the shape of leadership

You, Them or God?

The first step in solving a problem is knowing who is responsible for fixing it

Rob Ketterling on April 10, 2019

Quite often, you have to figure out on the fly how to fix a problem. It doesn’t mean you haven’t prepared; it just means something is in the way of your desired outcome, and you need to get past it, over it, or through it before you can accomplish your goal. Trust me when I say that I’m a problem solver, I’m a survivor, and I believe you can learn to be one too!

In 1995 when we started River Valley Church in a school, I began looking for a permanent home for our congregation. I eventually found an empty field at a key intersection in Apple Valley, Minnesota, where four communities converge. It was close to town and appeared to be a prime location for the future. I often walked through the field and prayed, “Lord, someday I’d love for You to let us build a church on this corner.”

About four years into the life of our church, I drove to that familiar field early one morning, but this time it wasn’t empty. A surveyor was staking out a foundation, and trucks were unloading bulldozers. I drove up to a man in a bulldozer, leaned out the window, and waved my arms to get his attention. I yelled over the roar of his diesel engine, “Hey, what are you building?”

He yelled back, “An office warehouse.”

I smiled and said at my highest decibel level, “I’m going to put my church here!”

He looked at me like I’d lost my mind, but he didn’t say a word.

As I drove away, I noticed a new sign in the lot with a phone number on it. I called and reached the leasing agent of the project. I asked him, “Do you have the warehouse you’re building fully leased?”

He replied, “No, not yet.”

I signed a letter of credit with everything Becca and I owned to back it up. And we needed to raise more money just to start.

Work on the warehouse began and moved along, but soon we discovered a little problem. The contractor left town with $60,000, leaving behind an unfinished space. I now had to raise that money again. I also became the general contractor, and in case you don’t know me very well, I’ll let you in on a secret: I have absolutely zero experience or expertise in construction.

I tried to get all the plumbers, electricians and other contractors to work in tandem, but the more directions I offered, the more confused they all became. I was gumming up the works and slowing things down even more! This was in June, with a huge delay staring me in the face, and the church was supposed to open in August. As days passed, my optimism eroded and even faint hope died as I realized I was a colossal failure as a contractor.

Nevertheless, things seemed to fall in place as the day neared for our grand opening. The final inspections were going to be just a formality ... until the inspector deadpanned, “Your restrooms didn’t pass. You can’t open until they’re fixed.”

“That can’t be,” I said. “We’re opening on Sunday. I’ve sent out 25,000 pieces of mail inviting people to come — this Sunday! We have to open! I have a mailer!”

With no hint of compassion or willingness to budge, he told me, “No, you’re not. I can’t come back until next week.” He paused and added, “In fact, I’m going to chain the doors closed because I’m pretty sure you’ll try and still use the restrooms even though they failed inspection.”

My mind raced to find a solution. I had it: “What if we put up porta-potties?”

He looked at me, thought for a second, and then said, “If you put up four for men and four for women, including two for the handicapped, you can open on Sunday.”

That Sunday morning, eight portable toilets lined the front sidewalk of our church like soldiers. Problem solved. Welcome to River Valley Church. Pay no attention to the porta-potties! Our attendance doubled that first day, and we’ve continually grown from there.

I had no business trying to be the general contractor. I should have found someone far more qualified than me. But I couldn’t pass the buck that day when the inspector was going to shut us down. I had to own it.

You, Them, and God

Many leaders are confused about who is responsible for a decision or an outcome that will fix the problem they face. My premise is simple. There are three basic categories of responsibility:

  • Some problems are up to you to fix.
  • Other problems belong to them — the people God gave you to help in the work of ministry, such as staff members and volunteers.
  • Finally, there are problems only God can fix.

I learned to differentiate these responsibilities through my disastrous experience as a general contractor. On that Thursday as I stood in front of the building inspector, I faced a problem I couldn’t pass off to anyone else. I couldn’t call a committee to meet and come up with a solution, I had no one to delegate it to, and I couldn’t ignore it. Even praying in that moment wasn’t changing the inspector’s mind. It wasn’t God’s problem; it was mine. It was a “right now” problem, and it was on me.

If I hadn’t jumped in to resolve the issue, our church’s reputation could have been destroyed the same day we opened our doors for the first time.

However, I’ve also learned that not every problem is mine to fix. If I don’t delegate responsibility and authority to other people, I overload myself, and I prevent them from growing and bringing their gifts to the problem. Neither of those outcomes is productive.

And sometimes — no matter how much I pray, plan and prepare, and no matter how well I delegate to competent, faith-filled people — I face dilemmas that are far beyond me and the people around me. God is the only one who can solve those problems.

When I didn’t understand these distinctions of responsibility, I carried too much of the burden, and I remained stuck in the mud of thinking I had to do everything all the time. I felt frustrated with myself, with the people around me, and, if I’m honest, with God for not making my life easier when I was working so hard. I became angry at people for not stepping up, even though I hadn’t been clear about what I expected them to do. I was too active and assumed too much responsibility, and I was too passive when I failed to hand responsibility to others.

In those times when God was the only resource, I often frantically tried to do what only He could do, and I resented taking the blame when things didn’t work out the way I hoped. It was a mess, but it was the only way I knew to lead a church.

God has called leaders to lead, to delegate, and to trust Him to do what only He can do.

