“Can you please be in charge of pack up after the church BBQ?”
“I’d love you to help me out by chairing the staff meeting while I’m on leave the next few weeks”
“Can you please check to see why Roger wasn’t here today?”
“Would you be willing to do up a promotional image for Easter?”
These are just some of the respectful and polite ways team leaders can ask team members to do something. Many of these are actually ways that members could ask their fellow members to do something. Most of the time that’s all we need to know: be considerate, be clear, ask a question, be willing to take No for an answer.
But depending on your relationship to the person, and depending on their relationship to the task, these requests are actually a different kind of thing. And occasionally it is important for the person asking and for the person being asked, to know which kind of thing it is.
Don’t get too hung up on the terminology. Everyone uses words slightly differently, but for the purpose of getting clear about different types of requests, in what follows, I’m going to use delegating, assigning, instructing and asking a favour in specific senses.
In the narrow sense, delegating is giving a new job to somebody, often temporarily or for some special reason (skill development, to fill a gap while someone is sick, special giftedness etc).
This kind of ask is going beyond a particular role description. It’s an extra ask. But there’s always more to do in church and so we all need to be open to the possibility that there might be other things we are asked to do. On the other hand, it is good to be clear when we are asking for something extra. This is a new delegation. As a result, the request ought to come as a genuine request, not just a politely-worded instruction.
For staff, a significant amount of smaller delegations could be considered ‘assignments’ in the sense described below. All job descriptions include the ‘other reasonable duties from time to time’ clause. But with volunteer roles, we need to be more careful. Someone agreed to a role based on a particular understanding, it can erode trust or stretch people unreasonably if we slowly add more and more delegations to their role.
So also, for the person being approached with a new delegation, it is ok to pause and reflect. Even ask for some time to think about it. For ministry staff it is perfectly appropriate to clarify “Is this an instruction or a request?” In other words, “Am I allowed to say No?”
“I have a new task for you.”
“I would like you to start doing this, please.”
“This job fits with your role, can you please you take a note of it?”
Assigning, in the narrow sense, is different. Assigning is being given a new task or responsibility entirely within the bounds of your role. If the assignment matches the role description and the workload is realistic, then the responsibility can be assigned and it is expected that a team member be receptive to such assignments. In that sense, although the assignment may be given in the form of a question—”Can you please do this new task?”—this may be more a matter of courtesy than a literal question (more on this below).
“I need you to do this, please.”
“Stop that for now, we really have to get the meeting started.”
“Don’t push that button or the whole chapel will explode!”
In certain situations, a leader needs to give direct and explicit instructions—commands if you like. This is obviously important in matters of safety, technical precision or time sensitivity. It can also be appropriate when there are pre-existing policies, values or expectations. When a task comes in the form of instruction, the focus is not on empowerment and ownership and persuasion; the task just needs doing, and it needs doing this way and it needs doing now.
Giving instruction can easily come across as abrupt or domineering, at least in white Australian culture. In matters of serious danger or egregious wrongdoing that might be entirely appropriate, but in most situations it’s not preferable. Tone of voice, volume, speed and facial expression can all soften how instructions come across.
Asking a Favour
There are some situations where framing a delegation as a favour is a good way to go. Small jobs and occasionally even big asks can be framed in this way to emphasise the personal inter-dependence of team members and the full permission for them to say No.
What if They Say No?
Most of the time, even with assignments and instructions, it is best to express them in question form. But what if the person says No?
In the case of delegation, you should simply honour the No. This is what makes ministry work, whether paid or unpaid, a willing joy and not a coercive burden. Honour your team members’ freedom to say No, to judge their workload and other commitments. Recognise that they have the responsibility to decide when and where to go above and beyond, when and where to do only what is required of them.
In the case of assigning work, and even giving some instructions, there are many, many situations where it is still best to honour the No. Even if you were just being polite by phrasing the assignment as a request, there are great relational benefits to respect that literal interpretation of your words. A leader with strong emotional intelligence and commitment to their team will know that much of the time being flexible is more important than being in control.
On other occasions, when the task really has to be done, you might have to apologise for expressing the instruction or assignment as a question:
“Oh I’m sorry, I ought to have phrased that differently. I’m afraid I was actually assigning this task to you as part of your role, not suggesting an optional task.”
Or, if the team member, reasonably asks, “Is that a request or an instruction?” Try not to be flustered or offended. Take a moment. Breathe in, breathe out, smile and say:
“Oh I’m sorry. Yes, an instruction, actually.”
It might feel strange to have to assert your authority. But in healthy and respectful teams, this is perfectly ok and doesn’t need to be apologised for.
But what if they keep saying No to delegations? Well, it all depends. In many cases, we need to adjust our expectations and keep respecting the No, rather than allowing resentment to simmer. Sometimes, we need to admit that we really want to assign something, but don’t want the awkwardness of being assertive. In still other cases, the role description may need to be revised (and in the process, the team member may choose to step down from the role).
On the other hand, especially with staff, there may be an opportunity for some gentle feedback on the matter. You might point out the pattern you are observing, and suggest that the team member could consider being more open to occasional, additional delegations, a different mindset. In so doing, you yourself need to be open to the possibility that there are good reasons why the team member feels unable to take on additional work—and such good reasons may be legitimate, even if you don’t personally feel entirely persuaded by them. This is usually a gentle conversation, rarely the beginning of a performance management process.
In all of this, leading a healthy and diverse team needs both strong leadership and a deep value of each different member of the team, in the way God made them and in the circumstances God has placed them.
 ‘Realistic’ doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be a need to work hard, or make decisions around priorities or efficiency.
 Although, watch out! There is a manipulative way of asking favours as a guilt trip, that puts someone on the hook more than a delegation.
 How much more on a neuro-diverse team, where some might be especially inclined to interpret communicate in a more literal sense.