8 things Christian leaders can learn about ministry from Moses

Yesterday I had been invited to a gathering of a dozen or so Baptist pastors: I shared some things I’ve learned about leadership, framing them with the story of Moses.

Here is a little summary of my thinking:

1 – We don’t get there by ourselves.

Moses’ survival, his eventual faith in God, and his leadership of God’s people would not have been possible had not been for the faith of his parents, the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter, and the ingenuity of his sister.

Nor do we get there by ourselves. Whether it is the faith, example and witness of our family, the faithfulness of teachers, or the investment of mentors, we don’t get far on our own.

2 – God can meet us in deserts.

For Moses, the middle years of his life represented the loss of his vision and passion. Exile in Midian was not what he was expecting when he attempted to rescue the Hebrew slaves at 40.

Many leaders find themselves in wilderness experiences at various points in their ministry. Whether it is a wilderness of stress and burnout, a wilderness of failure, or a wilderness of illness or spiritual crisis, wilderness by definition is a hard place. But God can meet us there, as he did Moses.

3 – We need to know that God loves us.

At a time of great crisis (see Exodus 32,33), Moses hears from God. The text says that ‘the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend’. Not only did God promise that his presence would be with Moses, but he told him that he had found favour in his sight and that he knew him by name.

Believing that God loves us might seem like spiritual ABCs, but from time to time we need to be reminded: as Henri Nouwen would say, to hear the voice that calls us the beloved.

4 – Ministry is meant to be shared.

Two incidents in Moses’ life are pertinent. The first is when his father in law sees how much Moses’ style of leadership had become a bottleneck and was threatening to wear out both Moses and the people. The second comes later when Moses is complaining about the heavy load of responsibility and God responds by pouring his Spirit on seventy elders. Two people were not part of the main group and Joshua, perhaps anxious to protect the leadership of his mentor, urges Moses to stop them from prophesying. Moses’ responds that he wishes all the Lord’s people were prophets.

Control-freakery is not a sign of healthy leadership. Leaders need to learn the paradox of power: the leader’s power is not diminished when it is given away to others! Ministry is meant to be shared.

5 – We need to learn to handle criticism.

Criticism was a frequent theme of Moses’ life, whether it was about what the people were eating and drinking, or whether it was their complaint (in fact his siblings’) that Moses had got ahead of himself in terms of self-importance.

At times leaders are lightening rods and find themselves attracting any negativity in the air. At times it feels personal (perhaps at times it is!) and can be hard to take. But making it about ourselves and our honour is likely to make it worse.

While criticism may be painful and while a pervading negativity can be toxic in a church or organisation (and may need to be dealt with), we do well to remember the thoughts of a leadership scholar who has suggested that the most successful leaders are liable to be those with the least compliant followers! Without critique, we remain unaware of our weaknesses and areas where growth is needed.

6 – We are never the finished article.

Moses’ character had a streak of anger: witness his reaction to injustice or his smashing of the stone tablets. Yet he is later described as ‘the meekest man on earth’! You’d think that time had sufficiently moderated his character flaw and that his anger issues had been resolved. Until the provocation of the people eventually gets to him and he disobediently strikes the rock.

Beware, lest character flaws you thought were things of the past come back to bite you: avoid the arrogance of thinking you are the finished article!

7 – We must not get in the way of Jesus.

In the mysteries of biblical typology, Paul claims that the rock that followed the Israelites in the desert was Christ. Which suggests to me a picture of Moses getting himself in the way of an encounter between Christ (the rock from which water flowed) and the people.

Leaders have personalities and these are simply part of who we are. But people need more than our personalities: they need living water, and that comes from Christ, not us. Let’s not get in the way by drawing attention to ourselves.

8 – We need to prepare the next generation.

Moses would not make it to the Promised Land, and he knew the people would need a new leader. So he prayed for one (Numbers 27). In answer, God gave him Joshua (though the ultimate answer to the problem of sheep without a shepherd was a greater Joshua!) and Moses commissioned him.

Leaders come and go but the work goes on and calls for new leaders. What are we doing to pray for them and prepare them to pick up the baton?

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Why is spiritual leadership challenging?

