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Team Culture

Blog -> Leadership

If you try to be everything for everyone, you end up being nothing for anyone

One of my personal highlights each year is to attend the Global Leadership Summit, or as we call it here: GLS (http://www.willowcreek.com/events/leadership/). It's a fascinating experience. The speakers are world class, and every year we learn amazing things. Most people who attend the summit here speak very highly of it, love the teaching and are determined to "do something better from this day onwards". Every year is awesome. 

One of the topics that is covered in several talks each year is the whole aspect of "Team Culture". There was one talk by Patrick Lencioni that really rocked my world. I don't remember his exact words, but the meaning was basically this: "If you try to be everything for everyone, you'll end up being nothing for anyone." 

That simple sentence took me months and years to chew on. Because I realized that this is exactly where we were with Alpha, the ministry we are leading. What we tried to do until that day was to simply embrace EVERYONE. Isn't it very Christian to think like that? The gospel is for everyone. Therefore, we try to embrace everyone. 

Well, that sounds good in theory. But in reality it simply doesn't work. Here are some main problems we ran into, trying to embrace everyone:

  • Language: We tried to embrace people with different language skills. So we suddenly had the need for translators, etc. As a result, we slowed everybody down, and lost a lot of English speakers, because they got frustrated that most of the discussion time was used for translation, not to answer questions. And of course, it wasn't really possible to create unity within the groups, because nobody was able to speak to everybody else in the group. So instead of one big group, we really had 3 or 4 sub groups.
  • Maturity Level: We tried to embrace seekers, atheists, new Christians, mature Christians, those who didn't know where else to go in the church,... We tried to embrace everybody. However, as a result, we had no focus in the discussions. A seeker has very different questions and needs compared to the person who has already been a Christian for the last 30 years. As a result, there wasn't really anything we could discuss. If we focused on the needs of a seeker, we left everybody else bored. If we focused on the needs of a mature Christian, nobody else understood what we were talking about. We didn't really have a discussion. People asked questions that were only relevant to them personally, and we answered them. That's not a group discussion. We don't need a group setting if we simply want to answer people's questions.
  • We had no common beliefs. Of course we all believed in Jesus. But there are of course topics that Christians have different opinions on. So during the small group discussion, a seeker asked a question, and we among ourselves started arguing with each other what the correct answer is. 
  •  ...

These are just a few examples. My point is: By trying to be everything for everyone, embracing anyone, we created a lot of problems for ourselves. We didn't have a focus. Our attendies felt that, they weren't satisfied with their experience. As a result they left. In the beginning we had a huge group. But most people left after a week or two. And as a result, by trying to embrace everyone, we didn't really reach many people. The more people we embraced, the less people we actually truly served.

Lencioni's talk set us on a journey to fix this very issue. And we started making a few changes:

  • We defined that Alpha runs strictly in "English only". Nobody else is allowed to speak any other language. In an extreme case, if someone is unwilling to cooperate, we tell people to leave.
  • We defined who we are trying to serve. And instead of simply announcing that "Alpha is open to anyone" we now announce "Alpha is open to people who have a lot of questions about the basic claims of the Christian Faith". And in an actual session, we don't even try to accommodate other people. We only focus on the basics of the Christian Faith. If it's "too basic" for an attendee, bad luck. We won't even try to focus on questions raised by more mature Christians. There are other places in the church where we focus on "more mature topics". But on Alpha, we only focus on the foundations.
  • We defined a team identity and tell every team member what we believe in. And we tell everybody: "If you want to join our team, we expect you to agree with us on these issues. And if someone asks you these questions, you have to answer in line with this team identity. If you have a problem with this, then tell us now." Sometimes people who wanted to serve on our team then choose to walk away, because they can't agree with us on these topics.
  • ...

