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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

How to Give Away Your Power

It’s relatively easy to find people willing to do tasks. It’s hard to cultivate real leaders—people to take charge of projects and gather others to get something done. As one pastor put it, “We have willing workers, but I can’t seem to create leaders. I can delegate work, but I don’t know how to delegate authority.”

I’m sure this pastor spoke for many when she asked, “How can I get people to take more responsibility? I believe in shared leadership, but it’s hard to get people to take on any more than a one-time task. Sometimes when I do get someone to agree to organize the work of others, they keep running back to me to get permission or to talk about their problems. Sometimes I think it would be easier to do it all myself!”

Perhaps you’ve felt the same way. Relating to each volunteer directly can wear out even extroverts—however well you do it, there’s a limit to how much you can get done that way. Without a group of leaders taking charge of serious pieces of the work—gathering and managing their own sub-flocks, keeping them aligned, connecting them with the big picture—it’s hard to grow beyond about 150 active members.

This is the essence of the troublesome pastoral-to-program size transition. Few pastors can sustain more than 150 personal relationships. Few leaders can support more than a dozen or so volunteers directly. The same issue pops up at larger sizes. Sharing power effectively enables congregations to touch more lives and enlist more souls in ministry.

To do all this, the system needs to learn to delegate, and to share power beyond the inner circle. I say the system needs to learn because it’s not enough to send one leader to a seminar on delegation. The whole congregation has to support delegation as its normal practice. No amount of talk about shared leadership can substitute for mastery of the fundamental principles and practices that make delegation happen.

To delegate effectively, you need to balance three things: authority, guidance, and accountability. This is true for delegating tasks, and truer still for delegating leadership. Until we learn to bring people to full competence in little things, we can’t lead them to full competence in bigger things. Learning to delegate tasks completely is a necessary step toward readiness to delegate power. Authority, guidance, and accountability.

Many congregations give people authority without holding them accountable—most often, we do this with volunteers. Think of the long-time treasurer who is allowed to do whatever he wants because no one wants to think about replacing him. This common experience is one reason leaders become wary about delegating power!

With paid staff, we more often hold them accountable without giving enough authority to make that fair. Worship attendance is down? People must not like the music! (But the music director better not bring a guitar into the sanctuary). Giving has declined? Big givers must be angry at the minister! (Not that we would ever tell the minister who gives or doesn’t give).

To hold people accountable for outcomes, you have to give them enough authority to make that reasonable. With almost everyone, we fail to give sufficient guidance. When we ask people to take charge, they need us to say what to do, how to do it, and what NOT to do. Is it okay to fold the newsletter on the diagonal? Fund a mission trip with a bingo game? Let minors drive the church van? Beginners, especially, need leaders to set goals and limits clearly and explicitly. You may think this sounds pretty rigid, and it is.

What about creative freedom? New ideas often come from the periphery, and so you want to cultivate an open spirit there. But right now I’m talking about getting people started. Beginners need clear guidance—often more prescriptive guidance than leaders like to give.

Ken Blanshard, of One Minute Manager fame, points out that the “right” style of leadership for any given situation depends on the competence of the worker on the job at hand. The person’s general competence is not important. You may have a PhD in chemistry, but that does not mean you know how to make coffee here at St. Java’s. You are a beginner, so if I’m giving you the job, you are entitled to clear direction the first time you do it, and close supervision for a while. Blanshard calls this the directive style. Excruciating clearness about goals, resources, and limits is essential when you’re delegating work; it’s even more important when you’re delegating power.

Leadership roles require the exercise of independent judgment, which in turn requires clear knowledge of the goals, resources, and limitations. Being clear about these things with new leaders does not prevent creative contributions later—in fact, it lays a necessary basis for them.

As the beginner becomes somewhat competent, the directive style of leadership gives way to something clergy, in particular, tend to find much more congenial—coaching and supporting styles that highlight personal connection. Support helps the new leader past emotional slings and arrows while building confidence and kindling creative sparks. As a worker becomes fully competent, Blanchard calls for leaders to do something hard: step back from coaching and support. The pace of appreciation and accountability slows down to an occasional thank-you and an annual report. The goals are clear, competence established; it’s time for the new leader to function independently, leaving the old one to turn his or her attention to other matters.

Many clergy find this hard, in part because we (and the systems we are part of) believe that closeness to us is a clergy obligation, and a part of workers’ pay. But there’s another kind of pay some workers (paid or unpaid) actually value more: the sense of mastery that comes with competence. Most leaders embrace power-sharing theoretically. In practice it is not so easy. First we have to overcome our tendency to gloss over the clear guidance that beginners need to help them enter a new work arena. But then, when workers grow in competence and get ready to receive delegated power, we have to overcome our own reluctance to let go and trust them to step out and function in ways we would not have dictated or imagined. At that point, by giving power away, we help to grow the overall supply.

Dan Hotchkiss has consulted with a wide spectrum of churches, synagogues, and other organizations spanning 33 denominational families. Through his coaching, teaching, and writing, Dan has touched the lives of an even wider range of leaders. His focus is to help organizations engage their constituents in discerning what their mission calls for at a given time, and to empower leaders to act boldly and creatively.

Dan coaches leaders and consults selectively with congregations and other mission-driven groups, mostly by phone and videoconference, from his home near Boston. Prior to consulting independently, Dan served as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister, denominational executive, and senior consultant for the Alban Institute.

Books by Dan Hotchkiss

Dan Hotchkiss, Governance and Ministry
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