How to Delegate So Things Get Done

If you are an exceptionally bright, talented, attractive person, you can energize a congregation quite a bit by doing everything yourself. But if you want to make more happen than you personally can lead, you need to learn to delegate.

This is obviously true for clergy and board chairs. It is just as true for educators, choir directors, ushers, youth directors, and newsletter editors. Delegation, more than any other skill of leadership, makes it possible to get more done with less of your own time and energy. Done well, delegation gives more people a sense of ownership, making it possible for leaders to take breaks—long breaks like sabbaticals, vacations, and days off, and short ones to ignore your text and email messages while you read or spend time with your friends or spouse or children.

Unfortunately, many people—including many, many clergy—lack delegation skills, and cling to beliefs that make it difficult to learn. Beliefs like these:

  • No one can do this better than I can. Besides, it is my job to do it.
  • I shouldn’t have to ask people: They should do it because they are self-motivated or inspired by my example.
  • They’re just volunteers! It would be wrong to tell them what to do or let them know I’m disappointed if they don’t.

The biggest obstacle of all to learning how to delegate is the conviction that “I hate administration.” Sometimes this is true. Some clergy take pleasure in their own preaching, pastoring, and teaching, but get very little satisfaction out of building a strong congregation.

When coaching leaders with this attitude, I often find it helpful to define administration as “Getting results through the efforts of other people.” This helps clergy and others to see administration as a way of helping other people grow as leaders.

Delegation is not the same as charismatic leadership. Some people’s presence is so inspiring that it stimulates others to action. Unfortunately, without the skills of delegation, action stimulated in this way is uncoordinated and requires a lot of ongoing attention from the leader. Charisma generates energy, but to make that energy productive other skills are needed. Among these, the most important is the skill of delegation.

Delegation Errors

What skills do you need to be a delegator? First, you need to know which delegation errors you’re most prone to. Here are the most common:

  • A hot-potato delegator delegates and runs, without sticking around to make sure the person understood the assignment. Some delegators do this because they feel uncomfortable in the “boss” role. But clear, directive leadership is what a person getting an assignment wants. Make sure you give them a chance to ask questions, clarify expectations, and request support as needed.
  • A sticky-taffy delegator makes the opposite mistake, and never lets go of the task at all. Delegators sometimes make this error because they want to stay in control, but just as often it’s because of the delegator’s need to stay connected. In sticky-taffy congregations, leaders prefer group decision-making so strongly no one gets empowered to act alone. As a result, work suffers because decisions take much longer than they need to.

Somewhere between the hot potato and the sticky taffy is a sweet spot, where the delegator communicates the job, responds to questions, gives support—and then detaches clearly, making it clear that the responsibility has changed hands. The other person understands the job and accepts responsibility for carrying the work through. This middle way allows for necessary follow-up communication about unexpected obstacles but avoids the needless checking back and checking in that is the hallmark of too many congregations’ work.

Checklist for success

To succeed at delegation, it helps to have a checklist of the necessary steps. Here’s mine:

  • Fit the task to the person’s growing edge. Beginners start with simple tasks; experienced workers can accept complicated ones; seasoned leaders are ready to handle work whose goals are more abstract. Good delegators encourage others’ growth by stretching just beyond each person’s readiness.
  • State the goal as clearly as you can. Many congregations look for people to lead general areas like education, hospitality, or outreach without saying what they want those people to accomplish. Try to do better! If you want someone to greet newcomers or put dinner on a table, tell them exactly how, when, and why you want it done.
  • Say what “means” you won’t allow. At this #MeToo moment, we are finding out that many organizations asked men to accomplish goals (“make movies”) but failed to mention what those men were not to do (“grope women”). The road to hell is paved with optimistic estimates of other people’s common sense! When you say what “ends” you want accomplished, do your best to specify at the same time the “means” you won’t accept.
  • Say what resources are at the delegate’s disposal. The wrong way to do this is to say, “If you find you need a budget, come to me. We’ll see what we can do.” Every worthwhile goal costs money, and there is no clearer way to indicate support than to offer an appropriate amount of money in advance. The same goes for other resources like space, staff support and airtime for communications.

Master delegators are made, not born. They read books and articles like this one, imitate the work of others who succeed at delegation, make mistakes, and (this is important!) learn from them. To delegate effectively, you may need to unlearn some of your own assumptions about authority, relationship, and your congregation’s long-standing traditions about how decisions should be made.

1566997380Dan Hotchkiss consults with congregations and other mission-driven groups from his home near Boston. He is the author of the best-selling Alban book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, which has helped hundreds of churches, synagogues, and non-profit organizations to streamline their structure and become more mission-focused and effective.

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