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Leadership Secrets of Jethro the Midianite

I’m supposed to take part in a leadership training event at church this Sunday. They want me to talk on the biblical and theological basis for lay ministry, and they’ve given me all of eight minutes in which to do it! I thought I’d use my time to talk about a fairly obscure text from the book of Exodus that may open up some interesting conversations.

In Exodus 18, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, comes to visit the Israelite camp. After observing how Moses sits all day long settling the peoples’ disputes, he states the obvious:

What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (vv. 17-18)

Scholars debate whether the census figures in the Pentateuch should be taken at face value or whether some sort of textual corruption has crept in, which would mean adjusting downward the number of Israelites who left Egypt. Even by the most radical proposals, however, the estimated Israelite population at the time of the exodus is in the tens of thousands. That is an astonishing number of people to manage!

But how are they to be managed? Moses apparently only knew of one leadership model. Reared in Pharaoh’s household, he apparently looked to the vast, centralized Egyptian state as a blueprint for the people of Israel. He alone was the lawgiver with the inside track to God—a Hebraic knock-off of Pharaoh himself! He saw himself—and the people saw him—as the one indispensable person in a camp of thousands.

Moses’ exalted position was taking its toll, however. We shouldn‚Äôt be surprised that he had to deal with the people’s disputes “from morning until evening” (v. 14). His duties as an arbitrator must have worn him out. He was heading for burnout‚Äîand an early grave‚Äîif something didn‚Äôt change.

There are at least three problems with Moses’ leadership model. First, it was taking its toll on Moses (“you will surely wear yourself out”). Second, it was unhealthy for the people (“both you and these people with you”). It’s easy to imagine a lot of unhappy Israelites standing around wondering why the pastor Moses never has any time for them. Finally, the system was bound to be creating an unhealthy reliance on Moses.

It took someone who had never been to Egypt to show him a better way. Jethro advised Moses to establish his priorities and stick with them. In particular, he suggested that Moses concentrate on three things:

  1. Intercessory prayer (“represent the people before God,” v. 19)
  2. Teaching the word of God (v. 20)
  3. Recruiting and training additional leaders (v. 21)

When necessary, the people could bring their cases to the “able men” Moses had commissioned; Moses himself would only be responsible for the most difficult cases. This organizational model came naturally to the Bedouin patriarch, whose nomadic people could have never been ruled by an imposing, distant Pharaoh. Clans and tribes scattered across the desert had to be self-sufficient, so leadership had to come from the bottom up.

Rather than vesting all authority at the top, Jethro’s leadership model starts at the bottom. People are expected to govern themselves and resolve their own disputes as much as possible. When this isn’t possible, there is an ascending ladder of tribunals where cases can be decided. And, if all else fails, Moses at last can be invited to weigh in on the matter.

Moses had to decentralize his ministry. He had to share responsibility with others for the sake of the people, and for his own sake. Likewise, churches are healthy when they place as much responsibility as possible in the hands of every member. When a few individuals are expected to do most of the work, it is bad for the people—and the leaders.

technorati tags: jethro, leadership, moses

1 Comment

  1. Chris says:

    Well, not that obscure.

    This verse is a suggested reading for a service to dedicate Stephen Leaders and Stephen Ministers in the Stephen Ministry lay pastoral care program. At our dedication of Stephen Leaders last week, it was the cornerstone of my pastor’s sermon.


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