Beyond Committees

Billy Norden

As I prepared to read Transform Your Church with Ministry Teams, I felt a healthy dose of skepticism. I was reminded of the time in my life when I became overly excited with a new diet and nutrition program that was guaranteed to result in the perfect body. After consuming the information, I excitedly told a friend about the uniqueness of the program. He looked at me with a furrowed brow and, with his signature tone of sarcasm, replied “Does the program tell you to eat right and exercise?” Book CoverIt was then that I realized this program was merely a new way of voicing old common sense practices. While I reacted similarly to the concept of transitioning a church to the ministry team model, my doubts subsided as I read this book and considered some of its unique proposals.

E. Stanley Ott argues that it is imperative for present day churches to examine the structure of their committee- based systems and move from these systems to groups that represent “ministry teams.” He describes ministry teams as a form of “…leadership that develops its people as well as pursues its vision” (1). He contrasts this model with the traditional committee, which is primarily task-oriented with less emphasis on the members of the committee.

Ott divides his work into three main sections. His first section addresses the process and complication of shifting a congregation to a team-based ministry. The second section examines how to assemble and structure a team. The third section describes how to maintain and “send” a team. A typical ministry team would consist of people who form the team on their own accord, invite others, and are personally motivated by the vision and mission of the team. Their first priority is fellowship and spiritual growth, which is then followed by implementing their mission.

Ott addressed one of my core questions early on in the book: are ministry teams merely committees with a new name? Perhaps he has encountered such skepticism since one of the initial divisions of his first chapter is entitled, “The Ministry Team: More than a Committee with a New Name” (7). The main argument here and throughout the book is that ministry must begin with and be centered in community. This includes community with each other (the team members) and community with God. While Ott acknowledges that committees can and sometimes do achieve authentic community, ministry teams prioritize fellowship over and above task-oriented goals. At this point, I began to be persuaded by the concept of ministry teams, not for its new and unique ideas, but because I realized that ministry teams inherently call us to restructure our busy lifestyles so that we have time to relate to each other.

Ott addressed a second nagging question of mine with less satisfaction: how do we transition a congregation to ministry teams when members are resistant to restructuring? Ott seems to believe that the leadership should move ahead with the transition regardless of resistance. He trusts that eventually those who are resistive will see the benefits and embrace the idea of ministry teams. This approach seems precarious to me, and in fact, it appears to contradict the very thrust behind Ott’s book. If our primary focus should be on the people rather than the task, then it seems inappropriate to move ahead with a plan that lacks the support of the people. Resistance to change is a natural and reoccurring event. Rather than charge ahead boldly, it would seem far more responsible to implement ministry teams incrementally, depending upon the unique circumstances of particular congregations.

My festering skepticism towards the book finally subsided as I focused on Ott’s discussion of leadership in a ministry team setting. This section is a wonderful reality check to congregational leaders today. Ott accurately notes that “…many church leaders are inclined to use a ‘lone ranger’ style of leadership” (44). Ministry Teams are an attempt to spread out the “workload.” Ott stresses that for ministry teams to be effective, the governing body of the church must give the team freedom to make decisions, to implement ideas, and even to fail. I was personally challenged by this section of the book because all too often I catch myself clinging to the adage, “If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.” Ott inspired me to believe in the individual gifts of those I serve and to then empower them to minister to others, including myself.

In the third section of the book, Ott focuses on “Nurturing Ministry Team Life.” Here one concept in particular struck me as a significant strength of the ministry team model. At the core of a ministry team is what Ott deems the “with me principle” (125). Using the backdrop of Christ’s ministry, Ott suggests that all ministry team activities and tasks should be done at least in pairs. I believe that this is the secret ingredient to Ott’s ministry teams. Even in the most mundane tasks, if they are accomplished by people working together, community is formed. It is obvious that Ott views his “with me principle” in high regard, as he has written more extensively about it in his book The Joy of Discipling. Simple and subtle changes like working on tasks in pairs have the ability to revitalize a congregation by restoring its sense of fellowship.

A ministry team is most commonly defined by Ott as a group with a focus on people and a focus on program. He seems to give each focus equal weight in the definition, yet when the book is broken down, approximately ninety percent of the book concerns the focus on people with the remaining ten percent left to focus on the program part of the equation. This lack of focus on accomplishing concrete tasks might lead the skeptics among us to pose the question, “How is this an improvement from the committee model?” Though he does offer suggestions, I am unconvinced that ministry teams will accomplish goals with more zeal than a committee. With that said, I do believe that ministry teams would greatly benefit the life of a congregation by focusing its attention on community-building.

Billy Norden is a senior Master of Divinity candidate at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is under care of Lake Erie Classis.