How to Delegate When There’s No One Around: Six Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

stepping stones 2 200c“Delegate pastor, delegate.”

I’ve heard that wise advice hundreds of times – literally. Ron Cook was the chair of the pulpit committee that brought me to the church I’ve pastored for over 20 years now. In the first few years here, whenever he’d catch me doing something myself instead of training someone else to do it (which was frequently) he’d walk by me, usually while lending a helping hand himself, and drop that little gem into my ear.

As I describe in The Grasshopper Myth, during those first few years at my current church I was a hurting pastor at a hurting church. The combination of those hurts led to two realities:

  • There were very few people left at the church to do any work
  • My primary ministry motivation was guilt

When those combined it led me to do too much of the ministry work myself – and see myself as martyr while I did it.

Slowly, I started to listen to Ron’s advice. I stopped offering excuses, I adapted our programs to our size, I found people I could trust, I taught them what to do and I trusted them to do it. But that’s the short version of a long story. 

Today I’m taking a stab at this issue because a reader asked the following very important question in a comment on last Monday’s post:

This is the reality that most small church pastors live with but are unprepared for. How do you offer Sunday School when you don’t have a children’s minister and only have five kids ages 5-11? Who answers the phone at church if you go on vacation and don’t have a secretary? Etc.

When I replied that this issue might make a good blog post, another reader responded with “yes, please”, so here goes.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to this question. But the issue is important enough to put some thoughts out there and to open it up for dialog, ideas and maybe a friendly argument or two.

Here are six lessons I learned the hard way about what to do when you want to delegate, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone to delegate to.


1. Leave guilt at the door

Too many Small Church pastors operate out of guilt. They swim in a sea of self-imposed guilt, then they dump the overflow on others. Since their guilt motivates them to work hard, they assume it will work on others.

Guilt never works. Not for pastors or their congregations. I know. I’ve tried.

Guilt doesn’t motivate, it paralyzes. It doesn’t encourage, it discourages. Motivation by guilt leads to burnt-out pastors and unhealthy churches.


2. Adapt your methods to suit your size

Too many Small Churches are operating with 50 people as if they had 500 people. This causes a ton of extra and unnecessary work. It’s not healthy to operate a Small Church under a template more suited to a larger church.

When we adapt our methods to suit our size, a lot of essentials aren’t so essential.

For instance, when 20 people show up for a meeting, I don’t line them up in rows, speak through a microphone, have a band lead in worship or offer separate, age-appropriate child care. I set up a play station in the back corner of the room for the kids and I ask two adults to rotate caring for them.

Then I ask everyone to grab a chair and form a circle. I talk for a bit, then we move into a conversation about the subject at hand.

When we adapt our methods to suit our size, we might find that a church of 50 may not need:

  • A worship team or choir
  • A Sunday School
  • A nursery
  • An audio system
  • A building
  • A full-time pastor (Ouch! Sorry…)

And if we don’t need all that, we won’t need the people or the money that it takes to run all that. Acting like a big church is one of the worst strategies a Small Church can have. Unless your goal is a burnt-out pastor and an ineffective church.


3. Stop doing ministries that have no one to lead them

If there’s no one willing to lead a ministry, it’s probably not as vital as everyone thinks it is. When I finally caught on to the true need for delegation, this is the first step I took.

We gutted the ministries of the church to the bare essentials. Then we didn’t start anything up again until we satisfied the requirement in the next point, which is…


4. Don’t start or restart a ministry without at least two people on the leadership team

“But we need it” is not a good enough reason to start a new ministry. It might be a good reason to meet an immediate need, but a sustained ministry takes more than that.

After all, there are needs everywhere. They’re endless. We have to do some spiritual triage and determine which ministries we can do well over the long term.

I’ve started ministries because one reliable, passionate person said they could handle it themselves. And it’s never ended well. It’s better not to launch a ministry at all than to start one without redundant leadership in place. It’s like a weak swimmer (the leader) trying to save a drowning friend (the ministry). They’ll both go down.

And no, one of two team members can’t be the pastor.

If you don’t believe me on this one, here’s the same principle in from a slightly higher authority than me.

