Do you like working on a team or would you prefer to work alone? There’s definitely a time for both. Many of my students dread small-group assignments because they fear having to do most or all of the work while the slackers on the team just coast. I’d like to share some theological comments concerning committee work, and then challenge you to change your perspective.
I haven’t read Dante’s Inferno in the original Italian, but I seem to remember that one of the lower levels of hell was being assigned to work on a church committee. All the tediousness of showing up to meetings where the first thing we do is read the minutes of the previous meeting! There’s supposed to be all this synergy as you brainstorm and collaborate, but you might wonder: why doesn’t some bishop just give me a list of things to do, I’ll do them by myself, and then everyone will be happy.
Some of our disdain for teamwork is an understandable distaste for inefficiency. But underneath some of our preference for going it alone might be some hypocritical pushback against the gospel. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, the One for the many. When Jesus says to take his yoke upon us, assuring us that his yoke is easy, it’s easy in part because he is the team member who is doing all the heavy lifting. The whole logic of corporate solidarity, of federal headship, involves Christ doing all the work for the team and the rest of us receiving a high distinction mark for work we did not do. How can we celebrate receiving the free gift of eternal life, and then turn around and begrudge the fact that we end up doing the majority of the work on some committee? Our resentment against the unfairness of being assigned a disproportionate share of the work, our fear of being “used,” might indicate that we have a problem with double imputation – all of my bad work imputed to Christ, all of his good work imputed to me. Why hasn’t the gloriously unfair gospel of being forgiven and being justified in Christ trickled down and made an impact on how I serve in my small group? God is giving us the kingdom for free, but I’m going to make sure you do your fair share of the committee work, or else I’m out of here. The cry of our age is “don’t take advantage of me,” while the free offer of the gospel is based on the fact that Christ was taken advantage for us on the cross.
Don’t get me wrong: in the space of one paragraph in Galatians 6, Paul tells us both to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” and that “each will have to bear his own load.” Each person on your church committee needs to be responsible and do his or her part. But notice that bearing someone else’s burden isn’t just a nice idea, it’s fulfilling the law of Christ! Much as I’d rather just go work by myself, Jesus has it in for me: he has a discipleship agenda that requires teamwork. More than once, Paul describes the church as Christ’s body. The very person we think is dead weight is actually necessary to the body’s health. The eye is not supposed to say to the hand, “I have no need of you.” We suffer together, rejoice together, and (sigh) work on committee together. In fact, it’s precisely when we are bearing someone else’s burdens that we discover more deeply the wonder of the gospel, the depths of what God has sacrificially done for us.
So, my practical advice begins here: the next time you land on a committee, shift from criticizing the gross inefficiency of teamwork to seeing how God has intentionally placed you on that team to give you an opportunity to love your brother and sister. Sometimes teamwork is less about task completion and more about getting to know each other. Life together in community is not a hurried, box-checking enterprise, but a slow family hike. Imagine that at your next family reunion you have to take a three-kilometre hike which includes the entire family – infants, toddlers, teenagers, great-grandparents pushing walkers, and one or two people in wheelchairs. Along the way, you are supposed to stop from time to time for a group photo. If that sounds painful, imagine how Moses must have felt trudging around with the entire nation of Israel for forty years in the desert! Or imagine how tedious it was for Paul to have to work with all those difficult people in the Corinthian church. And yet what we consistently pick up in Paul’s letters (look, for example, at Romans 16 and 1 Thessalonians 2:8) is his deep affection for each of these people. He knows them by name. He’s worked with them on committees. They are his partners in the gospel. Group work is not always efficient, but it is always an opportunity to better know and love our church family.
Consider three types of people who might end up on a team with you in the future: the talented, the inexperienced, and the faithfully present. The talented team member needs something challenging to do so that they do not get bored. The inexperienced person needs the same thing: they need to be trusted to attempt something challenging, because how else are they going to grow? Then there’s this quiet person who’s there at all the meetings and you might wonder if they ever do anything. But showing up is something in itself. Ask yourself, “What might God show us over time about the value of each member on the team?” It might take you seven years to discover the deeply beautiful value of the quietly faithful team member you had previously thought wasn’t pulling their weight.
I know there are certain C. S. Lewis quotations that get repeated too often, but this one is pure gold: “remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one
day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.” I hope you are somehow able to restructure all your committees and small groups to reduce their tediousness and to increase their effectiveness. I wish I could give you tips on how to do that. What I can do is impress upon you what a wonderful privilege it is to rub shoulders with the ordinary people in your church, to work side by side with them for the glory of God.