From my own experience and from the feedback of other pastors, I believe some of us desperately need to distinguish between these three categories of responsibility. Occasionally, all of us need a reminder of what we’re responsible for, what others are able to do, and what only God can do.

We see this pattern clearly in the Bible. Consider the apostle Paul, for example. The leaders in Antioch commissioned Paul for his first missionary journey, and the Jerusalem Council commissioned him for the second one. Barnabas went with Paul to assist him on the first journey, and Silas accompanied Paul on the second. Yet Paul was the undisputed leader; it was on him. In every city where people came to faith, Paul appointed elders to lead the fledgling churches. When Paul walked out of the city, church responsibility was now on them.

But in several instances, the only solution to a problem was the mighty hand of God. For instance, the Lord changed Paul’s itinerary and led him into Europe. At Philippi, Paul met Lydia, who responded to the message of the gospel and became the first convert on the continent. However, God wasn’t finished: Paul then trusted Him to deliver a servant girl who was tormented by evil spirits, although Paul and Silas were arrested and thrown into prison as a result. God then caused an earthquake to shake up the jailer, and the two church leaders were soon released to keep spreading the good news of Jesus’ love and forgiveness.

God has called leaders to lead, to delegate, and to trust Him to do what only He can do. When we get this right, amazing things can happen! We work, we serve, we labor, and we strive, but not for our own honor or in our own strength. We trust the Spirit of God to work in us, through us, and for us in everything we do.


Let me give some practical insights about delegating to “them.” Often, when someone complains that something isn’t being done, or isn’t being done well enough, the pastor wonders, Who can I count on to make this happen? The pastor mentally scans the church’s terrain and identifies someone who is already doing far too much, but asks him or her to take on this task too: “I really need you to do this. If you don’t, I don’t know who will.”

If the pastor is a married male, he may give responsibility to the person he’s confident won’t say “no”: his wife. If this happens too many times, things won’t be very pleasant at home.

Counting on overworked, overcommitted people may get the job done in the short run, but it almost inevitably has negative long-term effects on everyone involved. We need a more thoughtful, consistent approach to involvement.

When overworked staff members or volunteers eventually crash and burn, some pastors shake their heads and complain, “Too bad they weren’t faithful for the long haul. I expected more.”

They push those exhausted servants to the side of the road and leave them there like wrecked cars. The pastors then find other eager persons to put in their places, working them until they, too, burn out. (This problem wouldn’t be so prevalent if more pastors avoided overcommitting themselves. Then they could see more clearly what is going on in their churches.)

Let me offer a few suggestions for making positive changes in the way you delegate:

Apologize. I think it’s entirely appropriate for pastors to apologize to the people who have shouldered too much of the load. The pastor might say, “I’ve learned some things about leadership and delegation, and it’s time we made some changes. I’m so sorry I’ve asked you to do so much for so long. You’ve done a great job, but I don’t think it’s been the best thing for you, and I haven’t given other people the opportunity to serve like they want to. I need your help in making this transition. Let’s fix this together. Will you help me?”

Remain realistic. We have a big vision, and we hope people catch it and follow us in doing great things for God. The problem is that our plans can be so much bigger than our resources, so we put too much of the burden on too few people. Smaller churches need to do a few things really well instead of trying to do a lot of things well without the resources to pull them off.

Carefully communicate the plan. When I talked to a large audience at our church about making some changes, I explained the concept and anticipated their emotional response by saying, “You probably feel ... .” When I went through the litany of possible reactions, people felt understood — which is very important in helping them own the changes.

I had to explain again and again that we wanted to give as many people as possible the opportunity to say “yes” so they could thrive in their roles. But every commitment is short-term. They may be fulfilling a very different role in the future. No one is trapped. No one is expected to die from exhaustion. No one should lose their family because they spend too much time serving at the church. Others should discover the joy of living by finding an appropriate place to serve God and others.

A “yes” means they’re making a commitment to touch lives in meaningful ways, playing a part — a small part — in being an integral component of the body of Christ, and caring for people in the church and the community. As members use their gifts to the glory of God, they’ll grow in their effectiveness and love for God. When God prompts them to do something else or something more, that’s fantastic! It’s our job to help them find the sweet spot for this season of their walk with Christ.

Address the awkwardness. All change is threatening. Some people thrive on the exhilaration, but most need comfort and encouragement as the process unfolds.

When pastors create easy on-ramps, they need to accentuate the joy of serving, not the obligation — the beauty of the King of the universe involving others in His divine work instead of merely their duty to fill a slot or do what the pastor has asked them to do. We want people to join God in the grandest enterprise the world has ever known, to build His Church, and we want them to come with joy as they anticipate all God will do.

My Hope for You

It’s impossible to overstate how important it has been for me to grasp the differences in my responsibilities, the ones I need to delegate to others, and the ones only God can shoulder. It has lightened my load, made me a far better leader, enlisted many more people in building God’s kingdom, and revealed the awesome power of God more than ever before.

As you think about the challenges before you, consider which ones are yours to fix, which ones God has gifted others to take up, and which ones you should release to God in faith.

I trust this will give you hope and handles: hope that you can clearly delineate who is responsible for each task in your church, and handles on the decisions you need to make so that you can live with freedom, joy, and God’s awesome power.

Adapted from Rob Ketterling’s book, Fix It! (River Valley Resources, 2018). This article appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of Influence magazine.


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