Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 64

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Building Leaders: Blueprints for Developing Leadership at Every Level of Your Church by Aubrey Malphurs and Will Mancini. To purchase the book, click here.

Many authors use the term empowerment when writing about leadership, but few pause to define it. For the sake of clarity, let’s start with a definition: Empowerment is the intentional transfer of authority to an emerging leader within specified boundaries from an established leader who maintains responsibility for the ministry.

Empowerment is about authority. Authority is decision-making power. The heart of empowerment is the transfer of decision-making control over an area of ministry. To understand the significance of this transfer, think about teaching someone to drive a car. The student driver must first study the rules of the road, watch more experienced drivers, and learn how to operate the vehicle. But the student cannot actually drive the car until he or she sits in the driver’s seat–the place of decision-making power. For the student driver to sit in the driver’s seat, the existing driver must take his hands off the wheel and move over. The transfer of authority is clear because only one person at a time can have his hands on the wheel and his foot on the pedal.

Our definition of empowerment includes an important clause that describes the established leader as one who maintains responsibility for the ministry. Ultimately the established leader is accountable for the decisions made by those under him or her. By retaining responsibility the established leader stays conscious of his or her accountability and maintains a vested interest in the ministry outcomes. In essence, the established leader holds ownership or final responsibility even though the decision-making power has been transferred. This helps foster a relationship of trust and security with the emerging leader.


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Alternatives to Empowerment

To further clarify the definition of empowerment, it helps to explore the different ways an established leader keeps or gives away authority and responsibility. As we have stated, empowerment occurs when a leader gives away authority but keeps responsibility. There are three logical alternatives to empowering: directing, abdicating, and disabling. As you may guess from the terms, the last two, abdicating and disabling carry a negative connotation because these actions inhibit leadership development. Let’s take a look at each of the three.

Directing

Directing occurs when the established leader keeps both authority and responsibility. In some situations directing is a good option, and others it is not. It’s a good option if there is a lack of qualified emerging leaders. For example, a new and inexperienced worship pastor may start off receiving direction from his senior pastor. He is given the program–which songs to sing and the order in which to sing them–from the senior pastor. The senior pastor does not give away authority to make these decisions. He also keeps the responsibility. Whether the response is dynamic or poor, he takes responsibility for the result.

Directing is inappropriate in other situations. If there are qualified emerging leaders and an established leader continues to direct, he or she will hold back the leadership potential in the ministry. Many times the established leader continues to direct because he or she likes being in charge. Let’s return to our new worship pastor as an example. If the worship pastor continues to develop under the directing of the senior pastor, there may come a time when he is ready to receive authority over the music ministry. The senior pastor may resist this change from directing to empowering simply because he likes making all the decisions. In such a case, directing inhibits leader development.

Abdicating

Another alternative to empowering is abdicating. This occurs when the established leader gives away both authority and responsibility. Even though this may appear to be empowering, it is not. Abdicating can actually hinder rather than promote the new leader’s development. When the established leader gives away responsibility for the ministry, a vital connection is lost between the established leader and the emerging leader because the established leader no longer feels accountable for ministry outcomes. 

To use the student driver illustration, imagine an instructor exiting the vehicle at the moment the student climbs behind the wheel. This shows a blatant disregard for both the driver and the car. In similar fashion an established leader who abdicates leadership is showing a blatant disregard for both the emerging leader and the ministry. This form of disregard may not be conscious on the established leader’s part. In our experience, abdicating usually occurs unintentionally through neglect and is perpetuated due to stress and time constraints in the leader’s life. Leaders should be careful to evaluate whether ministry they give away is a result of empowering or abdicating. 

For the new worship pastor, abdicating would occur if the senior pastor gave away authority over the worship program while disowning the responsibility. To the worship pastor, the senior pastor would seem disengaged. On some Sundays, the worship would go really well and on others it wouldn’t. In either case the senior pastor would never comment or provide feedback on the program, making his expectations unclear. Training would never be discussed or offered. Even though the worship pastor would love to discuss the upcoming sermon series to plan musical selections better, the senior pastor would never have the time. In this case the senior pastor is not giving away authority to multiply the ministry but is giving away authority to give up the ministry.

Disabling

Disabling is another alternative to empowering. It refers to the inappropriate act of giving away responsibility but keeping the authority. When this occurs, the established leader holds the emerging leader accountable for ministry outcomes without giving him or her decision-making freedom. In the context of this disempowerment, many negative scenarios result. First, it places a low ceiling on the emerging leader’s development potential. Learning is stunted because he or she never gets behind the wheel of ministry. Second, the ministry never multiplies because one person is still making all of the decisions. Third, frustration snowballs because the established leader never considers himself ultimately accountable and can blame others when problems arise.

Leaders who disable will eventually discourage emerging leaders–in many cases to the point of leaving the ministry area. Using the new worship pastor as an example, disabling occurs if the senior pastor gives the worship pastor critical feedback about a poor response from the congregation. Since the worship pastor wasn’t given authority to design the program, he should not be held responsible for the outcome of the program (assuming he did what the senior pastor told him to do). 

One key to discerning leadership disablement is observing with whom the established leader communicates when problems or critical decisions arise. If a leader bypasses other leaders or emerging leaders in the organization to effect change, disabling occurs. The decision-making power has never really been given away. For example, the senior pastor is guilty of disabling if he goes straight to the pianist to cut a special music piece from the worship program instead of working with the worship pastor.

The Benefits of Empowerment

Let’s return to the senior pastor and his new worship pastor to illustrate the positive aspects of empowerment. Six months have passed and the senior pastor decides to empower the worship pastor. The senior pastor still feels responsible for the outcome of the worship event, but now the authority of designing the program rests in the hands of the worship pastor. Imagine the context that develops: The pastor looks for ways to further equip his worship pastor and build his skills. The pastor cares enough to write down his regular feedback with both strengths and weaknesses of the program. The pastor plans time to discuss future sermon series.

On the flip side, the empowered worship pastor appreciates the opportunity to make the programming decisions. (His gifts and training, as opposed to those of the senior pastor, are better suited for the role.) He feels comfortable getting input from his pastor because he knows that the pastor will not simply blame him for negative outcomes but will help him solve problems and make progress. The worship pastor knows that when critical decisions arise, the senior pastor will not go behind his back to give direction to the worship team. Best of all, the pastor openly praises the worship pastor when he does well and personally accepts the responsibility when outcomes don’t go well.


The typical pastor has too many balls to juggle. His greatest need is not more balls to throw in the air or more time to perform or more juggling tips; his greatest need is more jugglers–individuals who can lead ministry under his guidance. Empowerment represents a point in the leadership development process when a leader stops juggling one of his balls and hands it to an emerging leader. No amount of leadership development–classroom training, reading, practicing, or mentoring–can produce a leader without ultimately handing off ministry to emerging leaders. Therefore, understanding and applying the concept of empowerment are essential to developing more leaders in your church.


Dr. Aubrey Malphurs is the Founder of The Malphurs Group and a retired senior professor of leadership and pastoral ministry at Dallas Theological Seminary. Dr. Malphurs is an award-winning author of more than 20 books with titles focusing on strategic planning, leadership development, and organizational strategy.