Delegation Traps: How To Avoid Them

By Robert E. Bingham

Delegation is the distribution of work and authority in such a manner that associate’s skills will best be utilized in terms of reaching your objective.

A Case Study

Max is a good planner and even a better decision-maker. His ministry is characterized by careful forecasting,
objectifying, evaluation, and deciding. Nobody, not even a Ph.D. in business management, could score against Max’s precept and practice in these areas.

Then why is it that the fruits of his ministry seem to plateau-out after about three years as the leader of an
organized church?

The truth of the matter is that Max cannot delegate well if at all. He cannot remedy this malady because he is not even aware of this deficiency. Even a physician cannot prescribe for something that he cannot diagnose.

Let’s have a retake of Max’s handling of a specific problem he faced in his church. See if you can locate the traps
he failed to recognize. Perhaps you might underline them as you read this case study.

The Valley View Baptist Church had a resident membership of 450, in a newly developed community. The budget
was $90,000. The building debt retirement payments swallowed up most of the remaining funds after salaries, missions, and basic operating expenses. The staff consisted of Max, a secretary, and a custodian.

The pastor’s planning and decision-making processes determined that teacher training was vital to growing their
church. The educational force was ready and willing but obviously not able.

Max concluded that this priority item must claim his time and energy. But where was he going to get the time when he already felt he was giving 110 percent? Wrestling with the impasse, he decided that importance demanded that he teach the leadership course himself.

Within one month his sensory-emotional system cried out, No way! But the need remained. So Max decided to delegate this responsibility to a volunteer. He wanted a person to whom he could turn over the responsibility for teacher training. If I could only wash my hands of the whole package! Besides that, I don’t need to spend that amount of energy for so small a group. But if I delegate this responsibility . . . will I lose control? he wondered.

But to whom should I delegate? The only qualified person is Suzie Jones. (A recently retired teacher at the local junior college.) But she cannot relate to these teachers-in-training. She’s too old to lead our young adult leadership. She taught English to youth. What does she know about biblical pedagogy?

To make a long story disastrous, Max finally chose Suzie because he had no other alternative. He gave her a briefing and she eagerly accepted the task. He told her what he had planned to do and directed her to follow his well thought through plan. And thus the training work was delegated.

Suzie found the pastor’s plan to be insufficient for reaching his stated objective. It was also incompatible with her
knowledge, experience, and teaching style. When she communicated this to Max, he politely, but firmly, explained to her that his methods were time-honored through the seminaries and had been practical for him in the past.

She persisted another two months. Teachers became disinterested. Suzie became disillusioned. Max became
frustrated. He unknowingly pronounced the last rites of the training program. He intoned, “Well, I always knew that
volunteers were not worth the time it takes for supervision. If the training program is important, I guess I must find time to do it myself.”

The cycle was complete. But the task had not been achieved.

Locating the Traps

* If it is to be, it is to be by me.
* I have too much responsibility, so I’ll delegate some of it.
* I’ll delegate some things: those I don’t want to do; those I don’t know how to do.
* Delegate methods to be sure it is done your way.
* Don’t give authority to the very young, the aging, and especially to women.
* Volunteers are not worth the supervision they need.
* Delegation is too risky. I lose control.

Major Trap-If you want a thing done right, do it yourself. How many times have I asked others to help out, only to find they did a subpar job or did not follow through at all? The stakes are too high to risk my important work with others less experienced and less qualified. If it means I have to work eighty hours a week, I’ll pay the price.

Every one of us has spent some time in this trap. The temptation to over-evaluate our skills and commitment is always an ego temptation for leaders. To complicate matters, we tend to under-appreciate the potential of our associates. This is a good time to remember the strategy of our Lord. Where would the Christian movement be if he had felt it necessary to do everything himself? Where would we be? When we compare our spiritual abilities and capabilities with those of Jesus, we pale by comparison.

After that remorseful comparison, we go right out and assess our associates as incompetent to carry a part of the load. How odd!

There is a fine line between the following statements. See if you can draw the line in your mind. “If it is to be, it
is to be by me.” (Often called the eleven deadly two-lettered words.) “If it is to be, it is up to me.” A case could be made for either statement. Can they both be right? Yes, if you see the distinction. The first statement deals with the action; the second deals with responsibility. The former is the trap that says that everything to be done needs to be done by me. The latter realizes that once a responsibility has been given (and accepted), it is up to me to see that it is done by me or maybe, better done by someone else.