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. – Ecclesiastes 4:10-12


5. Assess and hone your delegation skills

So, according to Ecclesiastes, not to mention the examples of Jesus, Paul, Moses and more, delegation and teamwork aren’t just helpful, they’re a biblical imperative. According to the Apostle Paul, this is one of a pastor’s primary responsibilities.

… pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. – Ephesians 4:11-12

There’s no excuse. Small Church pastors need to learn how to delegate better.

The last thing I want to do to an already overwhelmed, guilt-ridden pastor is to add another brick to your load. But we have to face the reality that a lack of volunteers is not always the congregation’s fault.

Yes, I get that there are a lot of  “killing cockroaches” tasks that Small Church pastors just have to do. There’s no getting around that. But there’s also no getting around that we need to become better delegators.

No matter how small our church is, how burdened we are, or how impossible the task of training volunteers to do the work of ministry seems, delegating is not an option.

There’s so much to learn about this important subject. I certainly don’t have a monopoly on it, so if you’ve learned about delegating in the Small Church, or if you know of any books, videos, websites or other material to help us become better delegators, please add your ideas in the comment section below.

Which reminds me. There’s one more point to add, isn’t there?

I’ll close by passing on some of the wisest counsel I’ve ever received in pastoral ministry.


6. Delegate pastor, delegate

I now delegate the rest of this task to you. What have you learned about delegating?


So what do you think? Do you have any ideas for pastors in churches where they have no one to delegate to?

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(Stepping Stones photo from Paul Downey • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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17 thoughts on “How to Delegate When There’s No One Around: Six Lessons I Learned the Hard Way”

  1. Yes, great post Karl. Very practical. I think most of us small church pastors have very similar experiences. I would say to the person on vacation – there’s always call forwarding, if you dare.

    I have found that when there is a gaping hole, there is sometimes a volunteer who comes out of the woodwork to fill it. Or, like you said, it might be gaping, but just not that critical.

    I think the best thing you might have done in this post is to give permission to small church pastors to just stop doing things. Just stop! If there is no one in sight to help you or eventually take over, just stop.

    Finally, there is a couple in our church who have been coming for about three years. Nice people. The wife is involved in a ladies Bible study, and MOPS (Mothers Of PreSchoolers). The husband has never gotten involved in anything except helping his wife do a thing or two. But really great people.

    In November I asked him if he would consider becoming a deacon in our church – he was surprised and honored. I knew he was an IT guy at his company. I did not know he was an energetic Jack of all trades! Holy Cow! This guy, along with two other new deacons, has just taken over the facilities around here! At Monday night’s board meeting, the deacons came in to tell us Elders that they were out of money, and “what should we do?” LOL, they spent the whole building fund in the first seven months because they have been so busy! Almost $15K spent this year.

    The lesson I learned is that sometimes you just have to ask people. I almost did not ask him. I almost missed out on a guy who was thrilled to give scores of volunteer hours to his church. I just asked. And I will ask more. Thank you God.

    Jeff Keady –

    1. Thanks, Jeff. I think you’re absolutely right when you say permission to stop doing something is one of the most freeing things a pastor can receive. It sure was for me. And “the ask” is often overlooked. (I should have thought of that and had 7 points).

      I’ve talked with many Small Church pastors who admit they have a hard time asking. But someone smarter than me once said “you don’t have because you don’t ask.” A lot of us need to get over our fear of asking. A generic “we need help” announcement usually gets nothing. But an announcement followed by a personal invitation makes a person feel wanted – personally wanted. That can make all the difference.

  2. Excellent article Karl. You hit some things that NEED to be said but maybe we don’t want to hear (like getting rid of Sunday School…) The reason being is because for so long we’ve been told we HAVE TO HAVE those things to be a viable church. It’d be tough to have a new family come in with kids and ask, can you show me where the kid’s Sunday School is? – when there is no Sunday School. Like a “catch 22” if we had “xyz” we’d probably have more people, but since we don’t have people to do “xyz” we won’t have more people. (Makes your head spin, doesn’t it)

    I want to share this possible scenario for folks to take a look at and maybe offer some advice as to what to do. This scenario is taken from a lifetime (mine) of being in small churches and seeing or hearing from other small church pastor’s struggles. It’ll be like a “peep behind the scenes” to a typical small church.

