It’s easy to imagine that the dream of any priest would be to have a ministry team, a group of lay people working closely with him, engaging in their own faith journey as they offer their time and talents toward a common purpose or mission. And a ministry team is a very Orthodox idea, even if we don’t see it in practice in every parish. St. Paul’s words in I Corinthians 12 speak specifically about how God gives diverse gifts to different members of the body. Nowhere in the Scriptures or in the Tradition of our Church do we read anything like, “And God hath bestoweth upon a single man all the necessary gifts for a thriving parish, which is why he dost get paid.”

Yet, why is it so rare to see ministry teams in our parishes? Why are so many priests overburdened by things that can be done by capable and committed lay people? Why does it seem like most parishes have a few people who do all the work, rather than most of the people, each offering something? What makes it so hard to develop a solid and sustainable team of lay leaders who assist in meaningful ways to build thriving parishes? Knowing the theological justification for lay ministry, while critical, does not seem to be enough.

Of course, some priests seem to have a knack for this. They seem to have special talents or abilities that enable them to engage their faithful, recruit and organize volunteers and discern their gifts, develop a vision, navigate conflict, and sustain a meaningful leadership team that works toward a common mission of the Church. They seem to be busy, but not burnt out.   For most of us, however, it can be hard to start, and we can easily get overwhelmed trying. The good news is it’s not magic, or some divine gift given to the lucky few. On the contrary, engaging a ministry team is in fact driven by a set of skills and strategies that we can learn and develop.

This means that the first step in building a team is to be a student, a learner, in Greek: μαθητής, a disciple. We need to embrace the path of learning ourselves, as we invite our people to engage and learn what it means to be a follow of Christ and a member of a community. That requires some amount of humility, recognizing that maybe we need to think about ourselves in new ways – not as the expert in all things. Rather, we are called to be the servant of all, called to empower others to succeed, rather than to make sure we succeed. We might need to realize that our goal is to please God, not our parishioners, and that leading has a lot to do with disappointing people, but for the right reasons. We might need to learn how to listen, or learn how to let go of control. We might need to learn what it means to be in charge, but not in control – how to stay closely involved without micromanaging. We might need to learn how to get in control of ourselves and our schedules, learning how to establish healthy boundaries with people, more than trying to meet everyone’s needs and demands. We might need to learn how to try something new and get comfortable failing. We might need to cultivate self-awareness, facing the fact that we have real weaknesses and that many of our parishioners have more talent than we do in a variety of areas. We might even need to re-think how we understand the priesthood.

Our priesthood is the center of our leadership and at the heart of collaborative leadership is our own heart, our inner life. It is not the end of the story of building a ministry team, just the most important part of the story. We look forward to welcoming our clergy in Grand Rapids, July 24, 2019 during the Archdiocese Convention, where we will unpack the impact of the inner life of a leader on team building. It will be just a part of our conversation exploring the skills and strategies for building a ministry team.

-Dr. Philip Mamalakis
M.Div., Ph.D., LMFT,
Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care
Holy Cross School Of Theology