The major concern of the corporate world today is called the Crisis of Middle Management. A company has many competent people serving in middle management positions who are frustrated because they do not have work to challenge them. Upper management tends to withhold delegation of authority. Lower management sits on their hands waiting for leadership. Is this the case in your organization? If so, give careful reading to the rest of the chapter. The effectiveness and perhaps the life of your organization may be at stake, not to mention your
effectiveness as a leader.

The construction of this trap is based on the foundation of the question posed in chapter 2: Are you a doer or a manager? You can be a leader in either case. However, the manager delegates and multiplies his effectiveness.

Other Traps-1. You can delegate responsibility. When your load gets too heavy and the strain is almost unbearable, find some person to whom you can delegate some of your responsibility.

This temptation is wide and deep, confusing enough to be a hazardous trap. There are two principles in delegation that become intertwined, making the trap. First, you can delegate authority, but not responsibility. A higher authority has given you the responsibility and you have accepted it. If the task is not done, you are still responsible, regardless of whether you delegated it to someone else or not.

Consider the captain of a ship. He is given the command of the vessel and all the responsibility that goes with it. He
delegates his authority to several officers for execution. Ultimately, he is responsible to see that they function
acceptably. Even though the captain is not on the bridge of the ship giving directions for its steering, he is held responsible for running aground or a collision. The captain could delegate his authority to the officer of the deck for steering. But he could not delegate his responsibility in case of disaster.

Second, you should not delegate a task without giving appropriate authority to the person accepting the task. Some
religious leaders find this difficult. When you pass on some authority, you give up some of your power. Often, we do not mind living without abundant financial resources. But do not try to strip us of our power! History has shown that most of the great leaders of the world have placed a higher priority on power than on wealth. Yet, it is the sharing of the power (authority) that we extend our ability to achieve our objective. Jesus and his Spirit have been trying to convince his followers of this fact for two thousand years.

When you do delegate your authority to another, remember he then becomes a manager also. Perhaps he will further delegate a portion of the assignment to others. At that point, you cease to be the supervisor of the “others.” They will be supervised by the person who subdelegated that portion of work to them. No man can be supervised by two masters. Not only might he love the one and hate the other, but also he may grow to hate them both. He may decline or resign. You have lost a worthy associate or two worthy associates. When you delegate, give away everything
except your responsibility.

2. Volunteerism is a good idea, but it is not practical. It takes more time to enlist volunteers, match their skills with
your needs, and supervise them than it is worth.

What one of us has not experienced the above frustration? It is one thing to be frustrated. It is another thing to allow that emotion to ensnare you into a trap. The principle has worked for centuries. Why desert it now? Jesus called for volunteers for his disciples. He named twelve of them as apostles. They called forth volunteers to lead the early
church. Bishops, elders, and pastors were all called for volunteer service to help in the work of the kingdom.

Stop a minute! Where would your spiritual pilgrimage have ceased if there were not volunteers to make a contribution to your life? Where would your organization be without the help of volunteers? Most of us would have to restrict severely our outreach. Some would have to close up the shop. So, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath. Or, to keep our metaphor consistent, let’s not jump into the trap just because we see that some volunteer movements have failed.

The Home Mission Board, where I work, determined its objectives for the next decade to be: “Let every person in our
land have an opportunity to hear and accept the gospel of Jesus Christ; let every person in our land have an opportunity to share in the witness and ministry of a New Testament fellowship of believers.” When considering the challenge of such dramatic objectives, the leadership considered the assets available compared to the assets needed to reach these objectives. When counting only full-time paid missionaries and ministers, the objectives were unreasonable and unreachable. Only when the use of hundreds of thousands of volunteers were considered were the
objectives within reason.

3. Youth, women, minority groups, and senior citizens should not be delegated much authority. Remember the counsel of our forefathers, “Don’t send a boy to do a man’s work.” The Christian church has marched forward on the shoulders of mature male leaders in the past.

In our modern society you would think that this trap would catch only the people trying to hang on to those “good old days” of the nineteenth century. Actually, there seems to be a waiting line to jump in. As a fact, there are barriers and signs all about the trap warning the administrator to beware. There is the sign of history, of practicality, of freedom, of individual rights, of common sense, of supply and demand, and of effectiveness. There are barriers of Satan urging us to be restrictive in our leadership and administrative roles. And yet, the male role and image is so strong (often bullheaded) that a man refuses to read the signs, jumps over the barriers, and falls head over heels into the trap.

