Responsibility Without Authority

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Imagine being a mechanic where someone brings you their car because it is having problems. You identify several issues and bring them to the owner’s attention, offering to repair it. They don’t give you permission to fix it but they hold you responsible for when the car breaks down the following week, sending you the bill for the repairs they need done.

Or think about being a doctor. A patient comes in with severe migraines. You run some tests and determine they have a massive brain tumor. As much as you offer your help they refuse. A few months later you find yourself on trial for their death.

In both of these instances a person finds themselves being held responsible for an outcome where they weren’t given authority to change the situation. People expected them to make a difference but the rug was pulled out from under them, keeping them from doing what needed to be done and they are the one left holding the bag.

One of the most common and difficult problems in ministry and Christian leadership is being given responsibility without the authority to carry out one’s duty. This happens from volunteers and deacons to ministers of all kinds. It is so important that anyone who is given responsibility is given the commensurate level of authority to get the job down and make appropriate decisions along the way.

In churches we don’t just have volunteer workers. We have volunteer leaders. In fact our highest level leaders (those with the most authority) are a volunteer bunch. This is a natural part of our model of local leadership and congregational autonomy (which I am a proponent of). It seems to me that elders have all the authority but have far less responsibility for the outcome than the ministers. A minister has a tremendous amount of responsibility. For the minister, all their social and spiritual circles are one and the same. Your family, church, friends and career are all in the same circle. For most people, losing a job still allows you to stay in your town, not have to sell your home, and you can keep your friends and your church while you look for a new job. Not so for a minister. Consider what happens if things don’t go well in their ministry – loss of job, loss of friends, and usually the inevitable move. That is a lot of responsibility and consequence for goofing up. On the other hand if things fall apart under an eldership the level of responsibility and consequence they bear is usually minimal. There are no procedures for letting them go. There is no move, loss of friends, etc if things go south. This inversion of responsibility and authority in our leadership structures isn’t healthy.

It is important that we have elderships who empower those who have responsibility. They need to empower their ministers, deacons and volunteers and part of that empowering is trusting them with authority. Part of their empowering is delegating not just a job but the necessary authority to get the job done properly. Without this everyone is watching their back and the level of trust is minimal. It makes no sense that we would trust the spiritual well being and biblical teaching of the congregation to a minister but not allow them as little authority as is needed to make small, simple every day decisions.

In what ways have you encountered this? How have you seen churches do this well? What does it take on the elders’ and ministers’ part to make this work well?

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