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?