Last fall, I traveled to Kenya with a group of people from the United States and Guatemala. We worked at two schools—teaching, praying, delivering humanitarian aid to families, and providing support to the teachers, counselors, and caregivers. The staffs at both schools are doing all they can to break the cycle of poverty with holistic Christ-centered care. But there are a lot of challenges in the communities. The oppression of poverty is weighty in the slums where 70% of all people in Nairobi call home. And in remote villages, creature comforts are minimal and job opportunities are scarce for the families struggling to provide for their own. After long and tough days, the mission team would gather up and hold each other close just to remind ourselves of the good things we had witnessed in the midst of the overwhelming heartache. It didn’t matter if we had known each other for years or for mere days – we prayed together, worshiped together, wept together. And we grew in strength, joining with our partners in ministry who were doing incredible ongoing in-the-trenches work of lifting lives. The days were far from easy, but together, we were resilient.
You might think I’m sharing the story of that mission trip with you because of what the team did at the schools. Certainly, caring for the orphaned and the vulnerable is something that transforms the lives of all who are part of it. But this story focuses on something that I believe is essential for powerful work to be done by any team — and that’s what happened WITHIN that team of Kenyans, Guatemalans, and North Americans. It was far more than a group of individuals working toward a common goal.
There was commUNITY.
Community means “with unity.” The key to strength and resilience in that team, or in any team—even when the days are hard—is UNITY.
You are better off to have a friend than to be all alone, because then you will get more enjoyment out of what you earn. If you fall, your friend can help you up. But if you fall without having a friend nearby, you are really in trouble. If you sleep alone, you won’t have anyone to keep you warm on a cold night. Someone might be able to beat up one of you, but not both of you. As the saying goes, “A rope made from three strands of cord is hard to break. ~Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
Unity gives us strength. It helps us stand firm when our knees tremble, it lightens our load and gives us renewed hope. Unity teaches us how bright and colorful things can be when we each contribute to shining light on issues. Unity says, “There’s a greater purpose at work here,” and invites us to be ourselves even as we support each other. And when that unity is fractured, we are exposed and vulnerable.
In my 20s, I was taught that “teamwork makes the dream work.” But no one taught me about the importance of unity within a team. There’s far more to teamwork than a team simply working together. A recent trip to another country to lead two different mission teams was a reminder that unity within a team isn’t a given or a guarantee. It has to be cultivated. One team was formed from a group of strangers, the other a group of friends.
One team had an immediate bond. The folks on it hungered for time at the beginning and end of each day to pray for and with each other. When difficulties arose, they rallied. There were no complaints and no reservations in coming alongside those who were doing the hard work of caring for the discarded.
One team delighted in working together and serving fully. One team struggled to find that rhythm. Now, the work being done by each team wasn’t exactly the same, so perhaps that’s what led to the challenges. And there were folks on the struggling team who ached for unity to come and tried as best they could to make it happen. By the end of the trip, those folks were weary.
Interestingly enough, the team that struggled for unity had a far clearer set of goals than the team that was unified. And within all three teams—including the one in Kenya—there were differences of opinion, and diversity in personalities and backgrounds.
Unity, though, isn’t afraid of those differences. In fact, unity works within our differences, and finds the common good.
In order to have a winner, the team must have a feeling of unity; every player must put the team first—ahead of personal glory. ― Paul Bryant
So, if unity is essential to the success of a team, what can you do encourage it?
I’ve asked folks in a wide range of professions how they believe unity is created within teams. I love what they have to share with you.
1. FOCUS ON WHAT YOU HAVE IN COMMON WITH THE OTHERS ON YOUR TEAM
“Recently I went to Africa on a medical mission trip, working with no one I had known before. It was the most organized medical trip that I have been on in the 18 years that I have been doing mission work. The humblest person on the team was our leader, the medical director. He made sure we focused every morning on the one thing we had in common – our faith in the Lord. We served 15,919 patients in northern Ethiopia on that trip, and even the organization stated they had never seen a team work so well together.”
(Jean, NICU Nurse, Stability Healthcare)
2. ACTIVELY TALK TO AND PRAY FOR EACH OTHER
“What keeps us from embracing unity? There are multiple answers, and I’ve seen that many are related and even camouflage each other. There’s fear, selfishness, “busy-ness,” weariness, and the pressure of social norms in our culture to be boot-strapping independent successes.
I’ve learned that the best way to unify teams is to first pray – a LOT. That’s the beginning step in identifying issues that might be getting in the way of a spirit of unity. Then TALK. Invite conversation. Use a mediator or counselor if needed. Pray some more – and most of all, PRAY FOR EACH OTHER. It’s hard NOT to connect with someone when you are praying for them.
(Rick, Market President, Inwood National Bank)
3. CREATE SPACE FOR IDEAS TO BE SHARED
“In this world of rapidly changing technology and instant gratification, people are not only eager to share their ideas, but they hunger for those ideas to be glorified. The enemy is so good at putting subconscious and intrusive thoughts into our minds that there is only room to value and celebrate one grand idea—and it needs to be our own. There is a fear of becoming invisible if our ideas and thoughts are not noticed or heard.
What we don’t realize is that there is room in this world for everyone’s ideas to be shared and valued. The idea doesn’t need to be elevated in order for the thought to have value or meaning.
I’ve learned that unity comes when we provide a forum for everyone’s ideas to be heard, and overtly thank people for sharing their thoughts and ideas. Thank them with a smile and thank them again. Build upon each idea as the team starts to notice a pattern of shared ideas instead of just multiple individual ideas. Blend the ideas into one big idea that is equal to the sum of its parts.
Unity means to be joined as a whole, made as one. Individuals can still feel valued, important, and therefore noticed if fear is replaced by acceptance and everyone is allowed to win.
(Rhonda, Northridge Hospital Emergency Room)
4. CELEBRATE THE GIFTS AND TALENTS OF THE ENTIRE TEAM – INCLUDING YOURS
“The biggest problem, not just on teams, but in general is that we believe everyone else thinks the way we do—and we grow frustrated when people don’t see things our way. It really becomes a problem when we have a common goal to achieve. It’s essential for people to understand that each of us has a unique perspective, and that each perspective is valuable. When we force people to only see things from one perspective, we create a fault line in teamwork, and unity is damaged.
“I believe that unity on a team comes from everyone learning to celebrate the gifts and talents of the entire team including one’s self – which means that you have to know what those talents and strengths are, so you can then encourage everyone’s gifts and talents to be used together. We all bring something to the table that other people need. Peter Drucker says, ‘Do what you do best and outsource the rest.’ We need to let people do what they love to do, rather than determining what is best for everyone based upon our personal strengths and talents. In my experience, the more diverse the team is, the better we all are.”
(Gary, Chief Learning Officer, Core Clarity)