemporary”.

After spending 20 years in the U.S. Air Force as an enlisted man, sitting through numerous military leadership courses, and obtaining an undergraduate degree in human resources management, I can honestly say that much of what Hartwig and Bird describe and depict is familiar to me. There are loads of good things for ministry staff and leadership teams to pick up and take away from “Teams That Thrive.” Though it is involved and mildly technical, it is simple and straightforward. It would be an ideal book for elder boards, and other leadership teams to read, discuss, and take action on. This is a book worth obtaining and digesting.

Much thanks to IVP and IV Praxis for the free copy of “Teams That Thrive” used for this review.

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