Making Teams Work in Missions

We just finished a webinar for Missio Nexus on “Making Teams Work in Missions.” If you missed it, a recording will be posted on the Missio Nexus website here within the next week.  I spoke about the challenges teams face, and what we can do to help teams succeed:

  1. Deploy real teams.
  2. Get the right people on our teams.
  3. Build healthy teams.

These are topics that I covered on our old website, Building Healthy Teams.  One new tool that is almost finished is a Team Health Check– a self-assessment for cross-cultural ministry teams.  It’s designed to be easy to use yet have a powerful impact on your team.  If you’re interested in using this with your team or for teams in your organization, let me know.

Teams in Mission: Are They Worth It? (Part Two)

“A real team has a goal that compels its members to work through their differences and misunderstandings. It compels the team to capitalize on their differences and create solutions that no one could design alone. That’s the kind of goal that transforms a group of like-minded people into a team.

Missionary groups who are mistakenly called teams suffer in two ways: (1) they fail to catch the synergy that is inherent in real teamwork, and (2) they waste a lot of energy in trying to act like a team. Missionaries and mission organizations ignore this to their peril.

So if you want to be an effective team, first make sure you really are a team. Then you can move onto the next step:” .….. continue reading “Part Two” of David’s EMQ article, posted by Ed Stetzer at The Exchange, Christianity Today.

Article published in EMQ

Some wonder if working in teams is worth it. We believe, YES, it is! As long as the team has a goal that compels people to work together, and as long as its members work to maintain good team health.

Read David’s article, “Teams in Mission: Are They Worth It?” in the Evangelical Missions Quarterly, EMQ online, linked here.

All the photos were taken in Prague. You may see someone you know.

Take a few minutes to read and ponder the reflection questions at the end, such as, What’s something that you could do this week that could improve trust in your team?


But we must!

David had felt “but we must!” have conflict resolution with Z___, and was not given that opportunity. God worked in wonderful ways, however, and we are reminded of how good He is.

Recently we taught class sessions on Cross-cultural Communication and Biculturalism, and I had the opportunity to remember and appreciate the bigger story.

The teammate who stayed, the young Japanese pastor, grew and kept growing. More than ten years later, he is still pastor and the church continues as a creative witness in its community.

Communication, understanding and trust were strengthened between the mother church elders/pastor and the younger pastor over the years we worked together, and David played a key role in that. All of this took place in Japanese, with its nuances of respect, honor, and varying degrees of indirectness. Ironically, the gaikokujin (literally “outside country person”) who was operating outside of his native culture and language, was used by God to aid their communication with each other.

The book hadn’t been written yet, but David was following principles described by Duane Elmer in Cross-cultural Servanthood (2006). Openness, acceptance, trust, learning, and understanding are what “must be” modeled and pursued in ministry teams, if we are to thrive and succeed. I am honored to have seen that in action, especially in a multi-cultural setting with its extra challenges.

Reflecting upon what happened

Last week, I shared a story about a conflict between myself and my teammate. One day after the worship service, he commanded me to sit down and began a litany of complaints against my leadership over the past few years of working together. I argued a little, but mostly I listened.  I was stunned to see him step out of character, and out of the cultural norms I had learned from Japanese culture.

Over the following days, I reflected upon what had happened:  How long had I been causing offense to my colleague? Why hadn’t I noticed signals of tension in our relationship?  What was at the core of this conflict?  What should I do now?

How long was I causing offense?
By listening to my colleague that day, I learned that my words and behaviors had caused him consternation for at least a year.  He brought up things I had said or decisions I had made months before the current conflict over how seats were to be arranged during our worship service.  As I considered this, I realized that the tensions had escalated after a third person joined our leadership team.  It was not just about him and me.

Why didn’t I notice signals of tension in our relationship?
I felt so dense.  I had no idea that he was growing more and more frustrated with me. As he spoke about some of the specific issues, I began to see how some of my actions had made him to feel this way.  I thought I had been working hard to show him respect and appreciation, but I realized I had been taking him for granted.  I expected him to speak up when there were problems between us, but he was following cultural norms by not pointing out my mistakes or bringing up complaints to my leadership – until this fateful day when he couldn’t hold it in any longer.

What is at the core of the conflict?
As I thought about why my colleague was so upset, and how my own behaviors contributed to the problem, I gained a stronger framework from which to view the situation.  I determined that the primary conflict wasn’t between him and me, but between him and the third member of our leadership team.  There were a host of assumptions, communication patterns, and a culture clash at the root of this to which I had been oblivious.  Of the three of us, I was the only non-Japanese.  But this time it wasn’t primarily about the brash American who couldn’t fit in.

