How Moses Shifted from Burnout to Multiplication

by | Jul 17, 2023 | Poimenas

The American church today faces a leadership crisis. Symptoms of this crisis include leadership burnout, fatigue, and a growing number of retiring pastors with fewer leaders to take their place. Barna Research conducted a survey in 2022 of church leaders. Many of them reported a significant decrease in their overall well-being, joy, and confidence in their calling since as recent as 2015.[1] Barna CEO David Kinnaman says, “A drop in the level of pastoral health this significant in just 7 years isn’t just unprecedented, it signals a crisis that the church has to address.”

While the contributing factors are many, Lifeway Research reports that 77% of exhausted leaders reported that their greatest ministry struggle was developing leaders in their ministry.[2] In March 2022, 42% of pastors reported seriously considering quitting the ministry. The top two reasons were “the immense stress of the job” and “loneliness and isolation.”[3] Pastors today face an uphill challenge. If you count yourself among that number, you are not alone. We need to acknowledge the need and ask ourselves how we can move from burnout to healthier leadership models.

The Bible offers much comfort to the weary pastor. Our challenging ministry hour is not unprecedented. For example, Exodus records a case where one leader had too many responsibilities and he neared burnout. He held an incredibly demanding position, and this man was overworked. Thankfully, God turned a looming crisis into a blessing for his people and his servant leader.

Who was that leader? His name was Moses.

Background

At the outset of Exodus, the Hebrew people were in trouble. The Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews and forced them into servitude and suffering for many years. They cried out for deliverance and God heard their cries. God chose to use an unlikely man named Moses to be his mouthpiece to Pharaoh and the Israelites and perform mighty works demonstrating God’s existence and superior power to the Egyptian gods.

Moses, a Hebrew raised in the house of Pharaoh, murdered an Egyptian, and then ran away to the land of Midian. He became a shepherd and settled down for forty years in relative obscurity. God chose to reveal himself to Moses and called him to bring millions of Israelites out of captivity to worship the living God. Imagine what Moses felt when his calling transferred from shepherding a literal herd of sheep at the age of 80 to shepherding a flock of over a million people!

After the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, the people journeyed into the wilderness without a government, book of law, or judicial system. They primarily looked to one human shepherd named Moses for guidance. They depended fully on his dispensation of Yahweh’s wisdom for their spiritual and judicial needs. Moses faced a unique leadership challenge which almost became a crisis in Exodus 18:13–27.

A Recipe for Burnout

When Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, joined up with the traveling nation in Exodus 18, he stayed to observe his son-in-law at work in his new leadership role. He observed Moses working incredibly hard to shepherd Israel all through the daylight hours, but Jethro noticed a looming organizational crisis in Moses’ current leadership strategy.[4] Moses was doing too much and overextending himself. Jethro knew something needed to change and scheduled a “come to Jesus meeting” with his son-in-law.

He asked Moses, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” (Exod. 18:13–14). Historically, it would be customary for a political or military leader like Moses to also function as a judicial leader.[5] Unfortunately, the volume of cases rapidly piled up and when evening came, scores of people went home without a proper hearing or receiving justice in a reasonable time span. Jethro noticed that Moses was not fulfilling the responsibility well on his own and the people were neglected. Ultimately, the situation reflected poorly on God.[6]

Another symptom of overextension Jethro noticed was Moses’ continual emotional and physical exhaustion. The Hebrew word nabel, which can be translated “wear oneself out,” gives the idea that Moses was sinking down from that exhaustion.[7] Today, we could call this burnout. Moses’ weariness is self-inflicted, and he is wearing out the people as well. Jethro frankly said, “What you are doing is not good. 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” (Exod. 18:17–18). Moses was trying to do it all by himself and his health, influence, and flock suffered for it. Moses came close to burning out, but God used this situation for good.

Moses Admitted He Needed Help

Many leaders default, like Moses, to try to manage most issues ourselves. The truth is God did not create one man to manage everything (Gen. 2:18) but because of pride, humans push the limits past healthy, God-given boundaries. It was painful for Moses to receive a critical evaluation of his ministry. Even more humbling, God used Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, to deliver that message. Moses had hit a wall, yet God used that season to help his servant leader and people. Before looking at Moses’ response, one would glean much from an overview of God’s grace to his broken people from the beginning of Exodus.

Exodus tells a powerful story that centers on the rescuing power and covenant faithfulness of Yahweh God. God revealed his personal covenant name to Moses as Yahweh, or “I AM that I AM” (Exod. 3:14). Clearly, the only self-sufficient character in this entire redemptive narrative is God (Exod. 3:14; 18:18). Israel hit a wall in their slavery conditions and when they had nowhere else to turn, they cried out to God for help. Yahweh God could have led his own people out of Egypt. He did not need Moses, but Moses and Israel certainly needed him. Sometimes God allows leaders to hit a wall, so they will acknowledge their limitations and reach outside themselves. Moses’ response to this leadership challenge demonstrated a lot about his character and leadership focus. He did not find his strength in numbers but because he submitted his leadership to Yahweh, he became willing to raise up more leaders. We see three helpful benchmarks for leaders who multiply healthy leaders.

