I was leading a training seminar with a group of pastors recently, and I could see one of the pastors in the room was visibly uncomfortable. Almost wincing in pain. When it came time for Q&A his hand was the first one up. He said, “I believe everything you’re saying about unleashing volunteer leaders to do important ministry roles. I don’t disagree with a single word. And yet, I can’t picture myself doing it. What advice would you give to someone like me?” I responded that step number one was to identify his hang-up. Diagnose what it is about this idea that seems too foreign, or too hard, or too unreasonable. Being a pastor myself, I want to share 3 barriers that hold most pastors back from entrusting more volunteers with key leadership roles.

Barrier #1 – The CONTROL Barrier: “No volunteer can do it like I do it.”

It’s easy to see why Moses was trying to hold on to control of the Israelites during the wilderness wanderings. He was the one who had received the barefoot calling from God at the burning bush. He was the one who had seen his staff become a snake. He was the one who made his own emancipation proclamation before Pharaoh. He was the one who called down the plagues, and followed the pillar of fire, and parted the sea, and brought water from a rock, and called down room service for a million people from heaven in the form of manna. He was the one leading everybody to the promised land. He was the man of God, the anointed one, the direct line with the Father. God had determined that Moses was the man, so in the wilderness all the decisions needed to flow through him. That’s the way it had always been.

Which makes the rebuke of Exodus 18 all the more startling. Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, sits him down for a little talk in Exodus 18:17–18: Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.”

As a result of this sage advice, Moses decided to decentralize his leadership. He realized he was trying to do the work of a hundred people instead of trying to find a hundred people to do the work. So, he gave responsibility away by dividing people into thousands, and hundreds, and fifties, and tens, and each group had a leader. These leaders acted as decision makers. The hard cases were brought to Moses, but the smaller matters they decided themselves. Moses had unknowingly become a bottleneck because he was trying to maintain control. Many pastors unknowingly dumb down the effectiveness of their churches by insisting on maintaining control.

We must never allow our pride to get in the way of God’s kingdom. As I have found dozens of times now, while I may not think a volunteer could do it as good as me at the beginning, in the end, they do the job much better than I ever could. It’s a humbling reminder that the body of Christ is a much better idea than a one-man-or-one-woman-show

Barrier #2 – The CONSUMER Barrier: “My church expects me to do everything.”

Over the years of equipping volunteers, I’ve heard my share of comments like, “what do you think we are paying you for?” or “what kind of pastor do you think you are if you don’t think _______ is part of your job description?” You can fill in the blank with all the usuals: hospital visitation, teaching Sunday school, leading the youth ministry, ordering the communion supplies, counseling troubled teenagers, volunteering at the local shelter. Each church, and each individual, has her own pet projects and ideas.

This mentality is a product of the consumeristic American church. It involves a mindset that says, “As far back as I can remember, the pastor always did these things.” But just because someone thinks that doesn’t mean it is biblical. Jesus never designed the church so that one hired professional was doing all the ministry and everyone else was critiquing their work and then throwing a few bucks in the plate if everything is up to par, so that you can do it all again next week.

Pastors can either wring their hands and complain about consumerism in the church as if we’re victims, or we can lead our churches into a better way—a more fulfilling way. Not just for the pastor but for everyone. When Paul describes the church as a body in 1 Corinthians, he doesn’t assume the pastor (or anyone else) is going to function as the head, heart, hands, feet, mouth, and eyes, while the rest of the people are just ears and rears. Can you imagine how ridiculous a body like that would look—heavy on the ears and rears and light on every other part? That body would be sick, dysfunctional, and dying (and strangely fascinating to see just once).

Pastors must overcome the consumer barrier and lead our churches into a proper biblical view of the body of Christ—one where each body part is doing its job. There are only two ways I know of to shake your church out of a consumeristic slumber: teach them and invite them. One of my college professors suggested that ecclesiology (study of the church) is the most underdeveloped aspect of theology in the modern church. We need to first do a better job of teaching our churches what it means to be the true body of Christ with each member playing its part. Then we also need to boldly invite people to serve in important leadership roles within the church.

Barrier #3 – The ENERGY Barrier—“I’m barely surviving as it is.”

Being a pastor is hard. Especially through the chaos of a global pandemic and a world in crisis. Pastors have shouldered an incredible burden of just trying to keep their churches functioning, and innovating for a new reality, and working to get people comfortable in the building again, and keeping whatever staff remain intact. Being a pastor is hard.

Who in the world has time to recruit and develop high-capacity volunteer leaders? It seems like too much to add to the plate. And so, in many cases, a pastor’s default plan is to just keep pace with all the demands of ministry until one day hopefully you’ll be able to bring on that new paid staff person who will solve all your problems. You conclude, “Right now, I’m just too busy with ministry to worry about this volunteer leader thing.”

But what if the reason your church isn’t able to afford that new staff person is because you are spread too thin. You’re doing a lot of things, but they may not be the things you need to be doing to actually disciple your congregation and grow the impact of your church.

Many churches, big and small, get caught in this catch-22. It’s a never-ending cycle of waiting until they hire the next staff position, but never quite growing to the place where they can afford to hire that person. The two greatest tools at every leader’s disposal are time and energy. So you must constantly ask yourself where you will spend your time and where you will focus your energy. I would think that most leaders would want to leverage their time and energy on those tasks that will bring the greatest return. Work on those areas that will multiply ministry and will have the greatest kingdom impact.

The truth is you have to spend time to save time. And the investment of time up front on recruiting and building and empowering volunteer leaders will bring a return on investment that will build God’s kingdom and your church in incredible ways. The first decision is the hardest of all: saying no to a bunch of good things so that you can say yes to the things that will have the greatest impact on your church. I believe one of those most important things is empowering high-capacity volunteer leaders to take on significant ministry roles. Yes, it’s hard, but the payoff is worth it.

You can read more about the other barriers Pastors face in chapter 6 of my book Untapped Church.