Lessons from Moses for the Continual Leadership Crisis in Growing Churches
Pastors of growing churches know all too well the old adage of there being two sides to every coin. The excitement and energy of a growing congregation comes brings with it new needs and a constant demand of more people to help carry out the ministry.
When the numbers are lacking, the pressure increases on the pastor and staff to solve every problem, run every small group, set-up every service, and clean every toilet. The stress can become so heavy that the growth feels more like a crisis than a blessing. Having a leadership crisis is not exclusive to the church (take a look at Congress) and neither is it a new issue. In Exodus 18, systematic issues within Moses’ leadership surface and reveal the need for a change.
The Moses Problem
Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, comes for a visit. Perhaps it’s not too surprising he has an opinion on how his son-in-law is running things. In this particular case, however, the in-law advice is pretty good (just like I’m sure my future sons-in-law will say of me).
The narrative provides a clear beginning and end. At the beginning, Moses has a problem. It’s a leadership problem, and it’s a big one.
Moses is leading a group of millions literally by himself. Jethro comes right out and asks, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?” (Ex. 18:14) Moses tries to explain his role as arbiter of millions, but his answer falls short. Jethro is quick to correct saying, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone” (Ex. 18:17-18).
Perhaps he saw the tiredness in his eyes, or the stress in his shoulders, or the sleepless nights. Whatever it was, he clearly saw that Moses’ lifestyle was not sustainable.
Because he believed in the mission of Moses and the Israelites so much, he offered a new suggestion: multiplication (and in this particular case, he wasn’t harping about wanting more grandkids). He encourages Moses to select honorable, wise, and Godly men who could be taught basic interpretation of God’s laws and instruction.
Not only did he encourage Moses to select some leaders, he encouraged those leaders to select other leaders that they would oversee (Ex. 18:21). They could handle all the smaller issues and if there was a really tough case, Moses could handle that one himself.
It was a defined leadership system designed to not only immediately alleviate stress from Moses but also to sustain the newly forming nation for the long haul. The end of this story is a good one. Moses listened to Jethro, the leadership grew, his stress lessened, and his father-in-law went home.
But It Happens Again …
Only the story didn’t really end there—it recurs. A little later in Numbers 11, Moses is in the same boat once again. This time he’s talking directly to God, gripping, “Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth . . . I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me . . .” (Num. 11:12-15) Don’t miss this—Moses listened to Moses. The problem was solved. Then the problem recurred.
Our Recurring Problem
I would call Moses a bit melodramatic if I haven’t felt that way myself. I’d venture to say that most anyone who has been in leadership of a growing church has probably felt the exact same feelings. (I’ll guarantee that all church nursery volunteers have thought this very thing.) What happened between Exodus 18 and Numbers 11? Moses discovered the reality that fixing a leadership development problem is not just a one-time thing. There is a constant need for expansion of leaders. You don’t solve a problem—fruitful ministry is really a series of resolved leadership crises.
If the church is growing, the issue is there.
Most pastors of churches want their churches to grow, and they recruit leaders (or we’ll call them volunteers) to enable it. They’re surprised, however, how quickly the demand for more rears its ugly head on the heels of victory. We get new volunteers and then we need new volunteers. So we get new volunteers, and then we need more new volunteers. It never goes away. If you want success, you better be prepared for the cycle that comes with it.
If the church is stagnant or declining, the issue is there.
In declining churches, leaders serve but get worn out. The leader / volunteers will serve a while, but can get discouraged. They need new volunteers both to staff current needs, but to case a vision for a new direction. God was gracious to Moses in Numbers 11, giving him the answer that he needed to deal with his leadership crisis. The Lord said, “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders . . . I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take some of the power of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them. They will share the burden of the people with you so that you will not have to carry it alone.” (Num. 11:16-17)
God multiplied the leadership again, and they moved on.
So if the problem of this leadership crisis is never-ending, what ultimately is the solution? God gives Moses the same solution twice: once through Jethro and the second time directly from Himself: multiply leadership.
The key to this solution, however, is hidden right in the solution itself. The very burden of multiplying leadership is a burden that the pastor should not carry alone. The new leaders are both the answer and solution.
Let me explain.
Ephesians 4:12 states that God has given pastors the responsibility to equip God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. So, in a sense, the leadership issue is the pastor’s job. Paul, however, gives a great example of putting this job into practice in 2 Timothy 2.
In this passage, Paul is the older, wiser pastor at the end of his life, imploring Timothy to listen to his final words of insight for success in ministry. It’s a Jethro-Moses moment. Paul states, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” (2 Tim. 2:2)
Notice the chain of people. Paul multiplies to Timothy. Timothy multiplies to reliable people and those people multiply to others. The multiplication burden is carried by all of them.
For this to really work, the church should have a culture of multiplication. Discipling and multiplying leaders must be a central part of every pastor’s ministry and every church’s focus. Multiply disciples, ministries, groups, and churches. Multiply everything.
The leadership challenge in a church can be overwhelming; the pastor may even wish that it would go away. The only way for it to go away completely, however, is to stop caring and accept the inevitable decline. The only way to break the demands of the leadership multiplication cycle is to quit having leaders. This is obviously not an option.
A better solution to the problem is to multiply. Multiply the leaders and share the burden each step of the way. Multiply leaders who multiply leaders. Implement discipleship-fueled multiplication in your church and you may find you have a two-headed coin that comes up winning every time.