Mistakes Made: Costly Team Decisions

Somewhere along the way, my wife and I developed a decision-making philosophy for costly or risky situations. No matter what, if we moved into that risky situation, we would only do so if we were both on the same page – and if we felt that God had been clear with both of us. That way, whatever costs might come, we could together rest in the knowledge that these were potential costs we had both embraced, and costs which were from our Father’s kind hand.

This knowledge has been practically helpful countless times, such as when a gang of refugee Somali youth tried to break down our back door, when a local leader-in-training turned out to be a divisive wolf, and when our daughter almost died in a Central Asian ICU from new onset type-1 diabetes. What in the world are we doing here?! Oh, that’s right, we came into this together. From everything we could discern, God was clear with us. We obeyed, and that has brought us to this place.

This step keeps us from blaming one another or others when things go sideways. It also serves as another safeguard to make sure we are rightly applying verses like 1st Peter 2:20.

For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.

When suffering because of ministry and lifestyle choices comes, it can make all the difference to be able to fall back on these kinds of thoughts – that we’re not facing this fallout because of sin, foolishness, stubbornness, or self-will. This suffering is simply part of the good (though painful) path we have been asked to walk. It has a thousand good purposes that we may someday see. And yes, we signed up for it.

But as a newer team leader on the mission field, I have at times failed to invite my whole team into this same cost-embracing posture. And that’s where I made my mistake. I stepped into leading a team, knowing that some things would need to change, and by the very nature of where we work, many risky decisions would need to be made. I believe I did a decent job of listening, getting feedback, and pondering. I am a reflective, creative-thinker type. So I’m in my happy place when I’m getting feedback on lots of issues and exploring what possible changes can be made to improve the situation.

Yet I underestimated the importance of having discussions and conversations as a whole team when it came to the actual issues and changes that needed to be made. I would have many one-on-one conversations about issues, chew on things for a while, and then introduce a change – one made very much in response to what team members had been saying for a long time. Surprisingly (to me), I would then get a lot of resistance to these changes. As I tried to figure out why the team was kicking so much against these decisions, I began to see how much change and transition itself was costly. That made sense for our context, where transition can seem never-ending. Sometimes a bad system is preferred over the cost of yet another change. Were I older and wiser, I would have known to ask, “So I hear you saying that this is difficult. Is it the kind of difficult where you think we should take on the costs of changing it?”

I also began to better understand the nature of healthy team decision making in a costly environment. These decisions were in fact resulting in risks and costs to the team as a whole. Sometimes they were big costs, sometimes only more transition. The most heartbreaking one was losing a teammate. Yet my team wasn’t sensing that they had been able to speak into those risky calls enough to have buy-in. Hence much of the pushback.

Just as my wife and I gave one another ample time to discuss, wrestle with, and pray though an issue, turns out my team needed this as well. I began experimenting with discussions in team meetings about difficult things that we might need to change. After a couple hours of everyone getting to say their piece and wrestle with our limited options, we would often arrive at a calm unity. No one was under the illusion that costs weren’t coming. But the team had been able to discuss together which risks they were more or less willing to embrace.

As I reflected on this and back on many team conflicts from the past, the light bulbs started flickering on. Much of the resistance came from costly decisions being suddenly announced, without proper time for contributing, processing, praying, and buy-in from those affected by the changes. Just a little bit of this quickly leads to team conflict. A lot of this can make people leave the team or the organization.

Now, organizationally, I am free to make the decision as the team leader. I am fully within my rights and authority to make most calls without consulting the team or having a lengthy discussion. This might be more efficient on the front end. However, for my team – and many teams made up of millennials (or just humans?) – it has proved to be much less efficient on the back end as we continually had to rehash decisions team members thought should have been made differently. As I grew to know my team more, I understood my mistake more clearly. These discussions, though very time-consuming, were key for us being able to embrace the possible implications – together.

Going forward, as much as possible, I hope to embrace this principle of wise leadership: If a decision is likely risky or costly for my team, I need to lead a team discussion about it before that decision is made. Just having a voice into that potential cost honors my team members. And yes, even the new folks should be encouraged to speak up. But in addition to having a say (or even a vote) in the matter, this kind of conversation enables a team to embrace possible costs together, and with a good conscience – and when things go sideways, that can make all the difference.

