15 And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; 16 when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” 17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. (Ex. 18:15-18)
Moses’ feet had stood firm before the Lord, un-sandled and safe, his wobbly legs kept upright as he approached the throne of Egypt, his stomach un-retched at the stench and repulsive sight of boils, hail-damage, and widespread slaughter. His back was strong in leading the people, lifting the staff over the Red Sea; and unlike the hordes of Hebrews, he didn’t turn his neck back to the oh-so-delicious onions of Goshen. He kept it towards Mount Sinai, the downpayment, and the promised land to come.
But early on the journey, it was Moses’ head that was almost completely undone, and that by the constant demands and needs of his people. Moses was in danger of ending his ministry with a whimper. And so am I. And so are all of us if we do not listen to the man who should be the ‘patron saint’ of all fathers-in-law, Jethro.
After bringing Moses’ wife and sons from stage left-behind, hearing all that had happened, ‘Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the LORD had done to Israel’ (Ex. 18:9). But Jethro can’t believe what Moses is doing now, how he is ruling and adjudicating all their problems, ‘from morning till evening’ (Ex. 18:13). He wants to protect Moses from himself.
Jethro echoes something from the creation of the world. Just as God said it was not good for Adam to be alone in the ruling of the garden, so in redemption, Jethro says the same to the man ruling over God’s people. “Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” (Ex. 18:15) “What you are doing is not good.” (Ex. 18:17)
In its simplest form, we cannot and must not do things alone. Moses certainly couldn’t adjudicate all the disputes of a people upward of six hundred thousand men. How could he?
And how do we pastor the hundred and fifty adults in our care? Or the youth ministry of sixty? But the answer is not merely delegation, at least, not lazy or foolishly applied. We need to feel the severity of the prognosis before we really take the medicine.
The damage is done to BOTH Moses and the people
Most people in ministry hear a lot of about self-care and self-protection, but the greater motivation for a good leader is actually the welfare of the people under his or her care. The great shepherd taught us that greatness consistent in serving others, pouring out your own life, giving more (Mk. 10:43-35). Wasn’t this why Moses worked from 6am to 10pm every day: for the people’s sake? Isn’t that what causes so many bad practices in us too?
Moses’ drowning in his duties may have been well-meaning and selfless, and if so, it is Jethro’s words, “and the people with you” that make all the difference. Read the following verse with and without those words. “You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.” (Ex. 18:18) Without these words this might be dismissed as a nagging father-in-law, perhaps protective of his own family, loving of his son-in-law.
But this is a truth in all leadership. If you do not bring others along with you, you will not just hurt yourself, but you will damage the flock. People will be exhausted by you; or me, trying to be a hero. They won’t come to anyone for prayer, for guidance, for instruction, for leading-to-Christ. Newcomers won’t be followed-up; the sick will lay in hospital beds unvisited, without the love and strength of Christian fellowship they need.
If a company only had their CEO answer each clients problem, although it might seem noble, grounded and humble, it will in the long-run either limit the business or annoy everyone. Picking up a phone only to hear waiting-music makes people less likely to ring again. Moses wanted to bring justice and do God’s will on earth, but because of his own selfless, but ineffective work, injustice reigned and he was going to self-combust. The only question was, whether the people would wear out first.
Jethro’s advice spelled out in detail
Delegation is often done badly and Jethro was not calling on Moses do to that. Delegation did not mean that Moses would recline and watch Netflix, while others worked. Jethro gave advice that would shape Moses’ ministry and set the trajectory of the apostles and the early church.
1. Moses, you pray and teach
“You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do.” (Ex. 18:19-20)
Moses was to give his best energy and focus to prayer and in instruction. And this was his lasting legacy. No doubt the daily debates about unsettled debts, wandering goats, or even the ‘they took my camping spot’ claims were important to their litigants, but this was not Moses’ focus. Moses had to warn and teach the whole body of Israel and represent the many to the one in prayer. He brings to the world the Ten Commandments and pleads for God to spare the people who turned their backs on him. The temporal needs of the crowds needed to be heard, but their eternal needs must not be forgotten.
