To Work Better, Encourage Team Talk

If your volunteers love receiving assignments, try this one: Using only conversation and a desire to learn, build a durable team that enriches your service and sustains your energy rather than burning you out. Of course, no one thinks of conversation as a task. In fact, conversations get in the way of tasks and slow them down, right? On the contrary, conversation plays an important part in community engagement and must not be ignored. Team talk builds durability into the effort and keeps us from burning out.

What if we worked less and talked more? Make no mistake: the American volunteer experience is decidedly task-oriented and talk-averse. Sociologist Paul Lichterman observes that a “task oriented, short-term, plug-in style of volunteering. . . has become nearly synonymous with volunteering in the United States.”[1] Churches, like many other non-profit organizations, typically assign volunteers to fill short-term tasks, not long term assignments. In some ways, the arrangement works out well. Volunteers appreciate that it fits into their busy schedules: with only a few hours commitment, they can experience the satisfaction of having “helped out.” It’s also easier for staff, who create slots for volunteers to fill and tasks to complete, which can then be quantified and reported to funders. Yet “plug-in” volunteering hampers dialogue.

Team dialogue can be strengthened in four ways.

  1. Seek to move the team from shallow conversation to a deeper dialogue that airs genuine feelings and brings differences to the surface. This can deepen the trust required to form a genuine team.[2]
  2. Strive for informal, relaxed meetings. Regular meetings empower volunteers to make decisions for themselves, which builds teamwork. Nevertheless, formal “business-like” meetings can be deadening. To avoid this, change the meeting venue from time to time. Look for an informal setting, perhaps somewhere offsite, and share a meal whenever possible to warm up the conversation.
  3. Find ways to equalize the conversation so that the same people do not always dominate the conversation. Ask the group to police itself. “If you tend to be a talker, pay attention to how much you talk and try to talk less. If you tend to be a listener, try to talk more.”
  4.  Draft a team covenant, a written or verbal agreement that describes and defines members’ relationship as a team. Lack of trust is a key source of trouble in failing teams. Unless members feel safe and secure with the group, they will not contribute to their full potential. A team covenant can correct this situation.

Talking while we work not only sustains us but may actually change us in the process. Ann Morisy, who works with British churches seeking to expand their outreach, sees dialogue as central to community ministry. She writes, “The essence of dialogue is that each person who is party to the communication is open to the possibility of being changed by the testimony of the other.”[3] Talk does more work than we give it credit for.


[1] Paul Lichterman, Elusive Togetherness: Church Groups Trying to Bridge America’s Divisions, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2005),66.

[2] George Cladis, Leading the Team-Based Church (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999), 119.

[3] Ann Morisey, Beyond the Good Samaritan: Community Ministry and Mission (London: Bloomsbury, 2003), 65.



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