the shape of leadership

Keeping the Beat

Eight habits that will unify a team

Rob Ketterling on August 19, 2020

The two most important instruments in a rock band are the bass guitar and the drums. If the keyboard or lead guitar is off, listeners will assume the performer is being creative. But if the bass and the drums aren’t right, people will want to stick their fingers in their ears. The band will be out of sync, and everyone will know it. The bass player and drummer hold everything together. The rhythm and unity of the band depend on them.

Similarly, a ministry team looks to the leader to keep everyone in tune with one another. If you’re the leader of a team on any level, from the executive team or board to a volunteer team, you are responsible to be in alignment with the vision and values of the organization. If you’re out of rhythm, your team will be out of rhythm. You set the pace and establish the beat through your attitude and actions.

Your team members are looking to you to keep them unified in their purpose and processes. You do that by continually reminding people of the values, reinforcing the direction, reiterating the vision, affirming those who are with you, and correcting those who are out of sync — preferably before anyone else follows their lead.

Leaders usually have to listen closely to hear the first notes that aren’t in rhythm. However, sometimes it’s like a cannon going off in the middle of a symphony.

Several years ago, two guys on our team — I’ll call them Rick and Scott — had gotten under each other’s skin. They privately griped to me about each other, and they tried to get team members to take sides. In our staff meetings, they rolled their eyes or made obnoxious sounds at any comment the other made. They were trying to destroy each other in front of their peers.

I ended one of these meetings by saying, “OK, that’s it for today. You can leave, except for Rick and Scott. I want to talk to the two of you.”

After everybody left, I looked them in the eyes and said, “This is Tuesday. I’m giving you until Friday to sort things out, forgive each other, and find a way to love each other — not tolerate each other, but love each other. And if you don’t, both of you will be fired.”

Each immediately tried to argue his case by blaming the other. I held up my hand and said, “Stop! You don’t have a problem with me. You have a problem with each other. You need to talk to each other to make this right. I want both of you in my office at 9 on Friday morning. If you don’t love each other by then, you’re gone.”

At that hour on Friday, the two of them strolled into my office smiling and patting each other on the back. They had become best friends. It was obvious they weren’t faking it. I didn’t have to ask a single question.

Scott blurted out, “We got together Tuesday afternoon to talk about our differences, and we realized we’d made a lot of unfair assumptions. Every little thing became a big thing, but we’ve worked through it now. We really do care about each other.”

Rick joined in, “Pastor Rob, we’re so sorry for causing such headaches for you and everybody on the team. The next time we’re together, we want a few minutes to apologize and tell everybody we’ve buried the hatchet.”

I wish all such confrontations turned out like this.

Unity of the Spirit

In the early years of Christianity, the people involved in the Church were a varied bunch: Jewish leaders and former prostitutes who had come to faith in Christ, rich people and slaves, those who had always tried to obey God and those who had lived in rebellion, insiders and outsiders, the high and the low of their society.

In fact, many of the letters in the New Testament are about healing broken relationships among believers. Paul spent three years in the metropolitan city of Ephesus, so he knew the flash points of disagreement and conflict among the Christians there.

Later, when Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he explained that a genuine experience of God’s love and grace is the only sure way for love to flow from us to others. Paul gave them this instruction: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2-3, emphasis added).

Unity is precious but fragile. Paul knew unity doesn’t come naturally. It is a work of the Spirit. We have to experience God’s love so we can express it, and we have to experience the security of His grace so we can create a dynamically positive culture.

If you’re a leader, it’s your responsibility to keep the unity of the Spirit for your team.

Roots and Wings

One day a number of years ago, before my conversations with Rick and Scott, I prayed for our team and sensed God telling me, “Pastor like you parent.”

I understood exactly what this meant. In my relationships with my sons, I do my best to give them what some experts call “roots and wings,” a deep sense of security in my love and the encouragement to fly, to take risks without the fear of being ridiculed for failure.

Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith, and it’s at the heart of unity.

I’m always willing to wade in when I sense one of my kids is out of alignment with our family values because my goal is for them to flourish. Yet I had been avoiding hard conversations with our staff members because my goal was to avoid the messiness of conflict.

