By Eddie Pipkin

August 25, 2016

There have been countless blogs written about motivating ministry teams. Any number of academic experts and high-priced speakers have shared tips and strategies for how to promote a gung-ho spirit among the troops. It is the holy grail of team management. In fact, some corporate entities have gone so far as to try to insist on a joy-filled work attitude as employee policy. In April of this year, the National Labor Relations Board actually ruled against T-Mobile for having a written guideline that dictated that workers “maintain a positive work environment in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships.” The NLRB found that a vague
characterization of what constituted a “positiveUpbeat work environment” could easily lead to coercion by the boss—that is, the boss gets to set the standard for what’s positive and what’s negative, so that everybody ends up being held accountable to a work environment in which everything is exactly the way the boss wants it.

In the case of T-Mobile, the NLRB determined that those who expressed a desire to unionize were critiqued for negativity in the workplace, and thus had their free speech suppressed. The greater issue, however, is if it even makes sense from a business standpoint for ‘the management’ to decree positivity. [Explore these issues in-depth with New Yorker writer, science and psychology expert Maria Konnikova’s article, “What Makes People Feel Upbeat at Work.”]

Of course, few work settings have a power dynamic more clear than that of the local church, where the dominance of pastors-in-charge can be daunting, and the lengths to which ministry leaders and staff members can go to keep such pastors in their happy zones can be legendary. Konnikova and the experts she quotes argue that simply insisting that people act positive, upbeat, and joyful is eventually counter-productive and a direct path to that old ministry bugaboo, burnout:

Worrying about whether or not you’re in violation of a feel-good policy and constantly monitoring yourself for slipups takes a mental toll. More than two decades of research suggests that thought suppression, or trying to stifle your initial impulses in favor of something else, can result in mental strain and may also impair other types of thinking—memory, self-control, problem solving, motivation, perceptiveness. When we are actively monitoring ourselves, our mental energy for other things suffers. The result is not only a less-than-positive work environment but also workers who are less-than-optimally productive. In other words, it’s bad business.

What goes for generic workers in this case definitely applies to ministry leaders (staff or volunteers). There is an added layer of judgment reserved for those who aren’t team players: in vision casting and ministry planning that begins and ends with prayer, the nay-sayer or the we-should-be-doing-more prophetic voice can be accused of not letting the Spirit lead. It is easy for a sense to be conveyed that dissension, critique, or coaching-to-a-higher-level-of-engagement is not welcome. This can lead directly to a case of the ‘blahs’ or the ‘good enoughs,’ and pretty soon there is a discernible lack of passion.

Konnikova quotes Penn State organizational psychologist Alicia Grandy as to how the second you tell a worker (or anybody) that they have to behave in a particular manner, they immediately become resistant to that required behavior:

Even more salient, Grandey argues, is the feeling of inauthenticity that enforced emotional displays create. In her research, she has found that putting on an emotional mask at work—conforming to a certain image that doesn’t necessarily correspond to how you feel or who you are—drains you of energy that can only be replenished if you then have an opportunity to be yourself.

Ministry gatherings of any sort frequently operate on a kind of emotional lingua franca of hugs, smiles, and empathetic nods. How good a job do we do of inviting a diversity of emotional perspectives and ways of being fully engaged in the process of guiding our ministry teams? I was recently part of a planning session in which the leader invited us to embrace a covenant of always encouraging one another. That is a noble goal, but there was no follow-up discussion of what being encouraged might look like from our different perspectives. There was a clear expectation that encouraging one another meant doing that in the sense that the leader experienced encouragement (which meant positive ‘attagirl’ or ‘attaboy’ language at all times—no challenging people, no critiques, no sarcasm). For me, that kind of enforced positivity was a roadmap to misery. An alternative approach, as noted in the Konnikova article, would be to set a generalized, laudable goal (“let’s make a pact to always encourage one another”) but then practice a lot of flexibility in letting people work out the specifics of what such encouragement would look like. Here are some ideas for best practices that create an environment in which ministry partners are naturally empowered to feel positive about their work and their team members:

• Strong, Regular Communication: Poor communication produces discouragement. Ministry partners feel out of the loop and uncertain about what’s next and what their responsibility is. One of the dangers about such poor communication is that it feels intentional—that is, even when it’s just a product of bad leadership habits, for team members it can very much feel as if they are being left out on purpose. Strong communication takes a variety of forms, but it is imperative that plans and strategies be documented in written form. For both clarity and reproducibility, this is an essential step.

• Open Channels for Feedback: Strong leaders provide opportunities for team members to share honest feedback. They can guide that feedback, insisting on precision of language and evidence to back up a critique, for instance, but there has to be a real sense that the feedback is welcome and valued. This means actively soliciting feedback. It is not sufficient to say, “Well, you know you can share anything with me.” People know that they can share with us when we ask them to share with us. This should also be done in various formats: verbally and in written form.

• Group Get-togethers That Aren’t All Work: To create a sense of teamwork, empathy, trust, and comfort in communicating, it’s hard to beat the old team building event. Give people an opportunity to break bread together and get them to occasionally break a sweat together with physical activity or a shared adventure. Maybe rent some of those inflatable Sumo suits as a way to blow off some steam. Do an ongoing series of these in which team members lead the team to their favorite restaurant or local adventure. That’s a great way to get to know more about each other (and to try out new and potentially challenging experiences with the support of a great group of cheerleaders).

• Group Get-togethers That ARE All Work: Use the team’s time well. Conduct meetings like a professional: on time, organized by a purposeful agenda, resulting in action points, and followed-up by the clear communication highlighted in our first bullet point. Do some prep for the meeting before arriving—make preparatory notes—think about the people in the room. Such preparation, done with diligence in order to maximize the time invested by your team members, is one of the responsibilities of leadership. One of the surest pathways to a universal positive outcome is people feeling like their most precious commodity—their time—was well used.

• Give Everybody a Chance to Run the Show: Make it a point to give every single team member a time to shine. Let different people run the meeting, set the agenda, do the follow-up communication. Let different team members pick a specific focus for a meeting, lead the devotional, pick a topic for deeper conversation, do an extended highlight of a ministry area important to them, or pick a practical project on which you could all work together one afternoon.

These are just a few of many possible positivity empowerment strategies. They are pretty different than the “everyone will be positive or else” approach. What are some of the strategies you have implemented or been a part of that enhanced team spirit and improved personal satisfaction? What are some of the fails you have experienced (or perhaps even caused—nothing leads to growth like a full-on failure)? Share your own experiences for one and all in the comments section.