I suppose a group of leaders might be able to come up with a list of reasons, but here are four that I think you see from the leadership journey of Moses (seen above in a painting by Chagall).

  1. It’s challenging because it means taking responsibility. At times Moses found this overwhelming. Witness his dialogue with God in Numbers 11. He couldn’t take it. He had already had his father in law attempt to help him with some practical advice, aimed at avoiding burnout, both on the part of Moses and on the part of everyone else. This time God equipped elders from the people to be Moses’ assistants. Biblical leadership involves responsibility. When Hebrews urges believers to follow the lead of their leaders, it reminds them that their leaders keep watch over their souls as people who will give account.
  2. It’s challenging because it involves criticism. Not only did Moses have to bear the brunt of complaints about food and water, his leadership was challenged, not least by his brother and sister. ‘What’s so special about you?’ type of thing. Ron Boyd MacMillan suggests that preachers who cannot deal with criticism will not preach for long. How many leaders would say the same?
  3. It’s challenging because it exposes the leader’s own heart. There were a couple of times when God basically offered Moses the opportunity of having all the trouble makers wiped out. I think you see Moses at his finest when he prefers to put the honour and reputation of God ahead of his own prosperity. Reggie McNeal gets it when he says that ‘maturity begins to be in evidence when leaders who find themselves arrayed against the enemies of God worry more for God’s reputation than their own.’ How sad then that Moses falls when he is provoked to the point of failing to uphold God as holy in the eyes of the people (striking the rock). While it’s true that the people provoked him and made his heart bitter (Psalm 106), we are left wondering if the meekest man on earth had not fully conquered an underlying seam of anger.
  4. It’s challenging because it means leaders have to think beyond their own leadership. Barred from entering the Promised Land himself, Moses remains concerned that it will go well for the people. So he asks God to give them a new leader and he encourages that new leader (who turns out to be his assistant) in the task that awaits him.

Why does this matter?

It matters if you are a leader trying to find your way through your leadership journey. This is part of what you will have to deal with. If you’ve been involved for a while, you will not need me to tell you!

And it matters if you are a follower. Your leaders are not super-humans (nor are they perfect). They face a tough task. You do well to seek to understand and to pray for them as you follow their leadership.

Spiritual leadership, Moses and delegation

Leaders easily fall into the trap of viewing authority in their organisation or institution as some form of zero-sum game. The more they give away, the less they have. And after all, if you are the leader, you’re meant to be in charge: right?

A couple of interesting perspectives on this come from a couple of episodes in the leadership journey of Moses.

In the first (Exodus 18), Moses’ father in law finds Moses overwhelmed by the task of handling all of the people’s disputes. Jethro was able to see that not only was this bad for Moses, but it was bad for the people.

You and the people will certainly wear yourselves out…

This was unsustainable and it was unhealthy. It’s interesting to speculate about what might have been going on in Moses’ mind that led him to run his business in this way. He had been prepared to delegate the Amalekite military operation to Joshua and had accepted the physical support of Aaron in Hur. But some have suggested visions of grandeur: for example suggesting that he’s acting like a king, sitting on his throne while the people stand around him.

Whatever was going on in his mind, he is willing to accept Jethro’s plan by which he will delegate some of the work to others. As Norman Cohen says, ‘leaders must acknowledge that they cannot control and run everything.’

To attempt to do so is to court trouble. Some leaders may want to give it a go, but it’s unlikely to be good for the long term health of whatever they are leading. Either they become dictators and their people become passive or resentful, they become bottlenecks and progress is stymied, or everyone gets frustrated and the leader burns out.

What Jethro noticed was that what was happening was good for neither leader nor people.

The second episode takes place later (Numbers 11) and this time it is Moses who realises there is something wrong. There’s been yet another episode of complaining on the part of the people who were thinking back to their time in Egypt where they could enjoy fish (free), cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic: now they were longing for meat but all they had was manna. As the people weep, Moses cracks. He cries out to God that he can no longer carry this load.

To which God responds by anointing seventy elders with the Spirit, so that they can share the burden with Moses. The sign of the Spirit was that the elders prophesied.

The story takes a fascinating turn when news reaches Moses that two men who had stayed in the camp, instead of going to the tent of meeting, were also prophesying. Joshua – Moses’ assistant – reacts by asking Moses to get them to stop. Moses won’t hear of it: ‘Are you jealous for my sake?’

