How to build high-performance parish teams

Leading like Christ — as a servant, steward and shepherd — is the blueprint that inspires trust and fosters teamwork

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Dynamic teams are the secret sauce of transformational parishes. Yet it’s difficult to talk about building dynamic teams in parishes because parishes are so diverse. Their size and circumstances vary widely. On one end of the spectrum are rural parishes with perhaps 100 registered families that run on volunteerism. At the other end are megaparishes with 3,000 or more families, served by a host of paid ministry professionals. They all have the same broad purpose, but their dynamics are as different as night and day.

Discussion also is complicated by the variety of teams with which pastors must deal. There is the staff, no matter how large or small; pastoral and finance councils and any other councils the parish may have; various ministry teams and special interest groups; even ecumenical organizations that include nonparish players. For pastors of multiple parishes there also is the issue of interparish teams, whether they involve staff or lay volunteers.

Across this broad landscape the expectations and commitment of team members will vary widely. Members of some teams will interact daily, others monthly and still others only quarterly or semiannually. As team members interact more frequently over a broader range of issues, the dynamics of team behavior become progressively more important, and thus the time and effort devoted to team building becomes more critical.

Despite all the diversity inherent in the dynamics of team building in parishes, the core task is always the same: Team building comes down to trust building. As trust among team members grows, so does team performance. Team members will always have differences, occasionally even conflicts. But in a high-trust environment, differences can serve as assets and conflicts can be resolved more easily.

Start with Self

As with any building project, the quality of the builder figures prominently in the quality of the outcome. It’s as true of team building as it is of house building. Effective teams need effective leaders, and effective leadership begins on the inside, in the leader’s heart and mind. The most powerful tool in the pastor’s toolbox is his own behavior. So the most basic requirement of any team-building effort is that the team builder has a collaborative heart and mind. Both come easier for some than others. But all of us can get better with persistent prayer and effort.

Every priest can jump-start or accelerate the process by adopting a vision of their parish that corresponds to St. Paul’s view of the Church as the Body of Christ and then learning some basics about how a healthy body works. Read, reflect and share that scriptural insight often, starting with 1 Corinthians 12:4 through 13:13, but not ending there.

In regard to how a body actually works, the assumption that the head directs all of the body’s processes and makes all of its decisions is just plain wrong. Yes, the head is the final arbitrator of all conscious decisions. But most of the body’s processes — especially the life-sustaining ones — occur below the level of consciousness. Our bodies’ many parts act in unison around a shared drive to sustain the body. That concert requires a host of virtuoso individual and cooperative team performances. So it is in parishes and with parish teams. You need competent people who will work together.


Additional Resources

“Appreciative Team Building: Positive Questions to Bring Out the Best in Your Team” (iUniverse, $15.95) offers a list of 48 questions that can be used to build team identity in safe, brief discussions at team meetings.

“Appreciative Inquiry in the Catholic Church” (Thin Book Publishing, $9.99 e-book) provides actual case studies that confirm appreciative inquiry’s value and broad applicability in parishes and other Catholic settings.


A parish is vastly more complex than a single body, so it’s obvious that no one can manage it alone without jeopardizing the physical, emotional and spiritual health of self and parish. You need to develop teams, and that means you need to develop trust. You also need to trust the process and give it time. Through it all, you need to perform consistently. One blowup can undo months or years of progress.

In all of this, strive to lead as Jesus led. We call his approach S3 Leadership — to lead as a servant, steward and shepherd. A servant leader realizes, “It’s not about me.” A steward leader realizes, “It’s not mine.” A shepherd leader never forgets that people are precious. When exercised in a parish setting, it’s being guided by the “He and We Principle.”

Much of life is self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s why a pastor or parish administrator needs to cultivate a bias in favor of encouraging people to grow and contribute to good outcomes. The fact is that people live up to — and down to — expectations. Your optimism is not always directly instrumental, but it is absolutely influential.

Bottom line: Expect the worst and you almost surely will find it. (I insert the word “almost” only because it’s possible that the Spirit will take pity on you and give you an outcome that is better than deserved.) Still, usually you get what you expect. So adopt a positive, hope-filled mindset — sometimes even despite the empirical data at hand.

Sharing a Perspective


Once you are squarely committed to living and fostering collaboration, it’s time to turn your attention to building a team or teams of people who share that perspective. Among the more than 20 books I consulted for this article, one thin edition stands out: “Parish Leadership: Principles and Perspectives” by Father William J. Byron, SJ. While better known for his distinguished leadership in Catholic higher education, Father Byron brings firsthand experience as a pastor to his insights about parish leadership. His book highlights the need for “a shared spirituality” among parish team members, and he offers several practical steps to achieve it.

