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"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 20-plus 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.

In my book The Grasshopper Myth, I comment about those first few years at my current church, when I was a hurting pastor at a hurting church. The combination of those hurting entities 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 factors combined, it led me to do too much of the ministry work myself—and see myself as a martyr while I did it.

Slowly, I started to listen to Ron’s advice. 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. Because their guilt motivates them to work hard, they assume it will cause others to do the same. But guilt never works. I know. I’ve tried. Guilt doesn’t motivate; it paralyzes. It doesn’t encourage; it discourages. Motivation by guilt leads to burned-out pastors and unhealthy churches. 

2. Adapt your methods to suit your size. Too many small churches with 50 people are operating as if they had 500. This causes a great deal 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 example, when 20 people show up for a meeting, I don’t speak through a microphone, have a band lead in worship or offer age-appropriate childcare. 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 and then segue into a conversation about the subject. 

When we adapt our methods to suit our size, we may find that a church of 50 doesn’t need a worship team or choir, a Sunday school, a nursery, an audio system, a building or a full-time pastor. (Ouch! Sorry.). And if we don’t need all that, we won’t need the people or the money it takes to run all that. 

Acting like a big church is one of the worst strategies a small church can have. 

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. We gutted the church’s ministries down to the bare essentials. Then we didn’t start anything up again until we satisfied the requirement of having two people to run it (see point 4).

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

5. Assess and hone your delegation skills. According to the apostle Paul, delegation is one of a pastor’s primary responsibilities (Eph. 4:11-12). There’s no excuse. Small-church pastors need to learn how to delegate better.

6. Delegate, pastor, delegate. We have to face the reality that a lack of volunteers is not always the congregation’s fault. 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. It's essential.

Karl Vaters is the author of the new book The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking That Divides Us. He’s been the lead pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, Calif., for more than 20 years and blogs at NewSmallChurch.com.

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