Tuesday, June 9, 2009

What ministry teams can learn from watching The West Wing.

I have watched all seven series of The West Wing from beginning to end four times. I love it. But The West Wing is not just great entertainment. It is also pretty instructive. Specifically I think the way the Bartlett White House functions illustrates some pretty valuable concepts for ministry teams. And do you know what one of the most valuable is? The value of creative conflict within a team.

Josh, Toby, CJ and the rest argue with one another all the time. They argue in front of the President. If Toby says something and Josh disagree with it he just says so and then he explain why. Then they might argue about it for a while and someone else might chime in. There might be some passion and heat in the argument. Eventually, whoever actually has responsibility for the decision makes it, and they all line up behind it, whether they were in favour of it or not. Nobody is offended that their view doesn’t prevail. Nobody feels it is wrong for them to openly hold a view that contradicts anybody else’s (or everybody else’s). People don’t withdraw and change the subject when heat and passion enters the discussion.

Their willingness to argue passionately with one another help to ensure that all the strengths and weaknesses of an idea or an initiative are considered; that risks and opportunities are identified. The result is better decisions more effectively implemented and generally made more quickly.
It works because they are committed to a common cause which they consider noble and important and because they all have a great respect for one another and a strong sense of loyalty to their team.

Does our ministry culture allow us to function in that way? Do the people on our teams clam up at the first sign of heat in a discussion? Do we run from conflict and hence miss opportunities for iron to sharpen iron? How do we react when our ideas are questioned or challenged or when the final decision doesn’t go our way?

How can I foster this sort of creative conflict in teams which I lead or am a part of? Some of the things I remember from my corporate days seem relevant to ministry teams too.

  • Our team needs to spend more ‘wasted time’ together to strengthen the relational bonds that create trust that facilitates constructive conflict
  • I’m thinking of doing a simple ‘personality style’ exercise that will give us a chance to talk about our natural inclinations to conflict and the value of creative conflict.
  • In meetings like Parish Council, we can specifically inviting people to come up with the ‘opposing argument’ to whatever the emerging consensus is.
  • I must of course model this stuff myself rather than avoiding conflict.
  • Teaching people that their view is respected even if it doesn’t prevail. I often tell people, ‘I really want your view of this, so long as you can handle it if I end up doing the opposite to what you suggest’. So far the results have been positive.

I’m sure there are better ideas out there and I’d love to hear them (or even argue about them!)


  1. Wow, this is way deeper and more instructive than the post I was gonna do on what does 'Family Guy' teach me about ministry... (joke)

    Seriously though, this kind of creative conflict takes a lot of humility on the part of all team members, especially the team leader. Something that I have much to learn about as I still prefer people to just agree with me... *sigh* http://pastorpeterko.wordpress.com/2009/04/24/humility/

    Good post. Keep them coming. I'm putting a link to your blog on mine 'coz I know when you're thinking aloud, it's always worth listening in.

  2. Family Guy; I try so hard not to find it funny - but I fail.

    It does require humility on the part of the team leader. But the thing that requires the real humility is appointing the team members who you think are way better in some areas than you are. Once you've admitted your weaknesses and made appointments specifically to cover them it is easier to listen to the people you've appointed. I think.

  3. Wow, this could be like the old college days with the 3 sitting in the back row. Pete commenting, Craig commenting and Murray...listening,learning and stealing all your good ideas.

  4. My recollection is that you spent a good deal more time in that back row sleeping rather than listening!

  5. just because my eyes were shut...

  6. Hi Craig, thought I would break up the three amigos arguing about ancient history at MTC... I used the DiSC behavioural profile with a Leadership team at Trinity recently. It was great fun! And also more helpful that Myers-Briggs etc etc in that it looks at people's default behaviours and therefore is directly applicable to team contexts. There are few pastoral tips to go with it so let me know if it would help. email is best, facebook if desparate! (james dot harricks at trinity dot asn dot au)