Teaming in Ministry: The Affinity Factor

By Drew Severson

The most important factor in determining whether or not a ministry is going to be successful probably has to do with an issue of teaming. However, the church seems to have bought into a myth about Christian teams that limits the effectiveness of many ministries.

A friend who went to Germany in the late ’70s with a Christian missionary organization said the prevailing attitude toward Christian teams at that time was summarized by the term sanctified partnerships. This essentially meant that if you were having trouble working closely with someone it was because you (or they) were not yet enough like Christ (i.e., you were immature in your Christian life).

Over the last 30 years or so, I don’t think much has changed in the way we think about Christians teaming together. There is a belief among many Christians that any two Christians ought to be able to work closely together and get along well.

However, experience, observations, and even biblical examples confirm this is not the case. Each of us will work better with some people than with others, and we need to be open and honest about it.

Several years ago a speaker at the North American Christian Convention said, “We most enjoy doing things when we do them with the people we most enjoy.” He called it the affinity factor. It works like this: when I spend time with certain people I am energized and encouraged; other people leave me drained and discouraged.

Contrary to the prevailing attitudes among many Christians, it is not a sin to work better with some people than others. Nor is it a sign of spiritual immaturity when a Christian doesn’t “click” with someone else. People have values and strong belief systems that are often eclipsed for the sake of “keeping peace.” Then people aren’t actually functioning as a team, they are functioning out of fear and submission. What appears to be harmonious on the outside is often a facade.

Understanding this truth about teaming is important for two reasons. First, the people we choose to partner with have the ability to either double the effectiveness of our ministry or cut it in half. Second, feelings of discouragement, bitterness, or guilt from being teamed with the wrong people have caused many to choose to leave the ministry.

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, talks about this teaming issue. His conclusion is it’s not only about heading the bus in the right direction, it’s also about getting the right people on the bus. Just because people get on the bus does not ensure they will function effectively as a team.

Paul and His Team

Acts 15 describes probably the most famous team breakup in the Bible. Paul and Barnabas are preparing to revisit all of the towns where they had left converts, to see how they are doing and encourage them. Barnabas recommended taking John Mark with them. Paul said, “No way! That guy deserted us last time; I am not going to bring him along again!” Acts 15:39, 40 says, “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.”

What biblical principles for teaming can we draw from this passage? First, both Paul and Barnabas seem to desire to do the same thing, encourage younger believers. And second, they both understood the importance of a team. Based on those two qualifications most mission organizations today would say, “That’s all you need.”

However, Paul and Barnabas decided it would be better not to partner together rather than to partner with the wrong person. Notice the Bible doesn’t say who was right and who was wrong. It simply says Barnabas took John Mark and Paul took Silas.

Luke, the author of Acts, travelled with Paul, so we do not know exactly what happened with Barnabas and John Mark. However, it is very likely they had an effective ministry since Paul later called John Mark useful. The simple truth is Paul knew he would not work well with John Mark.

That’s all. That was enough. Paul didn’t turn it into an issue of spiritual maturity for himself or John Mark. And he didn’t question John Mark’s faith or salvation.

The third principle we see in this passage is the splitting of Paul and Barnabas didn’t result in fewer workers for the kingdom, but more. There were now two teams that worked well together on the field instead of one that didn’t.

Jesus and His Team

A second biblical team we can look to for guidance is Jesus and his disciples. There is no indication of haste in Jesus’ selection of his disciples. Luke 6:12 says Jesus spent a night in prayer before choosing the 12 men he would partner with. Although the Bible doesn’t say what he prayed about, we can assume it was related to choosing the 12. If Jesus, who was the perfect leader, showed great care in the selection of those he would team with, how much more careful should we be?

We need to team with people with whom we can say, as Jonathan’s armor bearer said in 1 Samuel 14:7, “I am with you heart and soul.” It isn’t enough that we are both Christians or that we both desire to reach some city or people group, or that we share some basic doctrinal beliefs. We need to partner with people who have personality traits and leadership skills that add energy to our ministry, who can encourage us, and who are with us heart and soul.

You and Your Team

If you are serving in a ministry that is leaving you discouraged, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to be more spiritually mature or question your decision to be in full-time ministry. Acknowledge that God has made you to function best in a certain context and the one you are currently in may not be the best fit.

If you help direct staff assignments, don’t give in to the temptation to simply plug in anyone who is available. Give the potential team time together, and then listen to them. Let them know they don’t need some doctrinal issue to split over. It is enough for them point to the affinity factor and say, “I don’t think we will work well together.”

Since the people we partner with will in large part determine the effectiveness of our ministry, the decision about who to team with may be one of the most important decisions we make. It is our responsibility to use discernment as we look for the best place to serve, and the best people to serve with, in the body of Christ.

Drew Severson is currently serving on a team leading a young adult ministry at Calvary Christian Church in Bellevue, Nebraska.

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