Consider each of these categories. First, youth. The apostles were at most in their younger twenties. Presidents of
major corporations and educational institutions are younger than the average age of the leadership in our churches. In some churches, you have to be older to serve as a deacon than John Kennedy was to be elected president of the United States. Youth have the zeal and the education to accept heavy assignments in the kingdom. They have our intellectual assent and our emotional encouragement. What we fail to give them is our confidence and our spiritual blessings. Is it right for them to be allowed to play church during youth week once a year and not be allowed to
offer their lives in committed and continued service?

Second, women. I would not try to be convincing based upon logic or theology. Others more qualified than I have often failed. My appeal would assume Christian precepts but would be made upon practicality. Respond to the following statements with your own true-or-false answer. In the last thirty years, women members outnumber the men in your church. Women have more positions of service in your church today than do men. Women are usually more willing to serve than men when asked. Women usually can give more time to the task. Women tend to be more
spiritually discerning.

Like it or not, I must answer true to all five statements. For most churches, the statistics and performances will bear out such a true response. Then, why is it that we still persist in trying to enlist some average men for positions of service when we have some outstanding women waiting on the sidelines? I am afraid that I know the answer and do not want to see it in print.

But have we considered the reality of what our God must think of our judgment? Are we being good stewards of the most precious of his resources, his own children? It is one thing not to put our money to work for God. It must be a graver mistake not to put his children to work for him.

Third, minority groups. We tend to trap ourselves with all of the preceding prejudices when we think of the
possibilities for persons from minority groups, plus a few more. The largest of these is to assume that other cultures do not have a significant role to play in extending the kingdom of God. This reminds us of the limerick that begins with: “How odd of God, to choose the Jews.” If we claim that minorities lack in culture, we had better step back and reassess that statement. They may lack in our terms of culture but not in terms of their concept of culture.

We have learned of the skills and abilities of black persons in athletic endeavors. Is it possible we have overlooked
their contribution to the greatest field of competition: the eternal fight against evil? In the last twenty years, most Anglo churches have adopted some of the more informal characteristics of the black church at worship. Are there other undiscovered gifts of leadership that are going untapped because of our reluctance to take the risk of delegation?

Fourth, senior citizens. By now, you should be able to write this section yourself. Many of these persons have the
qualities we seek for responsibility and leadership: experience, maturity, financial resources, time, commitment, and desire to be involved. Why then are we not delegating more authority to them? Could it be that young and middle-aged adults have traditionally put their seniors on the shelf as over the hill at sixty-five?

The facts indicate that the largest potential for effective volunteers is represented by persons sixty years and
older. Early retirement and affluence has opened up this personnel market. Second vocations, usually beginning in middle age, gives people an opportunity to do some things they have always dreamed of doing. They can accept a lower salary or do volunteer work on the side.

4. Delegate matters that you do not like to do or are not comfortable in doing. Let a subordinate do those things. That’s one of the few compensations in being the boss. Anyway, that saves energy to do the important matters. And besides, you can’t be good at everything.

This is an example of some good management logic, confused and confounded in the midst of some sorry
rationalizing. Surely, no one can excel in everything. Managers cannot get involved in small decisions and activities. The work needs to be distributed, and the manager is the logical one to make the division among his associates. It is the mixture of this uncontested logic that makes the trap unnoticed, even attractive.

The point is that considering the above truths as givens, administrators should avoid delegating tasks that are
rightfully theirs to do. If it carries executive responsibility, an associate or volunteer is probably not equipped to handle it. This is known as forced delegation or over-delegating. It is especially dangerous to delegate a task that you personally dislike. Unless it requires a skill that you do not have. Even in that event, you should consider if you need to learn that skill in order to have control in your responsibilities. If you dislike it, the chances are poor that someone else will desire it. The emotional risks are high in delegating an unwanted assignment. The delegatee may assume that the manager keeps all the good apples and gives out only the rotten ones.

Perhaps the most subtle aspect is wanting to delegate work that you are not comfortable in doing. Maybe you are
inexperienced in that field or have not enjoyed much success in the past. So why not delegate it? Mainly, because you lose control. Until you know firsthand about that facet of the work, how do you expect to be in control of assuring its fulfillment? Until you have done the work of candy keeper, how will you know where others are hiding the candy?

Once you have done and understand the work of the candy keeper, you can delegate that task simply because you have control over the process. You know where the candy can be hidden. You may have hidden it yourself. By that very fact, you are in control. You can counsel with the delegatee and help him to do the task that will help meet the group’s objective.