    Set up: You’ve got a need dealing with children. Maybe it’s new kids or kids you already have. Think Sunday School, Children’s Church or Wednesday night scenario. Maybe it’s a new ministry or maybe someone who’s done it forever can no longer participate so you have to find someone to fill in. The deal is…you have a ministry opportunity and you’re looking to DELEGATE! 😀

    Say you have a church of 40 people (from age 2 to age 90)

    10 of those 40 are 70 years or older. These are faithful people, but honestly they just don’t have the energy anymore to handle small children. Maybe they have physical limitations, or transportation issues etc. These folks are NOT counted out for ministry…but not to the ministry which you need.

    Now you have 30.

    10 of those 30 are kids or youth that you need the help for.

    Now you have 20.

    5 of those 20 are people already loaded to the gills with responsibilities – at church and at home or work. These are the folks that is mentioned, ‘you don’t want to delegate to someone and add to their already huge burden.’ So, to not overburden, you can’t ask these.

    Now you have 15.

    Of those 15 you have 5 that are in a stage in their walk, where any kind of leadership position would not be wise. Maybe you have a new believer, maybe it’s someone who comes on Sunday but M-F they don’t live the life, maybe it’s someone who is not faithful in their attendance. Might show up two Sundays but don’t count them for 4. Leadership is not an option for these folks…yet.

    Now you have 10.

    Of those 10 you’ve got folks that don’t feel “gifted” for any kind of kids ministry. In this group you’ve got possibly shy, introverted people that would rather do behind the scenes type ministry and nothing up front where they have to talk or teach. Maybe in this crowd you’ve got a few who feel, “I’ve done my time when my kids were small…it’s up to someone else now.” Sure to be in this crowd is someone who just simply doesn’t want to serve…they’re content to just receive (church’s have them you know!) In this crowd you might have folks willing to be “helpers” but someone else will have to put the lessons together, teach the class and lead it. (there’s a lot of those out there)

    So now you’ve exhausted your 40 people and there’s no one left…but a ministry that’s there…You’ve still got kids who are eager to learn…an opportunity for ministry…maybe even for growth.

    But now what?

  3. Great Post Karl, It is an ongoing struggle to identify what we don’t need to do, What Needs to be done, even if I am the only one to do it, and who to train and let lead.

    A church of 50-120 can really only do a handful of things well, unless this is a unique church with 20% being leaders.
    The best Worship Service you can build, the best Bible Study program for your situation, and Outreach, are about all most of us can manage.

    Most church planter training teaches this concept. They are encouraged to pick three areas that are in line with the Pastors’ gifting, and wait for the Lord to deliver the rest of the ministries.

    Thanks for your thoughts and work to encourage the rest of us, who are being faithful to our calling and ministries.

    1. Grant, I love what you said – “being faithful to our calling and ministries.” That is what Jesus will reward, faithfulness with the amount he has given us…

  4. Giving myself the permission to “not” implement some things as I prep to “re-plant” this small hurting Church in rural Northwest Indiana was probably the biggest stress reliever ever. I had been given this list of things that I had to have going on day one:
    a kids person
    an assimilation person
    a first impressions person
    a database dude or dudette
    A worship leader…and band ?!?!
    an oh so many more things. And I had to get all those people, PLUS teachers for the kids etc…from my 25 strong adults who were sticking around after their initial pastor decided to sleep with another mans wife…

    Church Hurt doesn’t describe what happened to these people.

    I spent March of this year till just a few weeks ago trying in vain, quilting people, begging…you name it, just to get some traction and I was just spinning my wheels.

    It wasn’t till I had a meeting with one of the ladies in our Church that this changed. I had set up a coffee meeting with this lady to talk to her about taking over our database stuff and track people’s giving etc… When she arrived, I could tell that she was visibly upset and she just looked tired. We spent the next hour talking about how the busyness of her life was overwhelming her and how much she just wanted to quit her job and quit life altogether. In light of that conversation, I figured it was best for me to not even “go there” about the jobs that needed to get done in “Church” because what she was experiencing…right there and right then…was so all consuming and that to do so would be, well…cruel.