What should I do now?
In the knowledge that I was not in control of the outcome and I was not in control of how others would act, I identified several action steps:
-make a greater effort to listen to both of my colleagues
-apologize for some specific wrongs I had done
-call in help from outside our team.
-forgive my teammate for ways that he had wronged me, whether or not he ask for me to.
-ask & expect Christ to use my actions and the actions of each member of His body of this glory.

And that is what I did.  If you want to know the rest of the story, please post a comment!


Anyone who has joined a short-term missions project is told early and often that flexibility is essential to success in another culture.  You can count on things being different than what you expect.  I’ve taught the importance of adaptability to every short-term volunteer that ever came to work with us, and we taught it again last week at orientation for long-term appointees with our mission organization who are preparing for deployment overseas.

The ability to adapt is all the more important for those who have been serving across cultures for several years.  After working hard to learn a language and understand how a culture operates, we tend to get lazy and assume that we understand how things work – until we get surprised by a new twist in the culture.

After several years of ministry in Japan, I came to understand the value of harmony and the practice of talking around a controversial issue rather than confronting disagreements head on. So imagine my surprise one day after our worship service, when my teammate sharply commanded me to sit down and proceeded with a a long list of complaints against me and my leadership.

After this uncomfortable conversation, I had to step back and process what was happening.  How long had I been doing things to offend him, and why didn’t I see the signals earlier?  Was this a natural cultural behavior – to pretend things were harmonious through years of working, but slowly let the grievances pile up until it was time to unleash them all in one apocalyptic conflict?  Was he even acting according to the norms of his culture, or was there something particular going on in my teammate’s heart that caused him to act outside those norms?

It may not be the culture that surprises us. We forget that every individual in every culture is unique; not everyone acts the way we expect them to. So no matter how well we learn the culture where we are sent, we need to see each person as an individual.  That’s why adaptability is an essential skill for effective cross-cultural leadership.

Adaptability requires a “willingness to practice behaviors that are universally acceptable, learning behaviors that are culturally specific, and minimizing behaviors that are ineffective” (Wilson, 2003).*  Some leadership skills seem to effective everywhere you go, but some are only effective in specific cultures, and some that may be effective in one culture are counterproductive in another culture.

How do we develop our ability to adapt? It starts with humility, a determination to listen well to those we serve, a heart of openness to what others are thinking and doing. If we are quick to judge, we will be slow to adapt.  Keep asking questions; keep listening to the answers.  Assume you don’t understand all that needs to be understood. Lead with your ears.


*Wilson, Meena Surie (2003). “Effective cross-cultural leadership: Tips and techniques for developing capacity.” In Boyacigiller, Goodman, & Phillips, Eds., Crossing Cultures: Insights from master teachers. New York, NY: Routledge. Pp. 269-280.

Leading teams


Is my work group a team? Am I well trained to lead one?

“A team is a group of people with a common goal that compels them to work together.”

Why is it such hard work, and at times end in painful break-ups?

Teams who put effort into maintaining their own heath will be glad they did. We recognize a good team when we find one, but how do we really get there? Experience and research have led us to identify four qualities of a healthy team: a compelling purpose, deepening trust, open communication and mutual commitment.

This is not simple in practice. It takes work to clarify purpose, get work done, all the while maintaining trust and getting along. We have found that the “little” things can make a difference – doing what I say I will do, listening to ideas different from my own, and creating an atmosphere where people can be open and honest.

Teams can and should engage in conflict of ideas and opinions, which does not need to devolve into interpersonal conflict. A well-trained leader can identify the difference, and capitalize on the synergy that comes from a team full of good ideas.



Why we’re here

We love helping leaders who cross cultures in order to serve people. That’s why we’re here.

We love Jesus Christ and believe that He is working out His purposes among all peoples of the earth. He calls ordinary people to go from their own culture to another in order to serve people in His name: cross-cultural servant leaders.  That’s who we’re for.

We envision a global missions force of cross-cultural servant leaders who are growing in competency and character so that they may effectively serve those to whom God sends them. We know ministry teams can thrive even in challenging circumstances when they receive proactive care, training and tools.  We understand that leaders grow through personal coaching that draws out the wealth of their own experience and God-given dreams. We believe mission organizations that are committed to developing healthy leaders and teams produce lasting Kingdom results.

We will provide content on this site to help mission leaders, teams and organizations to think, grow, and do what they are called to do.  We welcome your participation – questions, comments, disagreements.  Help us to know how we can help you.

Grace & peace,

David Sedlacek, PhD
Missionary, TEAM | The Evangelical Alliance Mission