Why not check yourself at this point to see how you are measuring up as a delegator?

Yes or No

1. Am I willing to delegate work that I enjoy (but may be left undone) to others?
2. Do I allow them to do it differently than the way I would do it?
3. Would I accept the fact they may make mistakes, even fail?
4. Is it more important to gain my organization’s objective than to relinquish some of my authority and power?
5. Do I see delegation as being risky?
6. If wisely delegated, is it usually worth the risk?
7. Do I have more work to do than I can get done?
8. Are there potential delegates in my organization?
9. With training, could they perform the task well?
10. Do I know why I am not delegating more of my tasks?

How to Avoid the Delegation Trap

General Guidelines-1. Delegating to groups is a whole new ball game. Individuals are easier to supervise. Groups have many and diverse opinions. You can call an associate into your office and explain the facts to him, and thus divert his errant ways. But a group is different. There may not even be enough chairs in your office to seat them.

Groups do not make decisions in structured organizations. You may say that your organization is not structured. Not from your viewpoint, maybe, but have you asked any of your associates or members what they think? Groups do
research and make suggestions. They carry out decisions delegated to them by a person. You still think groups make
decisions? Then why is it when a group makes a bad decision, a specific person gets the blame for it? The decision goes with responsibility and responsibility goes with individuals.

Then why delegate to groups? Because most tasks do not require decision making. The policy is already set. The group’s job is to carry out the task within the guidelines of the policy. In the ecclesiastical world, there are countless tasks that can be done effectively in groups.

(1) Committees. Much has been said about committees. Very little is neutral. Fun and jibes have been tossed at
committee work. Some have said that is only a way of postponing a decision. Others have said that a camel is a horse created by a committee. My experience leads me to conclude that a committee can design a horse with the stamina of a camel.

The success or failure of committee work (or any other group work) is determined by the directions given by the
delegator. Specific instructions should be given regarding the objective of the committee, guidelines for action, and a
dateline for completion. Progress reports should be expected at critical times. If the work needs continuing, make sure the members understand the current objective. Disband the committee when the objective has been achieved.

Specific examples of the use of committees are given at the end of this chapter.

(2) Adhocracy. Alvin Tomer made this coined term popular in his book, Future Shock. It means a committee
organized for a one-time task. A first cousin of the standing committee, it may be more efficient. It has the advantage of being constituted for one purpose only, at one time only. Members with specific expertise can be appointed or co-opted for limited service.

(3) Task Forces. Primarily, the same as ad hoc groups, task forces usually cross organizational lines. The same traps
lurk here as in the other small-group work.

2. Consider why you may be having problems delegating. If you know why you cannot easily delegate, you are halfway toward solving your problem.

* It takes too much of my time. It is easier to do it myself than to explain it to another person and then have to
supervise them.
* My people are already overworked. It would only be shifting my overload to them.
* They won’t accept the task seriously.
* I want it done right. Mistakes can be costly.
* My office carries clout, and I can get it done faster.
* Who will control the job if I delegate it?
* The task is too confidential to assign it.
* It is just too risky.

What do all of these add up to? Basically, the manager has problems delegating because he feels that the job can be
done better by him. What he forgets to appraise is the long run question: Can he continue to do well the other tasks assigned to him if he does not delegate other tasks that come along?

Specific Guidelines-1. Evaluate the human resources of your organization just as you do your financial resources. If
you know the potential of your people, you will be able to delegate more to their pleasure and to your profit as a leader.

Small organizations may be able to keep track of such human resources with a 3 by 5 card. Large organizations and
churches often must rely upon some form of electronic data processing. in 1968 Wieuca Road Baptist Church transferred their membership profile records to data processing. Each member had an opportunity to record his experience and preference for service, including 144 options. There was no way this large congregation could have delegated its task among the congregation without a system for appraisal of their human resources.

2. Recognize there are others just as talented and committed as you are to the objectives of your organization. Not to do so, places you in an uncomfortable position of judgment.

3. Survey what your organization is not achieving in terms of your objective. Then reassign some of the work of the
overload to those whose shoulders can take some bending. We might be surprised how many organizations already have available personnel to accomplish their objectives. But, usually, the organization needs to be rearranged and the work reassigned.

