I was orienting a new member to a board of directors on which I served as president. While the board was legally independent, it was operationally connected to a hospital, which was partly governed by a denomination. A few minutes into my explanation of the connections, this business school professor and management consultant stopped me.

“Thanks for all the details, but I can see that I will never need to remember it all,” he said. “The system is so complicated that you, as president, function as if you are fully responsible. That allows everyone else to do the work. You handle the complexity.”

I’m like many people who try to understand the dynamics in a system. Any leader must learn the informal power structure at play. For pastors, this is particularly important. Until that new director orientation, I had failed to take into account how those who take on responsibility also shape a system.

Now, when I look at an organization, I try to see whether just one or two people are holding most of the responsibility. Being responsible often entails an intense focus on the future or on funding, as well as an equally intense focus on the moment. The person or people responsible are often dealing with problems — resolving the fixable and absorbing the unfixable — in hopes that others will not be distracted by them.

Some people see taking responsibility as a way to gain control and power; others view it simply as an opportunity to work on problems, turning a project over to someone else once a corner is turned. Counterintuitively, power and responsibility are not always claimed by the same people.

Two situations in particular can create the perfect conditions for “responsible ones” to develop. First is a startup effort. Beginning a big new project or an entire organization involves so much work that the people involved often take on tasks outside their formal roles. This is a case where a significant number of people may feel responsible.

As a faculty member at a startup seminary, I was once tasked with designing and leading a newer version of a capstone class. The students had expressed a need for an alternative to the required course. The faculty recognized the value of their request, but the person in charge of that area was on leave. So it fell to me to design and lead the first course.

The next year, when my colleague’s leave was over, I was the co-teacher, and slowly the responsibility shifted. In some ways, this is standard startup mentality. Most of the people are “all in.” Responsibility is heavy but can be distributed.

The second situation is work located at the intersection of different systems that must be encouraged to stay in alignment. This is a very familiar situation for most pastors.

A church might include three extended families, for example. Those families all have their priorities and conflicts that can go back for generations. Any element of the church can get caught in a tension between the families — the cemetery, the nursery, the choir. The pastor is expected to be responsible, yet the pastor’s authority is limited to negotiating agreements between the families. No matter the official governance structure, the pastor is expected to find ways to hold the church together.

I often work with grant-funded projects, which can have dynamics that are similar to both startups and complex, interconnected systems. The project leaders must always navigate the promises made in the grant proposal as well as the changing expectations of the institution that received the grant. Many times, the project has stakeholders in other organizations whose goals also must be considered. 

Frequently, the grant director feels responsible for holding all these expectations together but has little authority beyond directing the spending of the grant itself. The combination of these dynamics is a prescription for feeling very responsible.

Is feeling responsible bad? I hope not. The key to an organization’s health may be recognizing when the responsibility is becoming centralized. Involving many people in carrying a heavy load is not the same as expecting someone else to take care of the problems.

As a short-term approach, a few people carrying a lot of responsibility might be essential. Yet if the organization develops a long-term dependency on a single person, its health may be compromised. Others’ feelings of relief at not having as much responsibility may eventually devolve to feelings of lack of agency or lack of authority. On the other side, the individual carrying the responsibility may burn out under the stress.

Over the years, I have been involved with many congregations that benefited from long-term pastorates in which the congregation became deeply dependent on the pastor. The pastor in such cases often showed no signs of burnout, but the church often took years to adjust to new leadership once that pastor stepped away. I never saw a case where the new pastor could fill the void left by the long-term pastor. The whole church had to participate in reshaping the role of the pastor to make it more manageable for a new person.

If we see this responsible-one system at work, what can we do to recalibrate it? Paying attention to transitions of leadership is one way to adjust the system. Short of that, naming the situation with clarity and little judgment can be a very helpful step, especially for the person who is holding an inordinate share of responsibility.

The input from the business professor/management consultant who was joining my board was very helpful. He prompted a conversation about how we could share responsibility. Over time, I learned to share more leadership. I suppose the best evidence is that the ministry is going strong more than a decade after my departure.

In my experience, the development of a responsible-one system in an organization is not bad, but it often has to be adjusted in order for the organization to grow or otherwise adapt to changing circumstances.

I have found “Who is responsible?” to be a helpful question that creates a type of lens through which I can see a situation and begin to respond. Does anyone hold an inordinate share of responsibility in your organization? Why? What are the challenges that result?

Involving many people in carrying a heavy load is not the same as expecting someone else to take care of the problems.