I sensed God saying to me, “Do you want the people on your team to feel so secure they’re eager to do anything and everything to fulfill My vision, or do you just want to steer clear of conversations that make you feel uncomfortable?”

Ouch. That was a turning point for me and my leadership. I told God, “OK, I’ll do it. Whenever I see one of our people out of alignment, I’ll speak the truth in love because I care more about the opportunities in their future than avoiding uncomfortable conversations in the present.”

As our unity has grown on our team, we’ve experienced more friction, but it’s good and productive friction. People now feel more comfortable disagreeing with one another because disagreement isn’t a threat to their sense of personal value or their place on the team.

When we had less unity, we were polite but guarded — and insincere. Now we feel more comfortable being honest with one another. Has that produced tension? Yes, but it’s creative tension — which is a world away from the destructive, passive-aggressive behavior that plagues many teams.

Unifying Habits

Unity isn’t something we can just conjure up when we need it. It’s something we must build over time, through the habits we practice every day.

Here are eight habits that can help bring a team together:

1. Ask better questions. I don’t make as many assumptions as I once did. When I sense a problem, I’m much quicker to say, “Hey, tell me what’s going on here.”

And as the conversation develops, I’ve learned to ask better questions to get to the heart of the issue. Instead of letting people get away with shifting blame, I often ask, “So, what’s your responsibility in all this? What are you going to do to make it right even if nobody else takes a step?”

2. Give honor in all directions. In many organizations, the boss or pastor gets the lion’s share of accolades. This feeds the leader’s ego, but it has detrimental effects on other people. They may be driven to succeed so they can receive applause, they may try to sabotage those who are climbing higher than them, or they may give up and become passive.

In equal measure, we need to honor people at all levels — those who are peers and those who report to us. In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that unity is created and protected most powerfully when I honor people at the bottom of the organizational chart. Their contribution may go unnoticed by most, but their faithfulness and skills are the foundation of our growth. We couldn’t do what we do without them, and I want them — and everybody else — to know it.

3. Forgive quickly and thoroughly. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith, and it’s at the heart of unity. We can create an environment in which forgiveness isn’t rare or awkward but normal and freeing.

Forgiveness requires us to be honest about the pain we’ve experienced. But it also means letting go of resentment. When we apologize to one another, we stay together, and when we forgive one another, we stay healthy.

4. Follow the Spirit. When you feel an internal nudge to affirm someone, apologize to someone you’ve offended, forgive someone who has offended you, or give honor to someone publicly, do it.

Don’t wait. Don’t come up with excuses for why you shouldn’t. Just do it.

5. Celebrate one another. One person’s success should be everyone’s success. Jealousy causes damage and division. The solution isn’t to grit our teeth and try hard to avoid being snarky. The solution is to value each person’s talents and contributions as much as our own, and celebrate when others excel.

6. Discourage side talks. We’ve all seen it. A team member isn’t happy about a decision or a direction, but instead of sharing these concerns in the group, he or she waits until later to meet privately with someone who might be an ally. Though this is a common behavior, it’s a threat to unity.

7. Pray for each person. Jesus prayed for unity among His followers. Shouldn’t we seek God for unity as well? It takes time to pray meaningfully for each team member, but it is a worthwhile investment.

8. Be present. We’re busy. I’m not saying we have to be there every minute of every day. But it’s important to be fully present in the time we do have together.

The Investment

Years ago, FRAM had a television commercial with a mechanic standing next to a car with the hood up. He held up an oil filter and said with a smile, “You can pay me now.” Then he picked up a piston and growled, “Or you can pay me later.”

Obviously he was talking about the difference between the price of an oil filter and the cost of an engine overhaul.

It’s the same calculation for leaders: We can pay a relatively small price of time and energy to build unity, or we can spend far more leadership capital trying to keep things running while dealing with conflict, misalignment, hurt feelings and wasted effort.

Unity is well worth the investments you make today.

Rob Ketterling is founder and lead pastor of River Valley Church (Assemblies of God) in Apple Valley, Minnesota. This article is adapted from his book, The Speed of Unity (River Valley Publishing, 2020). For more information, visit

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 edition of Influence magazine.

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