To achieve our goals of glorifying Jesus through creative storytelling and building a community of believing artists, we need a strong team. The strength of our team comes through our unity in the gospel. If Story Team staff, residents and artists are not united by the gospel of Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we cannot achieve our goals.
But how does a leader know if their team is strong? How can we assess if the team is unified? The first measure is surely in our shared community and faith. By understanding the personal relationships and spiritual maturity of our team we can start to assess if we are truly united. That is the first and most important aspect of our team’s health.
But, team strength is not only defined by how well we all know the gospel and love each other. Our team’s strength is also defined by how well we work together. From process and policy to collaboration and professionalism, all facets of how a team operates will impact the overall strength and capabilities of that team. Leaders must develop an accurate assessment of their team’s health across all of these facets, and the first step is understanding their team members’ points-of-view.
Before I was on staff at The Austin Stone Community Church, I served on Story Team first as a writer, and then my wife and I led the writing team as volunteer leaders. While serving in these three different roles for Story Team, it became clear that when a team is spread across differing roles, locations, time commitments and levels of experience, it’s hard to have a full mental picture of that team. When it comes to understanding all aspects of the team, there is a kind of fog that shields us from full knowledge.
This fog can be most acutely felt in the areas of feedback and morale. Without specifically working to understand what individuals within the team think, it is easy for a leader to develop tunnel vision focused on their highest priority projects and closest collaborators. This is a recipe for tension and conflict. When a leader finds themselves in this fog of uncertainty, leading and caring for a team becomes a virtually impossible task.
For these reasons, fighting that fog is one of the highest priorities for Story Team staff. We want and need to understand exactly what how our team members feel about the team, leadership, and how we operate. Today, we do this in two ways.
First, we understand the staff and resident roles as primarily pastoral, with creative execution second. Caring for our artists is foremost in our thoughts. While running the team and driving creative work forward is the largest share of our time, we care most for our people’s spiritual health.
Because of this, we seek to understand them not only personally and spiritually, but in the context of the team. With 60 artists serving on the team in total, we do not meet with everyone as much as we would like, but we do make it a priority to spend time with team members in conversation and community.
A large part of these conversations revolve around each person’s experience on the team. We ask questions and have conversations about key items. We will ask questions like:
- How have your last few assignments gone?
- Have you seen any areas that staff and leadership could better help with?
- Is your collaboration with other artists healthy? Has it contributed to better stories?
- How can we improve the process?
- How healthy do you think the team is as a community?
Conversations that come out of these questions yield great information about how the team is doing, where there may be trouble spots, and what kind of improvements can be made. When these conversations are had regularly across the team, leaders can have a clear picture of the health of the team.
Second, each year we do a survey of the team and strongly encourage everyone to participate. We created a fairly lengthy survey that covers all aspects of team operations and activities, and we send it to the team at the end of the spring semester. We ask questions in areas like:
- Personal information & involvement in church ministries
- Pastoral care
- Community health
- Team events
- Story assignment and execution
- Communication to the team
- Quality of critique & feedback
- Tools we use
We use largely the same questions each year, but adapt when necessary. We track results across the years to identify improvements and failures over time. Finally, we produce a report from the survey that we distribute to the Story Team staff, residents, and volunteer leaders. The raw results and direct feedback become an invaluable tool in our planning process for the next year.
Each summer we take our whole leadership team on a weekend retreat to plan for the next year. The first session of this retreat focuses on an honest discussion about the survey results. We walk through the report together, discuss the results and comments, and talk through what needs to be improved for the next year.
This process has yielded great improvements for the team. Most of the community events we currently do as a team came out of discussion about the community and events questions from the survey. Not all of the adjustments we make are successful; in fact, we have discontinued certain approaches to problems every year. There are some weaknesses we continue to struggle with year after year. But, on the whole, our team has benefitted greatly from using the survey in our yearly planning process.
Of course, we still struggle with many aspects of our team’s execution. We certainly do not have everything figured out. But, by using direct feedback from personal conversations and a data driven survey approach, we have a much better picture of the overall health and strength of the team.
As useful as our approach has been for our team, the specific implementation is not the answer to our problems. The questions we ask in one on one conversations and in the survey hold no magic bullets. They are simply tools we use to love and care for our artists. We use these methods only as ways to understand the team better. They cannot fix the problems they identify. The only real help in building an effective team is to seek unity in and through Jesus. These tools simply give us a better understanding of the situation, so we can then seek unity in the gospel as we move forward in our mission.
Feature image by Jordan Vonderhaar