Delegation can strengthen the life of a congregation in significant ways. It can enhance the quality of decision making by involving staff members and lay leaders with expertise and insight, help individuals develop and grow in their leadership capabilities, contribute to an environment that is motivating and enriching, and produce greater buy-in and performance.

But if not handled well, delegation can generate problems—from confusion to frustration to poor results to conflict.

Effective delegation, contends Alban senior consultant Susan Beaumont, comes down to creating a proper balance between three critical organizational elements:

  • Authority—the formal and legitimate right of someone to make a decision, issue a directive, or allocate resources on behalf of the congregation.
  • Responsibility—the assigned duty to perform a task or activity.
  • Accountability—what occurs when people are subject to reporting and justifying outcomes and are appropriately rewarded or corrected.

“Delegation is effective when a person who is given responsibility for the performance of a task is also given the proper level of authority to execute the task and is appropriately held accountable for outcomes,” Beaumont says. She notes that a delegation relationship will go wrong if:

  • Not enough authority is assigned. The person may try to do the task and fail because the organization will not give her or him the latitude to do what was asked.
  • Too much authority is assigned. The person may become heavy handed and take responsibility for things not intended.
  • The responsibility is not defined. When individuals are not clear about what they are asked to do, they will invent their own boundaries around the task.
  • Accountability is not maintained. The person may fail to do the task because there are no consequences for nonperformance. Or worse yet, the person may perform the task successfully, but then become discouraged and withdrawn because there was no recognition for a job well done.

Another important aspect of effective delegation is determining what to delegate, explains Beaumont. “Delegating the wrong tasks,” she adds, “can be just as detrimental as delegating to people who are not ready for a delegating style of leadership.”

What are the “right” kinds of tasks to delegate? Here are Beaumont’s suggestions:

  • Tasks that can be done better by someone else. Delegate those responsibilities that others are naturally better at than you are. They may be better at the task by virtue of raw talent, education or training, or temperament.
  • Tasks that are time critical, but not a high priority. The urgency of a situation should not automatically make the task a high priority for you. Delegate the task to someone else who is prepared to handle the urgency of the situation and for whom the task is appropriate.
  • Tasks of appropriate difficulty. The person to whom you are delegating should feel challenged but not overwhelmed. A good benchmark is to craft the task so that learning mistakes are likely to occur, but self-confidence and/or reputation are not destroyed.
  • Both pleasant and unpleasant tasks. Some tasks are just unpleasant for everyone. Unpleasant tasks should be rotated fairly—especially among staff members. You should keep a portion of unpleasant tasks to demonstrate your willingness to be of service.
  • Tasks that are not central to your role within the congregation. Never delegate a task that is central to your role—even if it is not technically difficult to perform.

How one delegates also contributes to the effectiveness of that delegation, according to Beaumont. She offers the following suggestions:

  • Planning to delegate. Spend enough time with the person on the delegated task. When you first start to delegate work, you often will find that people take much longer than you would to complete the task. This is because the person you are delegating to is still learning how to do the work. You may even find that you are spending more time supervising work than you would take to do the task yourself. Be patient and persistent! You investment of time and energy will pay off in the long run.
  • Assigning the task. (1) Explain the purpose of the job, so that the person to whom you are delegating the task understands the big picture and how this task fits into it. (2) Specify responsibilities clearly, explaining the expected results, objectives, priorities, and deadlines. (3) Specify the level of authority that you have decided to assign, and explain the limits of discretion, including funds that can be committed, resources that can be used, decisions that can be made without approval, and agreements that can be negotiated. (4) Specify reporting requirements, and clarify the types of information that you expect to receive back on the progress of the task. (5) Ensure acceptance of responsibilities by having the person describe back to you, in his or her words, what has been decided upon and what level of responsibility he or she is willing to accept.
  • Monitoring the assignment. (1) Inform others who need to know about the delegation, including people who will be affected by the delegation and those whose cooperation and assistance are necessary to do the delegated task. (2) Arrange for the person to whom you delegated the task to receive necessary information on a timely basis. (3) Check in with the person at the times that were agreed upon when the task was assigned. (4) Be available to provide coaching and answer questions where appropriate. (5) Accept the fact that there is more than one way to get at any given problem, and allow the person latitude in her or his choice of how to proceed. (6) Be mindful that when you delegate, you always bear some level of responsibility for completion of the task.
  • Handling results. (1) Only receive high quality work. When a job is delivered back to you, allow enough time to check it through thoroughly. If you accept partly completed work, then you will have to invest time in completing it and the person to whom you have delegated will not have learned to do the work to the required standard. (2) Provide support and encouragement, but avoid reverse delegation. If you are asked to provide help, ask the person to present you with a recommended solution for his or her own problem. You can evaluate whether or not the solution is feasible without taking back responsibility for the larger task. (3)Make mistakes a learning experience. When you delegate, mistakes are inevitable. Treat failures seriously but avoid shaming or blaming. In an open and encouraging manner, discuss the mistakes and identify ways to avoid similar mistakes in the future. (4) If appropriate, reward the effort. If someone has done good work for you, let that person know. Appropriate praise will help to build confidence and efficiency next time the person does a task.