Other leaders may feel differently, but I need the teams I lead to have the freedom to fail. We are seeking to plant healthy local churches in the hard soil of Central Asia. We need to take big risks. Our very living here is a big risk. But to do this well, we must find practical ways to embrace these costs in ways that don’t divide us. So I hope to learn from my mistakes, and thereby do a better job of honoring my team in costly decisions.

Photo by Tobias Mrzyk on Unsplash

Making The Best of Imperfect Systems

Want to know one of the seldom-mentioned keys to staying healthy on the mission field? The ability to make the best of imperfect systems. A kind of practical trust in God’s sovereignty that results in patience, kindness, and flexibility when confronted by broken, different, or merely imperfect systems. These systems might be local ones. Or they might be the systems of your team or organization. Regardless, none of them are perfect. Some of them are frankly bad, and even the good ones can have glitches – just enough to send you over the edge on a day when your culture shocking is beginning to smell like a 110 volt appliance plugged into a surging 220 volt outlet. Is something burning?

Since our return to Central Asia we’ve spent abundant time in government and private offices as we’ve sought to renew our visas and lease as well as help teammates with their own paperwork. These systems and processes are not very efficient. They don’t always seem logical. They are unpredictable in a hurry up and wait kind of way. If we let them, they could be a considerable source of stress and anxiety.

But how exactly am I advancing the kingdom of God if I let the frustrations of these systems send me into a rage, or even into a judgmental smolder? If the Central Asians are even frustrated by the system, wouldn’t it better commend Christ if I can model a radical patience, joy, and cooperativeness in these sorts of situations? But these blasted local bureaucrats are keeping me from being able to do the ministry work! I know these thoughts well. But what if the open door to do the work will actually come through my membership in the new humanity being on display in the midst of a creaking and broken system?

Sometimes we make it through the local systems admirably, not only holding it together, but even displaying Christ-like kindness and patience. But it takes a toll. Then we get that email from a coworker. Someone at the home office requests something that feels out of touch or unreasonable to us. They should know better, those blasted Christian Westerners! Can’t they see this is so inefficient or redundant? Turns out we can spend all our grace on our local friends, and then become downright curmudgeons with our teammates and organization. We vent our wrath at the language system, the mentoring system, the financial system, the lack of a system, etc., etc.

We live in a broken world, full of broken systems. How are we to do God’s work in this kind of place?

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:14–18, ESV)

Yikes. Not my natural response to imperfect systems, but absolutely what it is needed. But where does the power to live like this come from, to actually be patient with them all and give thanks in all circumstances?

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28–30 ESV)

Imperfect systems, even broken systems, are encompassed by the phrase “all things.” Even they are a part of God’s good plan for your day, for your ministry – for your glorification. A practical trust in God’s sovereignty means that when you spend an hour to get across town in traffic and the office manager is randomly not in today, or it’s some obscure holiday no one told you about, or your water tanks at home are inexplicably empty, that you lean into that frustrating situation as a good gift from your father. Practicing sovereignty means you are gracious and flexible when the organization’s deadline is not a good fit for your unique situation. It means these frustrations are melted away by the warmth that comes from meditating on our eternal brotherhood with Jesus, or the unbreakable chain of God’s good plan for us in our salvation (foreknown, predestined, called, justified, glorified). These kinds of meditations will not only power healthier responses. They are the only effective fuel for healthy system reform.

The ability to make the best of imperfect systems. Not in some positive-thinking shallow way. But the kind of flexibility that’s rooted in God’s sovereignty and spilling over in patience and thanks – this can save us from burnout, or worse. It’s a seldom spoken of virtue of those who last overseas in a long-term and healthy way. For those of us on the field, we need prayer to grow in this way. For any considering missions, begin praying this way for yourself. There are many things I’m learning about lasting on the field and what makes a healthy team. This one, simple as it may seem, is growing year by year in its practical weight and implications.

