In a previous post, I wrote about how the Empowered Shift is imperative for all church leaders to embrace. The Follow-up question is, “What is does it mean to empower someone?”

Empowerment is currently a buzz-word in many church circles. Church leaders know that it’s important, but they don’t know what it is and how to do it. Nonetheless, often the church leader enthusiastically grabs his or her emerging leader and begins to delegate things away and calls it empowerment. The problem is that delegation and empowerment are different and when we don’t understand what empowerment is, we will never hit it. Instead we will mistakingly embrace one of its three imposters which leave church members confused and church leaders disappointed.


Think back to the last time you saw a student driver car on the road. If you are like me, you did whatever you could to avoid the fifteen year old that was potentially behind the wheel for the first time. Despite the fear it places in nearby cars, what is happening between the student and the instructor is a great example of empowerment. 

When the two get in the car, the student is the one in the drivers seat. He has the authority to make the decisions. He can steer the wheel, hit the gas, and tap the brakes. But, the instructor isn’t fully removed from the situation as she sits in the passenger seat and has a brake pedal that can override the driver’s side. The instructor hits the brakes if the student makes a bad decision like speeding or drifting outside his lane. Ultimately, though the student is making the decisions, the instructor’s involvement prevents the student from driving the car into the ditch.

Empowerment is giving authority to someone within specific boundaries while holding on to the responsibility (Building Leaders, Mancini and Malphurs). It gives away the authority of decision making while still remaining responsible for the outcome of the ministry/department/organization. Much like the instructor, we train and empower people to make decisions behind the wheel, but we remain engaged to assure that the car stays between the ditches. 

Empowerment’s Imposters

When we confuse the relationship between responsibility and authority, we drift into one of three empowerment imposters. Malphurs and Mancini would label these as directing, abdicating, and disabling (Building Leaders).

Directing: This is when a leader keeps both authority and responsibility. Of the three imposters, this one can be good. It’s normal for your relationship with a potential leader to start here, but you never want it to finish here. If a new leader is young and inexperienced, it may be helpful to lay out what decisions he needs to make, but eventually you want to begin to let go of the decision-making process and move from directing to empowering.

Abdicating: This is when a leader gives away both authority and responsibility. This would be the equivalent to the driving instructor giving the keys to the student and not getting in the car with him. When leaders give away responsibility, they no longer feel accountable for the ministry and will inevitably remove themselves from opportunities to coach and train an upcoming leader.

Disabling: This is when a leader keeps the authority to make decisions, but gives away the responsibility of the outcome. This is often done unintentionally. Often, the leader knows the importance of empowering, but his fear of losing control causes him to micromanage the decisions of those he gives responsibility. Along with stunting the development of the upcoming leader, it causes a lot of frustration and discouragement.


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