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If your church isn’t thriving, chances are your team isn’t either.

Last week I watched ESPN’s 30-for-30 special titled “Four Falls of Buffalo” telling the story of the infamous four consectuve Super Bowl losses of the Bills in the 1990’s. As a Cowboys fan, I always thought of it as the two consecutive wins over Buffalo, but this documentary got me thinking about just how powerful team culture can be.

In the special, I learned that in that four-year span, no team in the NFL won more games than the Buffalo Bills. They even beat the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys in the regular season (both of which beat them in the Super Bowl). One commonly held belief was that the NFC during that time was simply the better conference, but Buffalo had a winning regular season record against NFC opponents in the four years they went to the Big Dance. So what went wrong?

What I found interesting was the former players talking about the last Super Bowl that they lost. The spirit of defeat that they felt at half-time, even though they were winning going into the third quarter. Despite their best efforts about what they wanted to believe about their team, the truth of their feelings was exposed by the morose looks on their faces as they trod into locker room. The game was lost at half time, even though the score was in their favor.

What does this have to do with the church, and your team?

If your team is falling short on the goals that matter most (whatever the Big Game is for you), there’s more than a little possibility that they don’t believe they can accomplish it. And it’s this ingrained belief–embedded in the culture of your team–that’s keeping your church from reaching the next level.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been dusting off some of the leadership books I was “made” to read in school, but meant little to me at the time. Ten years into my life in ministry, and the truth embedded in the theories has come to life. One such book is The Wisdom of Teams by Katzenbach (prounounced “cats in back”) and Smith. If you want to get a real education in the concept of team, I highly recommend it. But I thought I’d select some critical applications for you, adapted for the church from the wisdom of Katzenbach and Smith.

Here are three leadership hacks to improve your team:

1) Focus on performance goals.

One of the challenges of ministry is selecting the right kinds of goals. We name goals that are (understandably) spiritual things, but often don’t root them in reality. So we’ll say: “We want to be more evangelistic this year.” This is a noble goal, but it’s not one that will improve your team. A better goal with the same heart would be: “We will see a 20% increase in baptisms this year.” Now you’ve set a goal which requires the team to be more evangelistic. It also gives a starting point from which to develop clear strategies. It’s hard to improve your team by changing the way it thinks; it’s far easier to improve your team by shifting what it does. By aiming at a particular and specific goal, you can target those attitudes that are hurting your team’s culture–and transform it through doing the right things.

2) Be relentless about your systems.

High performance teams are committed to what Katzenbach and Smith call a “shared approach” but what we might call “systems.” Every team should have fundamental systems that everyone agrees is important. For a staff, especially, having a great system for meetings and accomplishing work products is especially critical. The “staff meeting” is often the most commonly overlooked “system” in the church. When there is ambiguity about how a meeting will function and what results it will produce, people get frustrated and feel meetings are a waste of time (they are). Additionally, when the staff systems in place put a higher burden for actual work products on some staff than others, tension and resentment can result from the disparity. Be relentless about building systems for your staff that provide consistency, fairness, and productivity.

3) Embrace mutual accountability.

According to the The Wisdom of Teams, one of the biggest differences between a working group and a real team is the presence of mutual accountability rather than individual accountability. Churches often love individual accountability. How do you know if your team’s culture embraces individual or mutual accountability? How often do the words come out of the leader’s mouth: “That’s on you.” The more that phrase is spoken or implied, the more you’ll hear, “That’s not my job,” from the rest of the team. Before you know it, everyone cares mostly about their own duties because they know any failures within their purview are “on them.” Real teams don’t work this way. Every endeavour is a team cause. “It’s on us,” is the attitude and failure is “on us,” too. Individual accounability is fundamental to mutual accountability, but can exist apart from it. Just because your team begins to share wins and losses doesn’t mean individuals are off the hook on their performance. In fact, the opposite is true. Research shows that the more dedicated teams are to shared wins and losses, the more dedicated individuals become to “doing their part” as effectively as possible.

Early on in “The Four Falls of Buffalo,” we hear the story of Scott Norwood. Norwood was the kicker for the Buffalo Bills in their first two Super Bowl appearances. In their first attempt at winning it all, they faced the New York Giants and had an opportunity to steal the win as the clock dwindled down. The Bills were a 49-yard field goal away from victory. Scott Norwood lined up for the kick, placed as much power into the effort as he could, and it sailed towards the uprights. It had plenty of distance, but as it got closer to the posts, the ball flew wide right. It was a miss.

Scott Norwood felt like he lost the Super Bowl, but his teammates (and the city of Buffalo) never let him feel that way. They believed the loss was “theirs” and not his alone. Scott Norwood worked hard through the offseason and ended up making a critical kick in a playoff win the next year that enabled them to go to another Super Bowl. The mutual accountability for the loss made Norwood want to work harder individually to bring team success the next year.

At the end of the day for Buffalo, all the things that went right weren’t enough to get them into the winner’s circle. Only the Bills could know which of these hacks might have been beneficial to them: better performance goals, a more concrete shared approach, even more mutual accountability. But looking at this list, I would imagine you know exactly what is holding your team back.

What are you going to do about it? What’s your next step?

Schedule a FREE coaching session to learn how you can begin building momentum with your team.