Let My People Go

Releasing Your Team to Lead, Not Just Follow

by Glenn Reynolds

The realization I could be the problem dawned on me slowly.

After all, I taught lessons about leading differently at every level of the organization. At conferences and seminars I told pastors about the need to reinvent themselves to lead effectively in new seasons. I read and reread the book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

Armed with that knowledge, I realized I could be the roadblock on the path to my church reaching its God-given vision.

As I analyzed the responsibilities vested solely in me (for example, approving every expenditure over $200), the committees in which I participated (from service production teams to world missions leadership teams), and the lack of decision-making ability outside of my office, I began to understand I was hoarding too much of the organization’s potential in my hands.

I was dangerously close to becoming what I taught against.

Over time, it became obvious I was leading the church from behind, relying on my past experience. Instead, I needed to lead the church into the future, from the level we sought to reach — rather than from the one we had already attained. Because of this, I felt like I was constantly pushing everybody forward, rather than each of us pulling together.

And that was tiring.

So in cooperation with my leadership team, we devised a plan for me to let go and for them to step up. Looking back, this had to happen at all levels of my ministry. As a church planter, I typed the worship folder, scheduled the ushers, and helped set up and tear down every Sunday. Somewhere along the way I learned to let go so other people could step up. I needed to learn the lesson all over again.

In an effort to release your team to lead and realign your role as the senior leader, you must take five steps.

Step One: Raise Up

You must raise up other leaders, not just attract followers. It is not easy, but the pattern is the same at every level — identify, recruit, train, deploy, and coach other leaders. To identify them, you must know them and connect with them. To recruit them, connecting their gifts to the church’s vision is essential.

Training is an ongoing and purposeful process where you help them develop not only skills, but also an understanding of the principles behind the tasks. To deploy them, you release them to do what they do best — with your authority. Coaching them implies that deployment comes with accountability and continued support. In other words, you delegate responsibility and authority. You do not simply dump them off to do a job you no longer want to do.

I had an incredible team of senior leaders waiting for me to deploy and coach them. Mistakenly, I managed them instead of leading them. As the church grew and experienced the pains of growth, I vested more and more authority to the one person I trusted most — me. In effect, I neutered a powerful team that I should have released, rather than leashed.

Your situation may be more like the early days of my church plant in Des Moines, Iowa, where the leaders were volunteers, instead of paid staff. The principle remains constant, though. To keep growing your organization, you must raise up leaders.

Step Two: Let Go

Once you raise up leaders, both paid an volunteer, you have to divest responsibility and authority. If you continue to micromanage their work, one of you is not necessary to the process. Instead, you must get to the point where you are comfortable releasing leadership to your fellow leaders.

Before you let go, make sure you can check these three boxes.

First, your fellow leaders must share your heart. In other words, they must know what’s inside you. Help them understand the why of what you are trying to accomplish in the organization. This only happens over time as you explain the motivation for the vision that is in your heart for the organization. It happens as you connect as friends and not just colleagues. You must let them in before you let them go.

Second, your fellow leaders must know what’s in your head. They not only need to know how you feel about something, they need to understand how you think about something.

The Walt Disney Company lost its moorings after its founder and guiding visionary died in the late 1960s. At risk of a hostile takeover by corporate raiders, the board fired Disney’s son-in-law, and Michael Eisner became the CEO nearly 20 years after Walt’s death.

Disney was devoid of imagination, losing money, and facing being chopped up and sold as parts to the highest bidder. When Eisner arrived, he found the most frequently asked question was, “What would Walt do?”

Asking what Walt would do seems like a good idea on the surface. But when you dig deeper, you find the company rejected Walt’s innovative thinking process, choosing instead to face the problems and opportunities of the 1980s with a company frozen in 1966.

It is important to never let your staff or volunteer leaders ask essay questions: What would you do about this problem? Instead, they must ask multiple-choice questions, describing the problem and offering solutions. As the leader, you help them learn how to think through solutions, rather than just giving them an answer. In this way, they not only learn what you think, they learn how you think, which is much more valuable and necessary as you release your authority to them.

Third, your fellow leaders must be your hands. I wondered why both a direct report and I were sitting in on the first interview of a potential new hire. Why were we on the same committee? I was paying both of us when we only needed one of us for that task or team. I had to review and decide what and where I needed to be and when and where my fellow leaders needed to be my hands.

I limited my involvement to staff chapel, senior leader’s meeting, staff meeting, and the creative planning team. Limiting my involvement freed my fellow leaders to lead, rather than just sit beside me in a meeting.

Pastors in smaller churches sometimes feel overwhelmed with all their ministry responsibility. Train and release volunteers to oversee ministry so you do not need to attend every committee meeting.

Step Three: Move Over

Letting go of certain duties to your fellow leaders allows you the freedom to complete the primary roles of the senior leader — focusing on vision, developing strategy to complete the vision, communicating the vision, and raising up and coaching new leaders. Letting go of some work never frees you from work; it only allows you to move over to the appropriate priorities for the senior leader. This was why the apostles selected deacons — not to free them from work, but to free them to work on what was their task alone (prayer and ministry of the Word).

Step Four: Check In

Even with fellow leaders, Zig Ziglar’s rule still applies — you do not get what you expect; you get what you inspect. There must be an accountability system for you and your fellow leaders. Still, be careful not to devolve back into a managerial system.

Our direct reports meeting (the meeting with me and those who report directly to me) devolved into a management meeting. To move forward and make better use of their time, we devised a written system of communicating weekly goals, while reserving the face-to-face meeting for big decisions and strategic thinking. They added a meeting without me to discuss issues they did not need to bring to my attention.

Step Five: Look Around

Finally, look around for someone at the next level to mentor you. Mentors have never come to me. I have always had to seek them out. One mistake I made as I continued my leadership journey was to stop seeking mentors. I had plenty of colleagues, but I stopped seeking people at the next level. It was a mistake that contributed to the problem these five steps were designed to solve.

Pastors in smaller churches, especially rural churches, may feel isolated. It is important for them to seek out a mentor who can help them process ministry issues and grow to the next level.

As you keep growing as a leader and as a church, you will need to keep reinventing how you lead. To do that, you will need to connect with people in front of you, not just beside you.

Slowly, I realized I might be part of the problem, but quickly with these five steps and the help of my team I am back on a journey to becoming part of the solution for taking our church to a new level. You can, too.