Now obviously, the result of this action was painful for a while. Instead of the seeing constant growth, like we did until then, we suddenly saw our ministry go through a season of decline. Numbers went down. Morale went down a bit. Events were smaller, didn't feel as exciting as the "huge numbers" we had a year earlier, etc. 

And of course there was this nagging question inside of me: Was this really the right decision? Is it OK to turn people away just because they don't fit our profile? (Btw: We do give people alternatives. If we say "no" to someone because of our culture, we usually try to find a different ministry or a different church for this person, to not send them away empty handed. We still try to help them, just not necessarily by "allowing them to join our ministry") Is it really Biblical to tell people "no" just because they don't speak our language well enough or because they are "too mature" to fit the Alpha profile?

Such questions lingered with me for many months. But eventually we saw the wonderful fruits coming out of the changes we made:

  • We retain more people. People feel much more comfortable, hence they stay with us long term. And those who do stay long term get the attention they require. And therefore, more people do accept Jesus now than before.
  • People get a strong sense of unity. We don't send out confusing messages to our seekers any longer. Anybody who goes through the 10 weeks of Alpha will know that everybody on the Alpha team agrees that "sex outside of marriage is sin" or that "Everybody on the Alpha team agrees that Jesus is the only way. Any religion that doesn't confess Jesus as God and salvation by Faith in Jesus alone must be wrong". This unity is so much more convincing to our seekers. 
  • We learned to build bridges. Since we realized that "we cannot accommodate everybody" we learned to work together with other groups. So if a person comes to us who speaks very limited English, but perfect Japanese,... we know where to send this person. We're happy, because we don't get slowed down by having to translate for this person. The other person is happy, because he/she can communicate in a language he/she is comfortable in. It's a win/win for everybody. We just needed to let down our pride, thinking that "we are the best solution for everyone". And simply acknowledge: We're not! We can serve some people. But not everybody. 

Has the ministry shrunk? Yes, at least for the time being. Was the process painful? Yes. Were we disappointed when numbers went down? Absolutely. 

But: It was the right decision. If we simply judge our ministry by "how many people did we have the first week of Alpha" then we did a bad job, and we made the wrong decision. However, that's not our goal any longer. Our goal now is this: We want to preach the full gospel to as many non Christians as possible. To preach the full gospel, we need to keep people throughout the weeks of Alpha. And even though we start smaller in the beginning, we retain a much higher percentage of the people who come in in the first place. And of those who do finish, a much higher percentage actually does accept Jesus. Plus, many of those who we send to a different ministry or church feel much more comfortable there. And they often tell us weeks or months later that they have become Christians in the context of the ministry that we sent them to. 

Do we like the feeling of "sending people away and seeing our ministry shrink? Absolutely not. But we realized that now we have a stronger foundation. And we know that now that we have this foundation, we now have the capacity to grow again. If we had simply continued to grow without the foundation of our new Team Identity, we would eventually have collapsed, we couldn't have handled the increasing numbers any longer. But now we have a stonger foundation that can handle a new increase whenever it comes.

Now of course that leads to important questions. How do I come up with my team identity? What are our Core Values? What are our Anchors? How can we define what we do and what we do not do, what we try to achieve and what opportunities we choose to pass on?

These are awesome questions, and they would certainly exceed a simple blog. So instead, have a look at Patrick's book: 

The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business (http://www.amazon.com/Advantage-Organizational-Health-Everything-Business/dp/0470941529/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1429285535&sr=8-3&keywords=patrick+lencioni)

A great read if you want to make your organization better. If you have a team, if you have an organization, if you have any kind of authority to move an organization or a group of people in one direction or another, then you should read this book. If you don't, then you can also use Patrick's principles for your own life or your family. Know your calling, know what God wants you to do (and what He doesn't want you to do). And then focus on that calling, and leave all other opportunities to other people who are called towards those different opportunities. And you'll realize that everybody wins when we all simply focus on what matters most to us, and don't try to be "everything for everyone, because then we will end up being nothing to anyone". 

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