Show me a worker who is able to make the best of imperfect systems, and I believe you will have shown me a person who deeply understands the grace and patience of God.

Photo by Ruben Mishchuk on Unsplash

A Few Reasons Why I Love Having Singles on Our Teams

We may have been a little odd, but alongside of the 1997 Star Wars Special Edition VHS set, my ten-year-old friends I loved watching the film, Gettysburg. This film is based off of the novel, The Killer Angels, itself heavily based on the historical events of the battle.

One of the contrasts drawn out in the film is the performance of the Union cavalry vs. the performance of the Confederate cavalry. The Union cavalry, led by John Buford, was ahead of the Yankee infantry as it pursued the Rebel army, as it should have been. The cavalry came into contact with the Confederate infantry columns at Gettysburg. Buford, recognizing the strategic terrain of the area, ordered his cavalry to dismount and to keep the Rebs engaged until the Union infantry could arrive. Buford’s men took heavy losses, but by going above and beyond their duty like this, they held the good ground and contributed to the eventual Yankee victory at Gettysburg.

The Confederate cavalry, by contrast, was off doing its own thing. Led by J.E.B. Stuart, the cavalry was not in close enough proximity nor communication with the infantry. They effectively left their army blind, which became engaged in battle on ground the enemy had chosen. By the time the Confederate cavalry arrived late on the second day of the battle, it was too late.

What does the cavalry and infantry of the American Civil War have to do with singles on missionary teams? Well, I am no military expert, but a good army needed both cavalry and infantry. Cavalry provided speed and flexibility and powerful short-term attacks, in addition to crucial reconnaissance. The infantry provided the stable fighting force, slow, yes, but also mighty. Both existed in a complementary relationship and both needed each other. It can be like this with the families and singles on our teams.

I served as a single on the mission field for one year. Since then I’ve been a part of two teams that were a mix of singles and married families. I have come to greatly appreciate the dynamic of these mixed teams which are able to draw on the strengths of singles as well as families. Every believer has individual gifts given by the Holy Spirit. But in addition to these gifts, there are general gifts or freedoms that often hold true to certain seasons of life or callings. Speaking in broad brushes, if I had to summarize one of main gifts of singleness, it would be flexibility. Pivoting to families, I recognize the gift of stability. Every team needs both.

Families, free as they are to invest in their marriage and in their children, are often less free to invest in locals in the same way that singles can. Singles can work hard and then crash hard, staying up until 3 a.m. sharing the gospel with their friends and catching up on rest over the next couple days. Families have to maintain a higher degree of schedule stability since the kids will lose their minds if they’re that sleep deprived and the parents will not be able to take a two hour nap the next day – because, again, the kids are losing their minds. In addition to schedule, relational capacity is different. Busy homeschooling moms can have a hard time making new local friends, while a single might be overwhelmed at the sheer number of friends she has. In these ways, families can lean on singles and their greater flexibility in relationships.

As a single on the mission field, I was always taking trips to this city or to that friend’s village. Singles often have greater freedom to travel and research. For our family of five, every night where we are somewhere new brings with it a whole bunch of complications. While we still love travel and research, our ability to actually do it has decreased significantly. It just takes a lot to plan an overnight these days. But the singles on our team can fill the gap for us in this area, and they do, driving off into mountain villages on the regular. Families can lean on singles and their greater flexibility for travel and research.

Married folks with kids are just plain busy, and this makes spiritual friendship hard to come by. In addition to the ways in which we have found complementary effectiveness in ministry with singles, I have greatly valued the friendships that God has given me and my wife with singles on our teams. It has been very good for our souls to have these friends who are in a different station of life or who have a different long-term calling. We were kept sane during difficult seasons of ministry in part through the game, Settlers of Cataan, as the two single guys on our team came over regularly to simply have fun together after our toddlers were asleep. I benefited from their availability to sit and have long conversations over chai and coffee and they in turn benefited greatly from my wife’s baking skills. Simple as these things seem, the gift of friendship that singles have to offer to tired ministry families is a mighty one.

