In my Bible reading the other day, I was in Exodus 18, a chapter that I’ve probably quickly perused as I was on my way to what seemed to be more significant stories on either side of it. When you see the stories that bookend it, it’s easy to see how it could be passed over. Exodus 17 is when the Lord gives the Israelites water from a rock and when Aaron and Hur hold up Moses’ arms in order that the Israelites might defeat the Amalekites. In Exodus 19, Moses meets the Lord on Mount Sinai for one of his many encounters with him there. But in Exodus 18, Moses receives a visit from his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian.
Now, many people have different family dynamics and different relationships with their in-laws. I’ve always been blessed to have a good relationship with my wife’s parents, so imagining a visit from my father-in-law isn’t something that conjures images of drudgery or anxiety, it usually means a fun time and quality conversations. Having lost my own father, my wife’s dad is the only earthly father that I have left, making his visits even more significant.
When my wife and I were living near my father-in-law, I would spend time helping him do home projects around our house, learning as much as I possibly could. I was always anxious to gain as much insight and wisdom as I possibly could from my experiences with him, and he was always more than willing to dole out advice as long as anyone would listen.
What struck me as I read through this story this time was not Jethro’s visit to Moses but the advice that he gives. Moses gets up and takes his seat to serve as judge for the people. Moses’ duty was to judge over the people with impartiality as they brought their issues to him. It didn’t take long for Jethro to realize that Moses had to make a change, he couldn’t keep doing this job all by himself. In fact, Jethro’s point is seen clearly in verse 18 when he says, “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.” Jethro encouraged Moses to spread the burden, to share the load with others.
The advice that Jethro gave to Moses is advice that most of us who are in positions of leadership desperately need to hear from others, and probably need to hear even more from ourselves. We need to hear that it’s okay to share the burden, to raise up others who can adequately perform some of the duties that are weighing us down. We need to realize that it’s all right to delegate tasks out to other people, whether they are volunteers or paid workers.
The problem often is something in our own heart though, we aren’t always willing to pass on the burden. It’s as if we think it will be a sign of weakness if we can’t handle everything ourselves. We feel the need to prove ourselves and we have this insecurity lying within us that says that the more things we can hang onto, the more job security we will have. Why is that?
When we don’t share the burden, there are a few possible outcomes, but let me mention the two that stand out to me. First of all, we can burn ourselves out. In our effort to juggle everything, we will most likely find that we aren’t doing anything well. We can do everything to the level of mediocrity, or we can do a few things to the level of excellence. I saw this with my father while he pastored a small church by himself. He handled everything, and while it gave me a great example of servanthood, it also showed me the toll that it took on him. Sharing the burden isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s actually a sign of strength. If we are willing to delegate responsibilities to others, it shows that we are not insecure in our position and that we are willing to let others possibly get the praise for certain things. Sharing the burden puts the focus on the greater good rather than the good of self.
The second possible outcome of not sharing the burden is that when we finally move on from the position which we have occupied, when we exit the role that we hold for a season, it will be that much harder to find a replacement. Let’s face it, we see personality driven leadership all the time. If we think of certain companies, organizations, and churches, we can most likely put a face to them, associating that personality with whatever company, organization, or church that they are leading.
When it comes to companies and organizations, that might not be a horrible thing. Steve Jobs was the face of Apple for many years. Mark Zuckerberg has been the face of Facebook. Bill Gates has been the face of Microsoft. But eventually, a replacement is necessary and what happens then?
It’s also one thing for companies and organizations to have a face or personality behind them but when it comes to churches, there is only one face and name that we should really be concerned with: Jesus. If it’s about advancing any name other than that one, we’re doing something wrong. Sure, there will always be people who will make those associations between personalities and the churches that they lead, but those leaders can do a lot to combat that mentality, if they are secure and stable in who they are and if they are willing to share the load.
As I look at Exodus 18, one might make a good case that it was the starting point for team ministry. What incredible advice to receive from a father-in-law: share the burden. It’s kind of ironic, now that I think of it, that Moses, the one who kicked and fussed at God about placing him in a leadership position, would be the one who would need to be told to lighten his load and share the burden a little.
I need this reminder often and I feel like I’ve come a long way. Pride continually gets in the way and there are times that I want everyone around me to think that I am far from expendable. It’s incredibly reassuring to know that it takes more than one person to replace you and the tasks that you are accomplishing, but is that the point? Should that be our endgame, to make ourselves indispensable?
Those are the times that I need to get over myself and think about the greater good. Sharing the burden looks out for the interest of everyone, not just my own self-interest. Frankly, I think that there are a lot of leaders out there who need to learn this lesson.