He doesn’t propose a homogeneous, one-size-fits-all spirituality. But he makes the important point that everybody on the team has to be pulling in the same direction — an effort that arises and is sustained by a common faith and vision. “The hope here is to bring providers of parish service — men and women, ordained and not ordained — together on a common ground of shared convictions capable of shaping a parish culture,” he explains. “Shared spirituality is the foundation for effective parish leadership.”

Building Trust

Gone are the days when a title guaranteed a host of trusting followers. Today trust is mostly a matter of mutuality. It’s true that some people are more inclined to be trusting than others, but for trust to be sustained, it must be earned and earned again. Recognizing that modeling is a more powerful teacher than preaching, trust building begins by trusting others. That’s the first sign that you are a trustworthy leader.

You are going to want team members to bring their brains to work (and then to put them to use when they get there). For that to happen, team members need to feel safe. Leaders who provide psychological safety and support are providing important team-building blocks. In his classic work “Essentials of Organizational Behavior,” Stephen P. Robbins, professor emeritus in management at San Diego State University, says trust grows along five dimensions:

∙ Integrity: Be honest and truthful.
∙ Competence: Display technical and interpersonal knowledge and skills.
∙ Consistency: Be reliable, predictable and use good judgment.
∙ Loyalty: Be willing to support and protect others on your team within the limits of policy and law.
∙ Openness: Be willing to share ideas and information freely within the limits of personal privacy and discretion.

All play a role in trustworthiness, but he says that “integrity and competence are most critical characteristics.” (See sidebar above for practical steps to build trust with others.)


Listening Is Powerful

Among all the tools you have to build trust and teamwork, the most powerful is probably the ability to listen. As Stephen Covey notes, we should “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” He distinguishes between five levels of listening — the most powerful being empathic listening, listening with a conscious effort to understand. A priest friend and author, Msgr. Thomas Brady, calls it redemptive listening, which suggests both its ministerial character and the power it has to change the lives of those to whom you are ministering.

This kind of listening requires, first, that you really care about the other person. Assuming that’s the case, here are five suggestions for developing the habit of heartfelt listening:

∙ Ask open-ended questions.
∙ Create, even schedule, space and time to listen.
∙ Seek feedback frequently.
∙ Engage on a personal level, recognizing that it increases engagement and productivity while decreasing turnover. Many people really do work as much for the boss as for the job, and the chief cause of turnover is dissatisfaction with the boss.
∙ Take time to learn and understand their unique goals and passions. If you are able to connect these to your organization’s purpose, their internal motivation will grow exponentially.

Projecting Power Distance

Also give some thought to power-distance issues and how you present yourself. The United States is a low power-distance culture, where efforts to highlight differences in power or status can undermine efforts to generate trust and healthy interaction. The vocation of priesthood and the position of pastor come with certain prerogatives, and many are likely to show deference for your position. But if you insist on maintaining a lot of distance with key team members — always being seen in clericals and being addressed as Father Surname in every setting — it will impede your ability to form close, high-trust, interdependent relationships with them.

Last thought on this subject, offered by Ed Schein, professor emeritus of the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Peter Schein, a strategy consultant in Silicon Valley: “It is hard to lie or withhold information from someone you have gotten to know well.” The price of emphasizing distance is generally the loss of psychological safety, trust and good feedback on the part of team members.

Three Tools for Team Building

When it comes to developing effective parish teams, there are three basic ways to proceed: hire them, train them and reward them for good pro-team behaviors.


The first option, hiring, sounds easy. But in this highly individualistic culture, with its emphasis on solitary performance, finding highly competent team members who are also team players is not always easy to do. Moreover, when you are assigned to lead a parish, it usually comes with ready-made teams. Nevertheless, when opportunities to hire emerge, don’t squander them. Pay attention to each applicant’s work history, education and skill set. But also inquire about their team quotient (TQ).

Use a mix of historical and theoretical questions to do this. Historical questions include: Can you describe an experience when being part of a team was very gratifying? What was accomplished? What role did you play? Why was it so satisfying? How was the experience different from an individual accomplishment? Theoretical questions might include: If two of your peers (or subordinates) clashed, how would you handle it?

Also ask questions to probe the applicant’s social quotient (SQ) and emotional quotient (EQ). If you’re not familiar with these terms, look up Daniel Goleman’s work. His insights are invaluable to every aspiring leader. From this broader perspective, it’s clear that you have two concerns: Is the applicant competent? Will she or he play nice in your sandbox?

Even in settings where staff members spend most of their time in their own specialty silos, interaction with other staff members and congregation members is inevitable. If they are not good team players, you will inevitably see your time and energy consumed by dealing with interpersonal tensions and putting out brush fires. You deserve better!