    I learned something very important that day:
    Pastor First

    Everything else comes second…or third.

    Taking the time to walk through pain with people has a way of opening their lives up to you. This lady started to heal, and in the ensuing weeks discovered that we had this “problem” in our Church with tracking giving and keeping up with people’s info. Giving her the space to heal and decompress allowed her to see the need all on her own, and that gave me the license to encourage her to be involved in that way. The kicker to it is this:

    She just told me Sunday that she enjoys doing it because it gives her a chance to sit down in one place, to be quiet, to rest, and casually do these simple little tasks of entering data. My Database Chick finds Sabbath in doing this…HOW COOL IS THAT!?

    Rule Number 1: Pastor First

    1. “Pastor First”. That may be the best two-word advice a pastor could ever receive. I may use that as a blog post title soon.

      I almost felt physically ill as I read your list of “requirements” for a new church plant. How are 25 people supposed to do all that?! Why would anyone think a church of 25 NEEDS to do all that?! And how can a church not get overwhelmed, discouraged and top-heavy if they’re required to do all that on DAY ONE?! No wonder church plants have such a high failure rate.

      Thanks for sharing your story, your frustration and your wisdom here.

  5. Ok, so this an older post but I just saw it and had to add my 2 cents…My wife and I planted our current congregation 10 years ago in a rural community of about 1000 with a population target audience of 15,000-20,000 within 30 minutes drive. All the church planting literature I was reading said to delay public kick-off until you could count on a crowd of 200 or more. It also talked about all the things listed in transformissions reply above. Fortunately, circumstances led me to ignore the advice and start where we were. Our first formal service was in a rural town hall in a single room and had an attendance of about 30 and a bunch of those were kids. No sound system, worship leader with a guitar, no Sunday School, Six months later we moved to a larger facility in our local school. Added sound system, small worship team, limited kid’s ministry. Ten years later we have a 5000 sq ft building we built two years ago, doing most of the work ourselves, a robust worship team, a Sunday kid’s ministry that struggles, a robust and exciting Wed evening Awana ministry, a small but active middle school and high school ministry, and occasional offerings of things like Divorce Care and Financial Peace University. We’re also in the planning process for a 1500 sq ft Children’s Ministry addition. Because I knew that Kid’s Ministry and Worship Ministry were critical to the vision of what God would do in our area, I prioritized those areas, coopted my wife to lead the Kid’s Ministry and delayed salary increases for myself to hire talented and Godly worship leaders on a very part-time basis. I have had to force myself to go slow, only add other ministries as congregational members asked for them, and to continue to regularly prioritize time, money and energy based on our mission and vision. When anyone approaches me saying “we ought to…”, my immediate question is “are you willing to lead it?” It took a year from the time I was approached about Awana to begin, and the woman that approached me is doing a tremendous job leading. I told her my job was to help her recruits others for her team, but her job was to do the recruiting. Same thing with Divorce Care. I also learned I had to be willing to abandon good ideas that didn’t work out before they began hurting our larger ministry. Finally, I learned to be very creative in staffing. For several years, our worship leaders were students from a large city 80 miles away. We gave them opportunities for ministry and leadership unavailable in larger churches. One of our worship leaders came to us after responding to a Craigslist ad I ran. Our Sunday AM teachers rotate, only teaching once per month, because I can get that commitment from a person that doesn’t really think they are ‘called’ to that ministry. Not ideal, but I have enough conversations with guests and those interested in joining us to know that Sunday AM kid’s ministry is necessary for us. Hope my experiences will be of assistance to someone else facing similar challenges.

  6. Zanetta L. Wingfield

    This was an excellent and encouraging article. As Pastors, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that delegating to others helps THEM to grow, brings out their gifts and allows the church to grow (not always in terms of numbers, but in strength as well).

  7. Pingback: Here's an Idea, What If We Left "Church Growth" to God?

  8. Hi Karl. I really agree with what you said and have been trying to implement it. Recently it was told to me that many in the church see me as “not very ambitious” because of longing to delegate tasks to others. So how do we move forward, which I sense is the right direction to go, yet not feed into that kind of thinking? Or is there?

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