The “Ministry Leadership Team” – the Best Model?

George Cladis, Leading the Team-Based Church. San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1999. vii-xv, 1-189.

According to Cladis the best of kind of leadership model for the North American church in this postmodern era is the ministry leadership team. He begins by grounding his model in Trinitarian theology. Then he defines seven specific characteristics, based on his understanding of the Trinity, that such a team should cultivate and exhibit, discerning along the way connections between these characteristics and the contours of postmodernism. Effective ministry teams will be covenanting, visionary, culture-creating, collaborative, trusting, empowering, and learning. In the second section of his book Cladis treats each of these elements in detail, providing examples of their effectiveness and importance to the success of a ministry team leadership model.

When I saw that his first chapter would establish a theological foundation for ministry leadership teams in the way the Trinity operates, I was eager engage his ideas. He makes reference to Rublev’s Icon of the Holy Trinity, with the three persons pictured as sitting, perhaps on thrones, around a central table. Intense, intimate, but calm discussion seems to be occurring among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Cladis correctly discerns that Rublev was expressing the concept of perichoresis, the interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity. However, his argument that this term means ‘dance’ is, unfortunately, misguided. The term perichoresis does not mean ‘dance’.1 This is the meaning of the similar sounding perichoreusis, a term not used in the Greek fathers to describe the relationship within the Trinity. The Rublev icon does not show the members of the Trinity dancing, but sitting in quiet, intimate interaction. However, this mis-step does not affect the fundamental analogy that the relationship among the Trinity holds for ministry leadership teams.

The seven attributes of ministry teams that Cladis identifies can be “derived from this imagery of the Trinity.” In particular the ‘culture of love’ that defines the Trinity is perhaps the fundamental reality that ministry leadership teams must recognize and embody. The view of sanctification as a constant learning is intriguing. Although Cladis identifies seven key attributes, I do not think he intends his list to be exhaustive. For instance, one of the characteristics of the Trinity is its creativity, but this is not explicitly noted by Cladis as a characteristic of ministry leadership teams.

The fit that Cladis sees between a ‘team-based’ ministry leadership and the current postmodern culture raises a question. When postmodernism wanes, will the relevance and appropriateness of team-based ministry also wane? Or will the team-based ministry model have continued usefulness? And what about cultures where hierarchical structures are still operative? Does this model work in such settings? One presumes that if his model truly reflects and embodies Trinitarian attributes, i.e. the image of God, then it should be effective in any human cultural setting.

Despite his intense focus on factors that make ministry leadership teams function successfully, Cladis spends little time defining what a ministry leadersip team is. On pages 124ff. Cladis argues that “the church in the postmodern world must return the ministry to the people.” He suggests that “the principal leadership group [should] become covenanting, vision-seeking, culture creating, and collaborative first.” However, he then says that “One of the most important places for First Church to seed team ministry is the church board.” After describing what he considers the normal way such a church board operates he insists that “First Church would change this pattern” (125). He considers the “First Church of Appleton leadership team” is distinct from the church board and must work to “reform it into a team.” This language indicates that Cladis considers the “principal leadership group” to be other than the church board.  

Through various means the “First Church of Appleton Board of Elders” becomes “the Apple Core Team” (126). According to Cladis this new Apple Core Team works to develop “a cohesive strategy for the ministry of the congregation.” However, he still sees a distinction between “the leadership team and the Apple Core Team.” Through the adoption of strategies such as consent agendas, the Apple Core Team transformed “otherwise boring parliamentary proceedings…into strategy discussions for moving ahead with pertinent plans for ministry and mission” (127).

He engages this question again on page 136. The leadership team seems to be composed of the lead pastor and other paid staff. Once it has been transformed, Cladis argues that “the next group that needs to reform itself is the next level of leaders: in most churches this level will consist of the elders, deacons, parish council or board of directors.”

All of this raises the question as to who constitutes the ministry leadership team in the congregation? Is it the board or is it the paid staff or is it some combination of the two? It seems that in Cladis’ perspective a church will have two ministry leadership teams – one composed of the paid staff, whom he designates the “principal leadership team”, and then the church board. If the pastoral staff constitutes this principal leadership team, how does this square with Cladis’ conviction that “the clergy must get out of the way of the people and encourage them on?”(124) Further, how does this principal leadership team relate to the group represented by the Apple Core Team?

Some clarification here would be helpful. Do these two groups have different, but complementary roles to play as ministry leadership teams in the life of a congregation? Is the group represented by the Apple Core Team accountable to the principal leadership team? The questions that Cladis leaves unresolved about this problem continue to generate dissonance and instability within congregations. All elders need to be part of the principal ministry leadership team, otherwise they cannot fulfill their spiritual role in the congregation. If two bodies in the same congregation have responsibility for establishing ministry direction and giving ministry oversight, then conflict inevitably will result.

Is it possible to constitute the principal ministry leadership team so that it includes all the elders, key ministry leaders, and paid pastoral staff? Could the church board be constituted in a way that is more representative of the congregation, giving general oversight to the congregation in its form as a non-profit charity (e.g. facility development, financial accountability, personnel policy, mission accountability, policy development, etc.)? Another direction might be to make the expanded principal ministry leadership team the church board. Some means needs to be found to bring coherence to the ministry leadership of the congregation. Without resolution of this question the opportunity for conflict to flourish is immense and the commendable outcomes that Cladis desires will probably not emerge.

1See previous article on perichoresis.