Fortunately, you have two other tools for team building at your disposal. You can improve team dynamics and outcomes with training and rewards. With training, it’s best to mix everyday behaviors with explicit training experiences. Devote time at every meeting to building relationships among team members.

After prayer I like to start meetings by giving everyone a turn to talk about a “well-fed monkey.” That’s a lighthearted way to ask them to describe recent on-the-job successes. They don’t have to be big. In fact, highlighting little things helps sharpen everyone’s eyes to the details and the rewards for good service that pop up everywhere. Another benefit: As people become accustomed to sharing successes, they are more inclined to share their failures — always an opportunity for cheap, rapid learning.


Teams I’ve led always have loved simple little exercises that help them get to know themselves and each other a little better. A Google search for “team-building activities” turns up more than 1 billion references. That’s a lot of help. It’s up to you to determine which activities will be well-received by your team, but it’s a task you can delegate to a trusted team member or members. Keep it fun.

Just as successes in parish service don’t have to be big to matter, neither do they have to be big to celebrate. In fact, celebrating small successes is the best way to foster more of them more often from more team members. And the best way to celebrate successes is with praise and gratitude. Words matter. A priest’s words of praise are powerful. And when they come from a pastor (or parish administrator) who is perceived as a good, kind and caring man, they can be life-shaping. Remember the old adage, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Successes of any kind and magnitude should be praised in a spirit of gratitude in both individual and team settings. Be sincere. Do not be patronizing. But realize that since leadership begins on the inside, and that the more your spirituality is infused with gratitude, the more you will be able to sincerely praise and express gratitude to others. In any event, do not be sparing with your blessings. They are absolutely critical when it comes to shaping others’ behaviors. Offered in the context of small, intimate liturgies, they can be transformative.

Realistic Goals

The amount of time and trouble you devote to explicit team-building activities depends on the role and circumstances of the team with which you are dealing. There isn’t much time to do anything with teams that meet only a few times a year. That said, since team building is ultimately trust building, some attention should be paid to it in every team setting. At the very least, reminding team members of their vision and mission whenever they gather is an important way to assure that members have a shared perspective as they address their agendas.

With teams that meet often and include members who interact daily, time spent in explicit team-building activities of any kind is likely to be time saved many times over when it comes to dealing with personnel problems and mediocre team performance. In all cases, the team that prays together grows and contributes together. Let’s be we in the presence of God.


Let’s return to Father Bryon’s book “Parish Leadership: Principles and Perspectives,” where he says leaders should focus on nine virtues that together constitute “the fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness (and) self-control (cf. Gal 5:22-23). Consider them the framework of sound team building.

One thing you don’t find on the list is “change.” To want change is fine. Dream of it. Plan for it. Pray for it. But healthy relationships are always the lever of effective, life-giving change. If you first build effective, high-trust teams, then the change you inevitably see will be the change you want to see. Happy pastoring.

OWEN PHELPS, Ph.D., is director of the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute and editor of The Catholic Leader e-newsletter.

Pastoring multiple parishes: A challenge in team building

Of the many factors that complicate team building efforts, one deserves special attention: pastoring multi-parishes. It’s becoming more common, and some credible sources say that 50 percent of all Catholic faith communities may be sharing a pastor by 2020. In the diocese where I spend about 40 percent of my time and serve as chair of my parish council, multiparish assignments are the norm, not the exception.

In these settings, team building becomes more challenging. Barriers to building interparish teams include:

∙ Focus: The pastor has more than one parish to lead.
∙ Time: Staffs are small and often consist of mostly or exclusively part-timers.
∙ Distance: Parishes are often many miles apart.
∙ Resistance: Active resistance of staff and parishioners who fear that any interparish activities are but a prelude to closing their own parish.

These barriers can be so daunting that some pastors don’t even try to develop interparish teams despite the potential benefits both to the parishes and to him personally. That said, it’s important to try to develop some interparish interaction and build rudimentary trust and teams in that context.

As you proceed, forget fiat. Encourage and inspire. In each parish setting, sell interparish collaboration on the basis of immediate benefits to that parish. A good first step is to schedule both parish and interparish staff meetings — the former regularly, the latter at least occasionally.

A good excuse for interparish staff meetings is the opportunity for a good program that can’t be offered multiple times in multiple places. But be sure to schedule enough unstructured time for people to socialize.

Consider asking each participant to share something they appreciate about their parish. That accomplishes two things: people learn more about the other parishes and about their staff members. The same approach can work with pastoral councils.

A good program can provide the rationale for getting them together — and a rationale is important when trust is low, as it is likely to be.

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