There is quite a difference between the reaction of the young assistant and the old leader. Joshua wants to make sure that this anointing remains within the right limits and the Spirit empowers the ‘right’ people. Moses just wishes that all of the people would have this anointing with the Spirit.

There are probably a few challenging implications here. For one thing, how easy do we find it to affirm the work of God’s Spirit in the ministries of people who may not be part of our circle? But there is also a leadership lesson.

Leaders need to reach the place where they realise that it is not about them. Doubtless there are plenty of leaders who find themselves isolated because of their situation (they have been called to a place where there are few leaders) or because of the system within which they operate.

Rather than hold tightly to their authority and control, what if leaders made this their prayer?

Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!

Moses and the crucible of leadership

One more (longish) reflection on Moses in this series on crucible experiences in biblical leaders. I’ve already written about the crucible of his exile years and the crucible of his dramatic call experience. It’s not too much of a stretch to talk about the whole of his leadership as a crucible experience. Never comfortable, often desperately difficult, the final forty years of Moses’ life throw a light on many of the challenges of leadership.

Here are several of the challenges he faced:

The challenge of responsibility

While the Lord promised to be with him (Moses did not want to attempt the task without this promise), the burden of responsibility was, nonetheless, heavy. Faced with yet another crisis (Numbers 11), Moses tells God that he is not able to carry the burden and he would prefer to be dead if this is the way it is going to be.

It’s worth noting some of the interplay between God and Moses about whose the people actually are. Clearly the overall picture is that these are God’s people: that’s how he spoke of them when he called Moses to leadership. And that is the burden of the OT (for example ‘if my people who are called by my name…). However as the Golden Calf episode unfolds (Exodus 32) God appears to be in the process of disowning his people – they become Moses’ people whom Moses brought out of Egypt. It is Moses’ intercession on behalf of the people that leads God to relent from consuming them.

The weight of responsibility never fully lifts from Moses. On two occasions, others are selected to help share the weight.

The first occurs relatively early in the journey when Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law observes Moses whom he reckons is about to wear out both himself and the people. Whether or not Jethro qualifies as the first ever management consultant, his practical advices points Moses in a direction that will help spread the load.

The second incident comes on the heels of Moses’ complaint in Numbers 11. This time the Lord intervenes directly by imparting the Spirit on the elders so that Moses will not be alone in bearing the burden of the people.

Three observations for leaders on all of this:

  1. Leadership brings responsibility. There is no escape from that fact.
  2. Responsibility can be heavy if borne alone.
  3. Sharing responsibility is not always easy for leaders. Some leaders have an unhealthy need for control. If that’s you, take a look at Joshua’s reaction (and Moses’ response) to the prophesying of Eldad and Medad (Numbers 11).

The challenge of criticism

As if responsibility for guiding and providing for this vast crowd was not enough, Moses was frequently the target of their complaints and unhappiness. When there was a lack of water or the food did not match the memories of Egyptian cuisine, the instinct was to blame Moses. One of the unwritten aspects of a leader’s job description might be the need to function as a lightning rod from time to time!

And it was not just the people in general. Aaron and Miriam joined in too (Numbers 12). And then there was the rebellion of Korah and his friends (Numbers 16). These people reckoned that Moses (and Aaron) were assuming too much for themselves.

Where does a leader go when this kind of thing is going on? For sure it is important to have the support and encouragement of people who understand, but when his own family members turned against him, Moses had nowhere left to go. And, as a meek and humble man (Numbers 12:3), he was not inclined to fight back.

Which is why he needed God to step in to vindicate him: which he did.

The leader has a fine line to walk. There will be times when unruly and disruptive people have to be rebuked before they cause instability to the community. But there will be times – not least when facing personal attack – that the leader will have to learn to keep quiet and trust God to vindicate him as and when he chooses.

The challenge of intercession

There are two similar incidents during the people’s journey when God was threatening to wipe them out. One was in the incident of the Golden Calf and the other when the people’s unbelief leads them to reject the Promised Land. On both occasions God offered to start again with Moses in the place of Israel.

