Teams have a lifespan that is often way too short.

The glory days. The wonder years. Camelot. Utopia. The three-year span where everyone worked together, communicated, found their niche, talked through problems, focused on the future, and hit performance goals out of the park. If you’ve never had a season in your ministry like that, I’m sorry. Because it’s a beautiful thing. It really is. When a team is hitting on all cylinders, it’s glorious and exhilarating.

But often times, things fall apart.

For no obvious reason at all, a team that was working just fine a year ago has totally run off of the rails. People are quitting, they’re backbiting, they’re contentious, they’re gossiping, and they haven’t hit their performance goals in far too long.

What happened?

True teamwork is hard to achieve but easy to lose.

Several years ago, my wife and I were driving home from vacation. The summer sky was clear; the highway wasn’t too busy. It was a beautiful day and everyone on the road seemed to be driving along in rare summer-driving bliss. No speeders or traffic weavers; no semis going too slow or left lane hogs.

But in my rearview mirror, I suddenly noticed an SUV that took a slight turn. Perhaps the initial jerk happened because of a dropped coffee or to change the song on the radio. But then the driver made that irreversible mistake: overcorrection. The SUV swerved out of control, hitting the barrier in the median and made three full flips. Several cars stopped and emergency crews made their way to the scene.

A once serene drive took a sudden, disastrous turn. I don’t know the outcome of the wreck, but have always prayed that all passengers recovered.

Teams often fail in this same way: first, there are no visible problems. Second, a small problem deviates the team from their course. Then, sudden disaster.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you can identify the reasons why teams fail, you can work to prevent the disaster before it happens, safely implementing the course corrections without a tragic over-correction.

Here are the five prime reasons why teams fail in the church:

Toxic church culture.

When the culture of the church is founded on celebrating personalities and rallying to individual success rather than collective wins, teams will inevitably fail. One recent example is Mars Hill Church in Seattle, which was driven by the personality of Mark Driscoll. When his reputation was sullied beyond repair, the entire network of churches and 10,000+ weekly attenders vanished (essentially) overnight. I’m fully supportive of Driscoll’s new endeavor in Phoenix–because if we aren’t about grace and second chances, what are we about? But I do pray that his new church will be built on a plurality of voices and not just his own or team failure will likely occur again.

Coaching question: In your church, does the culture value individual accomplishments and charisma or shared wins and collaboration?

Weak church systems.

Teamwork is an active process that has to be given space, tools, and resources to work. Churches that do not establish systems that foster teamwork will be restricted to nominal teams or low-performance teams. For example, if your church doesn’t have regular staff meetings, how exactly is the staff supposed to work together as a team? If your church doesn’t formalize performance goals, how does the team know what to shoot for and how to prioritize their work? Farmers don’t throw seeds into dirt, cross their fingers, and hope something grows. They cultivate, fertilize, water, and tend the land to give the seeds the best possible chance to produce a good crop.

Coaching question: Do the systems in your church exist to help or hurt the process of teamwork, assuming the systems exist at all?

Personal competitiveness.

Your church culture may not be to blame for the focus on rugged individualism. The problem might just be you. Pat MacMillan, whose book The Performance Factor inspired much of this article, says in that book, “In America, we turn almost every encounter into a contest.” Our churches and teams are often no different. Everybody wants to win and be a winner, and many times church leaders will do whatever it takes to gain the personal victory even if that means hurting other people in the process. In the short term, high profile wins by individual team members can make it look like a team is healthy, but if those wins are achieved by stepping on other people’s heads, the team will fall apart.

Coaching question: Are you seeking personal glory or a kingdom-minded team win at your church?

Positional jurisdiction.

A cousin to the previous problem is the issue of control. When team members become possessive of their ministries, they can become protective about projects or tasks that would be better served by collaboration than noncooperation. In the times when ministry tasks overlap between areas, teamwork suffers when people jockey for jurisdiction. Likewise, the “not my job” syndrome can devastate a team when people play organizational hot potato with undesirable tasks. Positional jurisdiction is about personal control, and in the long run it will destroy a team.

Coaching question: Are you defensive about your role and allowing others to collaborate on your turf?

Team-iness.

Team-iness is a word I just made up, but there’s no real word I could think of that captures this problem. This is the most bizarre reason why teams fail, because camaraderie is generally a good thing for teams. But team-iness is very, very real; it’s camaraderie on steroids. Some teams exist for themselves. They have a lot of team spirit. They have matching shirts, and post #SquadGoals selfies on Instagram. Their staff meetings are filled with laughter and hugs, and they love to share a cup of coffee and “brainstorm.” But the goal of church teams isn’t to end each day looking like the cast of Friends at Central Perk; it’s to boldly chase a God-given vision, driven by a performance-based strategy. You can have too much of a good thing. A team with a lot of internal spirit but a lack of external direction will never gain the necessary momentum to be successful. Unity of purpose trumps warm, fuzzy emotions every time.

Coaching question: Are you seeking to achieve team unity by growing internal camaraderie or by chasing, together, a God-given vision and a clear strategy?

Teamwork in the church is critical.

At The Malphurs Group, when we begin the Strategic Envisioning process with a church, the very first thing we do is build teams. We relentlessly pursue the right team members who are dedicated from day one to implementation. These teams are passionate, committed, and driven towards a purpose beyond what any of them could achieve individually.

Teams are the lifeblood of Kingdom-building, hell-shattering, life-transforming churches.

It’s time to get serious about teamwork. It’s time to take stock of the reason why teams fail. It’s time to course correct, and launch your team into a new era of effectiveness for the glory of God.

To learn more about how you can increase team unity and team effectiveness, click here to contact me.