Avoiding Decision Fatigue in Your Leadership

Churches make bad decisions when church leaders have nothing left in the tank. It’s hard to run a race well, when you’re fatigued.

Six years ago, my wife decided we should enter into a sprint triathlon (a sprint distance is far less grueling than the Olympic or Ironman versions).

So we began our training together. She was committed until she learned that the swim portion of the race was to be in open water… “open” meaning a deep, dark, Texas lake full of fish.

Nevertheless, Triathlon day finally arrived. When the horn blew, we sprinted off into the water for the half-mile swim. Swimming wasn’t the hard part. Swimming while getting kicked, and swallowing grotesque lake water from everyone’s arm-flapping wake was. It took significant energy just to complete the swim, which was only the first third of the race. I used most of my energy trying not to drown, and when I finally stammered onto the beach, I realized most of the race was still ahead of me.

I had never had hopes of winning in my age division. But I also didn’t know my athletic ability was so woeful, and my energy depletion so excessive, that not only would I not win, but a nine-year-old girl would resolutely pass me just before reaching the finish line.

I wanted to make a great sprint at the end of the race. And with no intended offense to all my nine-year-old female readers, my idea of finishing well didn’t include a pre-adolescent running faster than me in the finishing stretch.

Leadership is not a sprint. Leaders have to sustain themselves to be fully operational and leadership-ready at all times, especially in the finishing stretches when the stakes are high.

We can’t afford to be found on “empty.” If you’re leading your church while you’re fatigued, that’s when you’ll make your biggest leadership mistakes. And those mistakes won’t just involve being shamed by a nine-year-old girl, but they’ll involve potentially hurting those you care about, including your church.

One particular, but avoidable fatigue that leaders are susceptible to is decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue happens for a few reasons:

  1. You’re making too many decisions
  2. You’re making the same or similar decision multiple times
  3. You’ve never created a decision-making process


Making too many decisions is usually a result of wanting to be in control and/or an inability or unwillingness to delegate.

If the people you work with are constantly coming to you for help with decisions that are “below your pay grade,” you’ve probably communicated you want to be involved in all decisions. Either that, or you’ve refused to delegate and empower others to make decisions. It’s a leader’s right to make decisions – but this right will lead to decision fatigue. Next thing you know, you won’t have the energy and focus to make the decisions in your pay grade which have significant impact.

Making the same decision multiple times is symptomatic of a lack of intentionality or of policy. If the same question is presenting itself multiple times (in various forms), you need to determine the common elements each time, and also form a common, intuitive response. (If you’re delegating, those leaders should also be prepared to give that response.)

It sets a precedent, which can save you time. Not only that, but it will spare your brain from going through the crucible of critical-thinking each time an issue arises, before rendering a response.

* A word about policies. Many people loathe policies – including those who write them. But I view the value of policies through the lens of decision-making. When I see that our church has faced the same issue over and over again, and our response has been consistent each time, then it’s a good candidate for a policy.

Polices aren’t perfect, and should be systematically re-evaluated. But more often than not, the decision you’ve reached before has a second life as a policy. Polices save time for all involved, and provide everyone access to the answer (which means they’re not depending on you). Further, it provides organizational power to an issue. Rather than a decision resulting from the influence of one person utilizing their personal power, it comes from the organization.

Creating a decision-making policy

Having a system that gets you to decision points is critical for a leader. Not having one means you have to make it up each time, which not only leads to wasted time, but also expended mental energy.

A decision-making system doesn’t have to be difficult or encumbering. Instead, it’s a road map leading to quick (albeit informed) decisions. Some decisions will necessitate a rise above a simple system, but you can dispose of many smaller decisions with a set of questions like this:

  • Do I need to be making this decision or can it be delegated?
  • Have I made this decision or one similar before? If so, what was the decision?
  • Do I have the critical information for making the decisions (i.e., the five interrogative W’s)?
  • Am I aware of the implications for the people involved? Am I comfortable with those implications for everyone?

When making decisions, don’t start from scratch. Don’t burden yourself with grueling critical-thinking sessions for decisions others should be making, decisions you’ve already made previously, or decisions where you don’t have all the information.

As a leader, you control this. You can choose to have a better way for making decisions. If you don’t, you’ll develop decision fatigue – which leads to poor leadership decisions, and even poorer church or organization decisions. To put it another way… You’ll allow the nine-year-old to get the best of you at the finish-line.

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