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The Antidote to An Overworked Pastor: Delegation

I learned the hard way what happens when a pastor tries to do it all. When I first started Saddleback, I did everything. I did all the teaching, all the preaching, all the praying, all the counseling, and all the baptizing. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. I took a month off. I was depressed for the next year. My goal wasn’t to build a great church. I just wanted to survive through Sunday. 

While success is gratifying, we typically learn more from failure. That dark year of my soul taught me a lot that prepared me for the enormous stresses I would encounter in later years. 

Specifically, here’s what I learned: Empowering others to lead is a mark of successful leadership.

When leaders try to do it all, they burn out. Moses learned this lesson the hard way too. In Numbers 11, the Israelites complained about their circumstances. They wanted food other than the manna God was providing. 

The Bible says both God and Moses became very angry at the complaints of the Israelites. Moses felt as if he was having to become a nursemaid for immature people. Anyone who has ever reached a large number of non-Christians in a new church understands what Moses was experiencing. Moses was doing everything, and he was worn out.

So what did God tell him to do? God essentially told him to empower others to help with the work. God told Moses to bring him 70 of Israel’s leaders: “They will share the burden of the people with you so that you will not have to carry it alone” (Numbers 11:18 NIV).

Like Moses, we need to learn to share our ministry burdens. Think of it like this. You grow a church to 300 with shepherding skills, but you grow a church beyond 300 with leadership skills. There’s a big difference. When the focus is on your pastoral skills, you’re doing just about everything, including preaching, counseling, and visiting people in the hospital. 

But there comes a point in your church’s growth when you can’t do everything. You must become a leader. At this point, you transition from being a doer to a delegator. 

When I started Saddleback, I took on the responsibility of setting everything up myself. We stored all the church’s equipment in my garage. I had to borrow a truck every Sunday morning because I didn’t have one. I’d go to my garage, load the equipment, drive it down to the school, set it all up, return the truck, and then repeat the process after the service to take everything back home.

I eventually delegated this job. Like Moses, I learned that when you do a job for others, you’re really taking that job away from them. You keep them from growing. 

That puts you on a path to failure. I’d rather put 10 people to work than do the work of 10 people. 

I remember, many years ago, hearing that a guy in our church named Walt Stevens had a heart attack. Walt was a charter member of the church, so I visited him. 

I went to the hospital and walked into intensive care. I said, “I’m Pastor Rick, and I’m here to see Walt Stevens.” The head nurse looked at me and said, “Excuse me?” I repeated, “I’m Pastor Rick.” She then asked, “How many pastors does this church have?!” At that time, I replied, “Well, we have five or six full-time ordained pastors. If you include lay pastors, which are our small group leaders, we have about 80 or 90.” She then said, “I’m sorry, you can’t see him. Too many pastors have already seen him.”

Finding this amusing, I chuckled and said, “Excuse me, ma’am. I’m the pastor. I’m the head honcho. I’m the founding pastor!” She looked at me and said, “I don’t care who you are. You can’t see him.” I thought this was hilarious. Too many pastors had seen Walt Stevens. 

Eventually, I was able to visit Walt anyway. As I talked to him, I realized he didn’t need to see me. I prayed for him, read a couple of Scriptures, and talked for a minute. He didn’t need to see me because six small group leaders had already been to see him. Walking out of there, I started weeping. I thought, “That’s it. That’s the way God intended the church to be.”
God never meant for the ministry of the church to be done by the superstar pastor who flies into the hospital room in his superman cape, prays, then flies off into the sunset.

When we try to do it all, we’re setting ourselves up for a trap. Moses learned this lesson, and he learned it well. When you learn it too, you’ll see the difference it makes in your church as your people grow and as you minister effectively without burning out.

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