Why Vital Teams?

By Miguel Angel Escobar, part of the Vestry Papers issue on Building Strong Teams (March 2014)

Nota - Este artículo es disponible en español aquí.

Working with congregations and dioceses across our church, one thing is clear: team leadership is one of the most critical issues facing the Episcopal Church today.

Many lay+clergy leadership teams at both the congregational and diocesan levels are searching for purpose, lack the structure needed to be effective, have become regulatory and administrative bodies rather than mission-focused, and I will argue that few are tapping into the true depth of gifts that lay members bring to the table. This lack of strong leadership isn’t just unfortunate – the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey notes that leadership and decision-making styles have been a greater source of decline than many of the hot-button issues of the past ten years. [1]

In response to this need, the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) has launched Vital Teams, a program for strengthening the lay+clergy leadership teams that are at the heart of Episcopal congregations. The need for this program grew from two areas of particular concern:

Clergy education and formation: There is a significant gap between how clergy are formed in seminary and dioceses today and the type of leadership that is needed at the congregational level. Our beloved institutions are excellent at forming liturgists, chaplains, and theologians, but many graduates struggle with organizing and guiding a leadership team, a skill set that is critical for congregational leadership. Furthermore, as curacies go by the wayside, opportunities for hands-on leadership formation are becoming far and few between. Without the skills needed to bring together a strong team, some clergy choose either a clergy-centric model (where they are the sole decision-maker and doer) or the absentee facilitator model (where nothing happens because no one knows who is doing what). Knowing how to gather a diverse team around a shared sense of purpose and then accomplish a great deal through this team requires extraordinary leadership skills – skills that are by and large missing from the curriculum of most of our beloved leadership institutions.

Lay formation: As a lay person working for one of the few lay-led organizations of the Episcopal Church, I am concerned that after 30 years of praise for the Baptismal Covenant, the Church still struggles with how to invite and employ the wide variety of gifts that lay members bring to the table. This intractable clergy-centrism is reinforced at all levels of the Church, not only by the House of Bishops [2], and not only by priests and deacons, but by we the laity as well. For, if we are honest, it’s clear that many of us are all too happy with only writing checks and outsourcing our faith to the paid professionals. A different form of congregational leadership, one that invites lay members to partner with clergy in visioning and decision-making, will challenge us all to faithful discipleship in new ways.

Vital Teams’ focus is on:

  1. Providing effective training on how to structure a strong lay+clergy leadership team.
  2. Offering practical tools and resources for identifying strong team leaders.
  3. Engaging in advocacy and partnership on a church-wide level to encourage our major leadership formation institutions to incorporate a team leadership focus in their curriculum and discernment processes.

There are other reasons why a focus on lay+clergy team leadership is critical to today’s Church. These include the ongoing search for more financially sustainable forms of leadership, the continuing high rate of clergy burnout, as well as the shift in wider society toward more collaborative and networked forms of leadership. And, of course, there’s Jesus of Nazareth who gathered a diverse group of men and women around a shared vision of the Kingdom of God and who inspired an early church model where “there are many members, yet one body,” (1 Corinthians 12).

‘Jack of all Trades’ vs. Team Leadership

ECF is by no means the first organization to point out the fact that many of our major leadership formation institutions are not preparing lay and clergy leaders for the challenges of leading a community of faith today. Indeed, there have been many efforts – including past ECF pilot projects – to teach seminarians and the newly ordained the financial, communications, and administrative aspects that go along with being the head of a small nonprofit.

While this continues to be an important approach, we have come to believe that there are some inherent problems with it. For one, it continues to put the clergy person at the center of all things. Now they are not only supposed to be excellent preachers, spiritual leaders, and providers of pastoral care, clergy are also supposed to know how to be excellent fundraisers, communications specialists, budgetary experts, and building managers. This approach places unrealistic expectations on new clergy and is basically a set up for burnout. What’s worse, however, is that it reinforces the idea that the priest must be an expert in all things.