Families, for their part, can also meet crucial needs for the singles on their teams. Because families are gifted with stability, we can help provide more of that for busy ministry singles who might need more structured community. One single in our organization shared with me how her team leader’s family had her come every every single Thursday night for dinner and to do whatever she needed to do. If she wanted to hang out, read like an introvert, or sleep, she was to feel free to do so. This invitation gave her a stable appointment every week so that if her Central Asian friends were pushing her to hang out, she could honestly say she had a previous commitment.

The need for family and community is a mutual need, but often singles on the field feel the lack of this keenly. Families can play a crucial role by inviting singles into family times, meals, holidays, and trips. Loneliness on the field can be quite dark and intense. Families on missionary teams can help provide community and family for the singles serving alongside them. It’s not enough to just be respectful coworkers. To truly flourish as a team, families and singles will need to become spiritual friends, and even spiritual family.

Like a good infantry and cavalry, families and singles on the field can do better work when they are working closely together. I like the imagery of infantry and cavalry because it also speaks to equality within diversity. Too often, singles are not valued as equal workers in the missionary task. In the age of Protestant missions, we have swung a little too far in that we have a hard time understanding Paul’s preference that believers stay single like he was. In previous ages of church history, the emphasis was reversed. You couldn’t be in ministry if you were married with kids, but had to be a celibate monk. How much better then to value both singleness and marriage as strategic components of the missionary team? Why not make Paul and Timothy alongside of Aquila and Priscilla our default? When we recognize that we need each other and that we have complementary gifts, this kind of equal footing is more likely to emerge.

So, singles, we need you. This Great Commission work can’t be done by families alone. We need the cavalry.

Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

What Four Years of Elders Meetings Taught Me About Team Unity

There is tremendous power for unity in a practical theology of the body of Christ. For two years I was able to sit in on elders meetings at my church as part of a leadership development program. Then for two more years I was able to participate in elders meetings as an elder myself, before we left for the mission field. What I observed in those four years of meetings has continued to shape the way I work for team unity among my teammates on the field.

Like many young men with a heart for ministry, there was a time when I thought that my personal set of spiritual gifts was somehow superior to others’. I would not have said this, but I know at times I felt it. Or at least I failed to feel down in my bones an appreciation for gifts that were different than mine, which is almost the same thing. This is where observing the elders meet together was so helpful for me. Here was a group of men, a group very diverse in terms of age, background, personality, and gifting. And yet they worked well together, appreciated their differences, and even celebrated them. The one gifted in preaching would praise the one gifted in systems, who would praise the one gifted in wisdom, who would praise the one gifted in the biblical languages. They would lean on one another in the tasks in which they were weaker. They not only knew that their differences made them a better team of shepherds, they actually believed and felt this, even in the midst of disagreement. And I began to believe and feel it as well.

The diverse gifts given to the body of Christ, the Church, are described in passages like 1st Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and 1st Peter 4. These and other passages put together give us a robust theology of the body of Christ. Christ has ascended, and in doing so has given gifts to every single believer, though not the same ones. Each believer has gifts with which they are able to uniquely build up the body of Christ in love, and each believer is in need of the gifts of the rest of the body, just as the different members of the human body need one another. All are to be honored, none are to be despised, even though some gifts are more powerful for edification than others. All gifts are spiritual, though some seem to us more supernatural than others. Through these gifts we serve and teach one another, display God’s power to the lost, and we glorify the giver of these gifts, knowing that they come from him and are not of our own making.

Before sitting in on elders meetings, I could have written you a decent theological paper laying out these truths in detail. But in order to really make this theology practical I needed to see it modeled. Here’s a plug for any pastors out there thinking through raising up leaders – make sure there are places where the men you are raising up can observe you modeling leadership, in addition to the good content they are learning. Modeling enables others to learn things practically and intuitively which complements study that is heavy on the abstract and on the knowledge necessary for leadership.

Now that we are on the mission field, we are trying in turn to pass on these biblical principles to our teammates. It has been said that team conflict is the number one reason missionaries leave the field. I believe this. But a lived theology of the body of Christ can not only hold missionary teams together, it can even cause them to flourish and to be powerfully effective, even in the midst of disagreement.