One wonders if Moses was tempted! After all, it was quite an offer: he would never again have to put up with this people’s grumbling and complaining. Instead, a new nation, with him as the founding father.

But both times he said no, putting the welfare of the people ahead of himself. More than that, he knew that the destruction of the people was likely to set tongues wagging among the surrounding nations. The Lord was not as powerful as they had been told or as they had feared.

Reggie McNeal observes that

Maturity begins to be in evidence when leaders who find themselves arrayed against the enemies of God worry more for God’s reputation than their own.

The challenge of bitterness

While Moses was described as more meek than anyone else on earth, we have to wonder if there was a hidden, angry dark side to him that never really went away. There is a place for appropriate strong emotion. Moses was angry at injustice when he killed the Egyptian (whether or not he should have taken the law into his own hands is another story); he was deeply moved when he smashed the first set of stone tablets at the sight of the people’s idolatry.

There came a day when the people provoked him one time too many. It is Psalm 106 that talks about the way the people made Moses’ spirit bitter with the result that he spoke rashly with his lips.

Not only did he speak rashly, but he also disobeyed God by striking, rather than speaking to, the rock. His failure to uphold the holiness of God before the people led to him being disqualified from entering the Promised Land.

Leaders need to remember that whatever the sins and provocations of their people may be (Psalm 106 is honest about this), they are responsible for how they behave in the face of that provocation. People may make you bitter, but you have a responsibility to guard your heart from nurturing and developing that bitterness. If you don’t, you could leave yourself open to a poor choice that could put the success of your leadership at risk.

The challenge of succession

No human leadership is eternal. Even Manchester United supporters had to watch Sir Alex leave their team! Moses knew that he would not always be around to lead this people. The next phase in their journey would be without him. Instead of retreating into a sulk about his own disqualification (though it hurt him and he asked God to relent), Moses was concerned about the future needs of the people, asking God to appoint someone to lead in his place. The answer would be Joshua who had been around Moses for some time as his assistant. Moses’ task became the encouragement and preparation of Joshua for what awaited him.

Which leads to a challenge to older leaders, in particular. The final phase of your leadership can be a time when you live with your eyes on the rear view mirror, recalling the good old days, stewing over regrets about missed opportunities, or wishing that you could stay on a bit longer. Remember that your regrets or your reluctance to hand over the reins to the next generation will not serve your people well. Perhaps succession is one of those times when leaders need to realise that their leadership is not primarily about them.

The final third of life

Statistically, if I am not already there, I must be getting mighty close!

Two thoughts for those of us at that phase of life:

  1. What if your most significant mission or your most important leadership task awaits you on the upper side of middle age? Despite the early signs of destiny and the early displays of passion, Moses was only clearly called by God on the threshold of the final third of his life. The final 40 years (they lived long, back then, even without statins) were his leadership years.
  2. This – from Bill George in Authentic Leadership:

The key to being fulfilled in the final third of life lies in our desire to continue to grow intellectually and in our hearts.

Moses goes to business school

Professor Shlomo Ben-Hur, of the IMD business school in Lausanne, and his colleague Karsten Jonsen have written a paper on leadership, based on the characteristics of Moses. They believe that there is room within the sphere of business and management for studying leadership through the framework of stories like that of Moses and other spiritual leaders.

Moses is an outstanding leadership figure. They quote from Henry George’s adaptation of the creeds of Maimonides:

To lead into freedom a people long crushed by tyranny; to discipline and order such a mighty host; to harden them into fighting men, before whom warlike tribes quailed and walled cities went down; to repress discontent and jealousy and mutiny […] require some towering character blending in highest expression the qualities of politician, patriot, philosopher, and statesman.

Ben-Hur and Jonsen write about Moses far-from-straightforward leadership journey, noting how he was shaped by various cultural influences: he combined his upbringing as an Egyptian royal and his heritage as a Hebrew slave.

Eventually he became an ‘accidental leader’, combining four distinct styles of leadership:

  • the visionary
  • the shepherd
  • the teacher
  • the servant

Ben-Hur and Jonsen suggest that ‘we should aspire to manage the creative tensions between the roles of a visionary and a shepherd and between those of a teacher and a servant.’

The complete article was published in 2012 in The Journal of Management Development; a shorter reflection from Professor Ben-Hur is available here.