2. Moses, you appoint excellent, reliable and godly men to do the daily work
“Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens.” (Ex. 18:21)
Moses wasn’t called to appoint the closest Tom, Dick or Hezekiah. Each must be “able”, literally “great” or “valiant men”, who treated God reverently, could be trusted with tasks and were free from financial temptations. This search must have taken time, and be undertaken carefully. Finding people to share the work might have taken him away from coal-face work, the immediate problems of the people, but it was was the only right long-term multiplying approach. Able people must combine right doctrine and worship and marry this with good proven character.
This is the third element of all Biblical ministry. Leaders not only pray and preach, they also appoint people who themselves will do exactly the same. But if the leader appoints unreliable or godless people, both the leader and the whole ministry will be submerged and hijacked.
3. Moses, you deal only with the biggest and hardest issues
“And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you.” (Ex. 18:22)
The shared approach to judging does not mean that Moses removes himself from all decision making and adjudicating, instead, he particularly takes the hardest cases. Moses had to deal with the golden-calf, Korah’s rebellion and the Midianite problem (Ex. 32, Num. 16, 26). He didn’t throw hospital passes to his deputies, making his own life easier.
Bible Study members should be there to help each other, the leaders have a pastoral role, but if the issue involves dangerous false teaching or serious marital infidelity these issues should be referred to the pastoral oversight team. Smaller issues should not clog up the pastor’s desk so that there is room and ability to deal with the bigger and more damaging problems.
4. Jethro’s Abiding Advice is multiplied in the Christian Church
I have already started drawing parallels with our ministries and churches, and for good reasons. Jethro’s advice is re-echoed throughout the New Testament in the early church. Almost every passage about the appointment of leaders resonates with the truths of the ancient priest of Midian. It is not good to do ministry alone, but the appointment of others must be done carefully.
The apostles were weighed down with the very important issues of daily distribution of meals for the most vulnerable in their community. But like Moses, they had to focus on prayer and preaching. And this was their legacy. The character of those they chose was vital.
“Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:3-4)
These deacons dealt with justice, resolving disputes, but the hardest issues of false teaching, including the council of Jerusalem, had to be taken by the apostles.
The pastoral letters contain the same truths. Paul calls Titus and Timothy to deal with the most controversial doctrinal and pastoral issues, but for the daily running of the church it was essential the other reliable, local men are appointed (Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Timothy 3).
If Christian ministers try and do everything solo, they will without-fail injure themselves and their families, but they will also ‘certainly wear out’ the people whom they love(Ex. 18:18). These are not just possibilities, but absolutely guaranteed outcomes. You must listen to Jethro’s advice and give yourself to teaching and proclaiming Christ, appointing reliable people and yet still deal with the hardest issues yourself. And I must too.
It might be that you are not in leadership, but you can see someone sinking under the weight of their own good intentions. They are godly leaders trying to be selfless. Maybe you need to have a private good word with them. Change must take place not only for their sake, but for the sake of the people. Could you be a Jethro to them? This could be such a gift from an older person to someone younger. Remember that Moses was at this stage 80 years old and his father-in-law must have been even older.
Jethro’s promise of God
But Jethro is not a management guru, a secular paragon of leadership with a Masters from the Midian Business School. The apostles also were not mere pragmatists.
Jethro’s advice was pretty forceful and it needed to be. “Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you!” (Ex. 18:19). He saw God in it all. “If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.” (Ex. 18:23) God’s presence would be with Moses and he would guide. Moses was promised that changing this would sustain him personally and lead to people extending to the people. There is something wonderfully integrated about this approach. When God gave Eve to Adam he blessed them together, and if Moses appoints the right people to rule with him, there would also be a blessing.
Don’t forget what happened immediately after the apostles put this into practice. The “word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7) Why would we be surprised?
Solo ministry got rekt by Jethro.