Our previous team was made up of three families, all very different from one another in personality, culture, and giftings. We had our fair share of conflict and times where we drove each other crazy. But God was gracious to us, we ate a lot of good kabob together, and we came to genuinely appreciate one another’s friendship and diverse spiritual gifts. Together we saw a small church planted in the hard soil of Central Asia. We reached an important stage of maturity as a team when we were able to openly affirm one another in the ways we were individually gifted, rather than seeing one another as a challenge or threat. We grew in doing this in team meetings and even in front of the local believers, who were prone to comparing us to one another. By emphasizing my teammate’s gifts, I could not only encourage them and remind myself of how much I need them, I could also model for locals how to honor believers they are very different from. Practically, I could also lean on my teammates’ pastoral and preaching gifts, their energy for life and language, their hospitality and sharp minds for making detailed plans and arguments. And they in turn could lean on me in other areas.

Now we have taken on a new leadership role with a different team, even larger and more diverse than our previous one. Our prayer is that this practical theology of the body of Christ will soak deep down into the foundation of who we are as a team. To see a fellow believer a little bit more like Christ sees them, as a saint uniquely gifted by the ascendant king – that is a powerful force for team unity.

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

The Humble Kabob and Team Unity

Photo by Sara Dubler on Unsplash

We recently moved cities and left our previous team. It was hard to leave because after three years of teaming together, things were good. Now, we had certainly had our seasons of team storming and conflict. Some of them were quite intense. Sometimes we wanted to pull out our hair in frustration at yet another miscommunication or disagreement over next steps. But as we left in preparation to come alongside a different team in a new city, it was hard because we were leaving more than teammates, we were leaving our friends.

There were many things that God was doing in us and in spite of us to keep our team together through those difficult years of seeing a small church planted in our previous city up in the mountains. Some would be unique to us and not reproducible. But there would be a few things that could be implemented by other teams of believers who have a vision to grow towards being a healthy team. Today I want to mention one eminently practical piece of team unity – the humble kabob. Well, not just the kabob, but the idea of regularly eating together as a normal part of team life and culture. As my former team leader put it, at the end of the day, we always enjoyed eating together. We ate together regularly as a team, even if we were just coming from a meeting full of intense debate, even when it was hard to make eye contact with the person you had just upset in the last discussion. We had a favorite local restaurant where we could always go and get a big plate of local spicy kabob and flatbread for around $3. Always followed by hot, sugary Central Asian chai. So yes, that definitely helped.

This principle of eating food regularly together is not rocket science, nor is it a novel idea. But when you dig into the theological significance of breaking bread together, you are wading in deep waters. Consider that the tree of life bore fruit, a meal which when eaten, gave eternal life. The fall into sin came by a meal shared at the other tree, that of the knowledge of good and evil. God enacted covenants with his people through meals, such as that at Sinai with the seventy elders of Israel, and he reminded his people of their covenant relationship through divinely-ordained feasts. God fed his people in the wilderness with miraculous bread from heaven and later we find out that Jesus is the true bread come down from heaven, the bread of life. Did you know that the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle repeated in all four gospels? Then we are given the Lord’s Supper as a meal to remember Jesus and to look forward to his return, when history will be consummated with the marriage supper of the lamb. And this is just scratching the surface. You could even say that food is at the center of our very salvation, key to our reconciliation to God and to one another. So it makes sense that it would be an important part of team unity.

This kind of advice could be easily dismissed because of how simple it is. Yet I know from experience that some teams do not have a regular time where they are eating together. And they are worse off for it. I cannot parse exactly what is going on spiritually and relationally when we eat in one another’s presence, but it has to do with trust, peace, friendship, service, respect, and even joy. The mutual enjoyment of sustenance perhaps provides tangible common ground that can complement spiritual common ground, which can make all the difference when the relational side of things is feeling frayed. I find myself recalling a pastor from a more liturgical tradition once waving his hand in a service and saying, “This too is a mystery.” Indeed, a delicious mystery.

Is your team scheduled to regularly eat together? If not, why not? Why not use the restart which emerging from Covid-19 provides us to build in this kind of practice? Experiment. I’ll bet you some kabob that you will be a happier team because of it.