by Aaron Buer
My favorite word in the universe is collaboration. I love it. This hasn’t always been true. For years, I was a one-man show in student ministry. What changed me? Fear.
Three years ago, the pastor who had led our student ministry team for 12 years left our team to become the lead pastor at another church. I was chosen as his replacement. A ginormous multi-site student ministry. A staff team of 12. I’d never managed another person in my life. No pressure. Did I mention that my predecessor was an absolute legend in our church? I was scared to death.
Fast-forward. The student ministry didn’t crash and burn. In fact, it grew. In many ways it became stronger. How? Our team stepped up to the plate and delivered. The keyword here is “team.” I believe that my smartest all-time leadership decision was to choose we over me. You see, I’ve come to believe that we are always better than me.
- We always make better decisions than me.
- We always dream bigger than me.
- We always write better curriculum than me.
- We always think of better solutions than me.
- We always reach more students than me.
It’s the power of collaboration. When the focus is on the team and the mission rather than the leader or the personality, the potential is practically limitless. This is what I’ve discovered as the leader of our student ministry team. We are always better than me. I even think there is something about this in the Bible.
The question is, how do you build a team culture that promotes and accelerates collaboration? I have some ideas . . .
1. SCHEDULE IT
Although collaboration sounds like it should be natural, organic and impromptu, the truth is that collaboration requires structure. For most people, true collaboration feels unnatural so it must become predictable and regular. For example, every Tuesday, everyone on our team is invited to a meeting in which we collaborate over our curriculum. I’ll present my ideas and then open up the floor to anyone who wants to comment, critique, freak out that we’re talking about sex yet again, or suggest that I have the series title all wrong.
My point is that if you want collaboration, schedule it, demonstrate it and invite it.
2. CREATE A SPACE
As humans, we are deeply influenced by environment. Some environments invite conversation and other don’t . . . think Starbucks. If you want collaboration to be a core value of your team, you must choose or design the right space for it.
For our team, we decided that collaboration would be central so we ditched our cubicles and desks and bought a huge round table, a ginormous glass board and three Creative Boards. No seriously, we purposely jammed 12 staff into an undersized office without personal work stations. It might sound insane but it has worked. We collaborate like crazy! If you want collaboration, create a space.
3. PROMOTE CONFLICT
Conflict and tension are part of the secret sauce of collaboration. Collaboration requires friction. There should be debates, occasional shouting, passion and negotiation. You cannot have collaboration without conflict. If you do, you have group-think and that is dangerous.
Embrace the tension. As the leader, manage it. Draw out different perspectives and then lead your team to a conclusive direction. On our team, we debate and argue and then take a team vote. At times, it can get a little wild but our arguments have led to some of our best ideas and practices.
A quick side note: You can’t have healthy conflict without a high level of relational trust among team members. Trust is foundational to the entire enterprise. See: 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Lencioni.
4. TAILOR TO INDIVIDUALS
One of the lessons I’ve learned through creating a culture of collaboration is that while everyone is capable of collaboration, not everyone does it in the same way. For example, two guys on my team, Tom and Steve, both offer great curriculum insights but they do it in completely different ways. Steve is one of the strongest extroverts I’ve ever met and he comes alive during a whiteboard session. The ideas come at me like a firehose. Meanwhile, Tom will say nothing because he is a processor. However, if I send him my notes a few days before the meeting, he’ll ponder the material and get back to me with great ideas.
Both team members believe in collaboration and are great collaborators but they share ideas in completely different ways. My point is that you can’t expect everyone to function the same way. You have to tailor your approach to each team member.
5. EXERCISE HUMILITY
The last, and potentially most important idea is that humility is crucial. As the team leader, you must believe in your bones that we are better than me. You have to be willing to trust the team. You must implement the ideas that your team’s collaborative conversations produce. If you host collaborative meetings and continually ignore the team’s suggestions, they will eventually get the point and stop sharing honestly. At that point, collaborate will become a hollow word because your team will realize that this whole thing is about you and not them. This will lead to spiraling morale and ownership. I’ve been there. It isn’t fun and the ministry will suffer. It’s up to you as the leader to exercise humility.
Let’s wrap this up already. Is your ministry stuck? Have you hit a wall? Are you unsure how to move forward? Or perhaps, you just know there is more to accomplish or you simply want to keep moving forward. My suggestion? Collaborate! Build a team of co-conspirators and shoot for the moon!
What? You don’t have a staff team of 12? No problem. Invite your most invested volunteers to collaborate with you. Schedule it. Create a space. Promote conflict. Tailor to individuals. Exercise humility and then experience the magic of collaboration.
Hi! My name is Aaron and I’ve been a student pastor for 12 years now. Currently, I