4, Do you have confidence in your people? If so, then you probably are willing to delegate. Do you trust them? If so,
grant them the same opportunity to make the same number of mistakes you make. If you cannot trust persons, then do not risk delegating some of your authority. It will only bring you ulcers. (Maybe you can tolerate ulcers.) But it will also bring you failure to reach your objective. (Can you tolerate failure over the long haul?)

5. Take advantage of the economic principle of THE DIVISION OF LABOR. This concept has withstood the critique of all major economic systems of the world. Every one of them from capitalism to Communism wants to get things done. They have specific objectives. Likewise, each system utilizes the division of labor principle. Secular philosophies do not have exclusive rights to this advantageous manner of effectively sharing the work to be done.

You may ask, “How do I divide the work among myself? I have no associates.” If not, why not? Only hermits have no one to assist them. Many of us have a spouse. All of us have people helping us in reaching our objectives, hopefully, many types of volunteers. Give serious thought (approaching wisdom) to matching the needs of the task to the talents of your team. Assume there are eight tasks to be accomplished if your goal is to be reached.

In simplified language, division of labor entails discovering how many tasks need to be done; discovering persons
who can help achieve the tasks; matching the round pegs with the round holes.

6. Be willing to take risks, with discretion. Most of the great advances in our society have begun with a risk element. You may win a few and lose a few. But your wins probably will be more significant. And you may be surprised how soon you will forget the losses.

A word of caution about the “boat rockers.” You really do not need helpers who are afraid to rock the boat. They will
jump overboard at the first hint of a rough sea. The occasional boat rocker will keep a healthy tension among all those aboard.

However, you need to be wary of the perennial boat rockers. They tend to be more interested in causing tension and
shock for the thrill of watching the insecurity of the group. They eventually will cause so much commotion that the whole group will get motion sickness. That tends to bring on sickness of the whole body, and that generally means physical and emotional expulsion and revulsion.

As a rule of thumb, take the risk of the boat rockers. It is easier to tame a wildcat than to arouse a Rip van Winkle.

Examples of Delegating

One simple and one complex example may indicate the range of delegation in a local church. First, bulletin boards.
For years the hallway boards, intended to communicate an organization’s message to the church, were either poorly used, overused, or not used at all. Sometimes there was some competition and a sense of possessiveness.

Enter delegation. Assign every hallway board to a specific organization(s) of the church on a monthly schedule.
Equality is exercised by rotating the locations. Control is ensured by stating that each board would be examined monthly. If it were not being used effectively, it would be reassigned to another organization.

Second, the deacons’ family ministry program. You probably already know about this pastoral program. It is an excellent example of the pastor (manager) delegating a part of his authority to the diaconate. If you are acquainted with it, check your practice of it with the principles stated in this chapter.

A Case Study

The author first served as minister of education at First Baptist Church, Saint Joseph, Missouri. Arriving in
mid-April, 1948, his first task was to organize for Vacation Bible School (to be held the first week in June). High priority was enlisting the faculty. The most logical recourse seemed to personally enlist each worker.

Along came July and it was time to think about the Sunday School leadership for the fall. What was more natural
than to enlist the workers personally, as he did for VBS. (He didn’t even know he was in the trap!) By October, all positions were filled, but he was drained. In addition, many other tasks were left undone.

Finally, being uncomfortable in the trap, he decided to find another way. It came with the move to a new field in 1960. Recognizing the need for a better way, he delegated much of his authority to a church-elected nominating committee. The process worked like this:

1. The committee was authorized to make nominations to the church for all officers and leaders of the church, except
church staff. Delegation.

2. The nominating committee was divided into subgroups for each church organization, with power to recommend to the nominating committee. Delegation.

3. The subcommittees visited in the home of each potential department director to discuss the importance of the
position and ask for permission to place his/her name in nomination. Delegation.

4. After election of the department director by the church, the subcommittee worked with the director in selecting the rest of the leadership in the department. Delegation.

5. The department director was authorized to enlist the persons approved by the committee. Delegation.

6. If mutually acceptable, these names were presented to the church for election. Delegation.

7. The department director was authorized to personally enlist a chorister and pianist. Delegation.

8. This process began in February of each year and continued through December, nominating deacons, treasurers,
clerks, as well as all church organizational leadership.

By 1971, the church had grown to 4,400 members and over 600 church-elected leaders. All of these were personally
counseled in their homes and evaluated by the nominating committee prior to their nomination and election. It was
fortunate for the church that the minister of education found his way out of the delegation trap several years before. Even more fortunate was the staff man himself. By this time he would have been ready for the crazy box. Delegation wins again!