When leaders begin from a team-centered approach, they can afford to be more honest (and humble) regarding their own strengths and weaknesses. The focus of leadership formation shifts from making one individual a Jack of all Trades to teaching him/her a set of basic – and very learnable – skill sets about how to unite people with a diversity of gifts in addressing the many challenges facing communities of faith today. It’s a simpler, more sustainable approach that we believe will serve our congregations well.

Vision and Measuring Effectiveness

ECF believes that it is critical to have a long-term vision – or a clear and hopeful picture – of what the Church will look like once Vital Teams’ mission has been realized. In partnership with other leadership institutions across the Church, ECF is aiming for a Church where:

  1. All Episcopal communities of faith, regardless of size or budget, will have access to effective and innovative lay+clergy leadership training. At this early stage, ECF is focused on two critical leadership skill sets for lay+clergy leadership teams – practices for discerning and sustaining a sense of shared purpose and the practical basics on how to build strong group structure so that the team can effectively carry out its mission. 
  2. The concept of effective lay+clergy leadership teams will be incorporated into leadership formation institutions throughout the Church. While some seminaries and dioceses already incorporate elements of team leadership into their focus, it is clear that the Church as a whole has a long way to go. ECF is engaging in advocacy and partnership to encourage major leadership formation institutions to incorporate a focus on team leadership into their curriculum.
  3. Congregations and dioceses will be highly skilled at identifying strong lay+clergy team leaders. ECF will provide tools and resources for identifying strong lay and clergy team leaders, a program activity that sounds more banal than it actually is. This final piece is rooted in the question “How can we incentivize individuals to become strong team leaders?” Our approach is to help search and discernment committees focus on those individuals with the proclivity and training to lead teams effectively. A simple example might be a set of ten interview questions about team leadership for a clergy search committee to use when interviewing potential candidates.

Finally, I want to note that ECF does not see Vital Teams as a short-term project, a faddish initiative that is here today and gone tomorrow. I believe that one of the most remarkable things about ECF is the strength and longevity of our programs. ECF’s Fellowship Partners Program celebrates 50 years this year and ECF Vital Practices began nearly 20 years ago as Cornerstone newsletter. Our vision for Vital Teams is long-term and intentionally bold: We have committed ourselves to a difficult and meaningful task - the patient and persistent work of changing how we form and identify leaders in the Episcopal Church.

ECF's Vital Teams program is led by Miguel Escobar, program director for leadership resources, Kate Adams, special projects director, and two lead consultants, the Rev. Rosa Lindahl and the Rev. Ronald C. Byrd, Sr. Click here to learn more about the launch of Vital Teams.

Miguel Escobar serves as the Episcopal Church Foundation’s program director for leadership resources. He coordinates the lay+clergy team responsible for ECF Vital Practices, the Fellowship Partners Program, ECF’s educational workshops and webinars, the Vestry Resource Guide, Strategic Solutions, ECF’s Spanish language initiatives, and the newly launched Vital Teams. Miguel graduated from Union Theological Seminary with his MDiv in 2007. Write Miguel at mescobar@episcopalfoundation.org or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


[1] The 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey of the Episcopal Church noted that “declining congregations tended to have more overall conflict and more areas of serious conflict”, that conflict over “leadership and finances were the areas most strongly related to decline in Average Sunday Attendance” (pg 3).


[2] The House of Bishop’s 2014 “Primer on the Government of the Episcopal Church and its underlying theology” summarizes the roles of clergy and laity in the congregation as follows: “The ordained assist the whole Church by accepting responsibility for worship, the Church’s principal act; the faithful proclamation of the Gospel, the teaching of the Faith, and the administration of all the sacraments. The laypeople take responsibility for finances, and for maintaining the properties of the congregation for the use by the rector for ministry. Most importantly, they do the work of God’s mission in the world” (pgs. 9-10).

This narrow interpretation of the laity’s role hardly describes the wide range of creative ministries that lay leaders can (and do) fulfill within congregations, particularly when lay leaders partner with clergy in visioning and decision-making. It does, however, capture the essence of the clergy-centric model; note that the second sentence describes the rector alone as engaged in ministry.

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