Benchmarks of a Multiplying Leader

Benchmark #1 Humility
The first benchmark of Moses’ leadership was humility. He did not argue or defend his leadership style. He listened, accepted the responsibility for the challenges, and entertained helpful criticism. Though the term repent is not used in this text, clearly Moses changed his ways. Humble repentance, especially in positions of leadership, enables growth and spiritual maturity while setting a godly example for others.

Moses not only took Jethro’s recommendations to heart, but he implemented those changes shortly afterwards. While the feeling of burnout may have motivated his quick response, Moses knew that he did not have all the answers which allowed him to receive wisdom at the right time to help his people. Proud leaders refuse to change. Moses eagerly embraced the change. One should note that these new judges were qualified leaders, with the more respected and capable men being entrusted with great responsibility. The humility of Moses allowed him to affirm and encourage the giftedness of others without feeling threatened or diminished in his role.

Humility is key for a healthy shepherd and long-term spiritual leadership. Pastors who try to do all the work for their ministry without requesting help or equipping others struggle with pride. It is time to repent of that mentality. As Zack Eswine wisely wrote, “You and I were never meant to repent for not being everywhere for everybody and all at once. You and I are meant to repent because we’ve tried to be.”[8]

Benchmark #2: Teachability
One can see great teachability in Moses’ response. At this point in his life, Moses was over eighty years old. Few people enjoy making significant changes in the way they do things at that age, but not Moses. He listened intently as Jethro taught Moses how to appoint new leader judges and what their qualifications should be (Exod. 18:21). Jethro advised looking for capable, God-fearing, trustworthy, and honest men. He told Moses to set them over groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens (18:25). This system was new and would take a great reorganization but would allow quicker access to justice for the people and a built-in appeals process. Moses listened and learned which demonstrates that multiplying leaders must possess teachable spirits.

Moses did not allow himself to feel threatened or argue but moved to action. If Moses refused Jethro’s counsel, he would have hindered the people and his own opportunity to lead. A leader with no feedback loop or honest accountability can easily drive himself or his people into the ground or off mission. God spoke through Jethro’s timely advice and Moses recognized his voice with a teachable spirit.

Benchmark #3: Burden to Share the Word
Moses displayed a third benchmark in Exodus 18, which was his burden to share the word of God. Moses said his underlying desire for rendering all judgments was that he bore the burden to see justice accomplished with the people (18:15). Where people saw problems, he saw discipleship opportunities. Though his methods were unwise, he took a personal responsibility to instruct the people in God’s word (18:16). Once he noticed his approach was bottlenecking the word, Moses pivoted and appointed new leaders so that the people would receive timely instruction (18:20). Like the apostles’ appointment of servant leaders in Acts 6, Moses was adamant that the ministry of the word should continue.

Leaders must teach the word of God in their lives and ministry. Wise leaders want to also equip others to share the word of God for the benefit of the people. Moses clearly did not need or desire a big throng following him around. He did not view delegated responsibility as a personal loss. He considered that anytime people heard a word from the Lord, no matter who spoke it, that was a win (Num. 11:29). Moses was a multiplying leader who advanced God’s justice and mercy for Israel.

Commentator T. Desmond Alexander says, “the example of Moses’ delegating authority to others is a fitting reminder that within church life and society at large we need to share tasks so that no single individual is unduly burdened. Those in positions of leadership should be prepared to entrust others with appropriate and meaningful responsibilities.”[9] Today, when multiplying ministry leaders divest their ministry, they can strengthen disciples, encourage pastors and staff, open doors for the gospel, discover new ministries, and meet growing contextual needs.

Conclusion

When Exodus 18 began, an overwhelmed leader struggled to fulfill his calling. After his humble response, Israel experienced a multiplication of thousands of leaders who could use their gifts and abilities to serve the people and glorify God. He humbly recognized that he served for the glory of God and the redemptive good of others. He allowed Jethro to critique him and propose a better way because he adopted the position of a teachable learner. Also, because of his burden to lead people to understand the word of God, Moses invested in others so that the word could advance. Moses serves as a helpful example towards a strategy of developing leaders that will multiply for the glory of God.

Without humility, a teachable spirit, or a burden for the Word to increase, a leader will experience burnout or, at the very least, hold back the ministry. These benchmarks serve as a helpful standard for evaluating one’s own leadership and for looking for others to help take up the mantle. God does not need experts; he desires humble and available servants. Moses’ example offers hope for the overwhelmed pastor that it is possible to turn from burnout to healthier leadership.

END NOTES

[1] “5 Shocking Realities about the State of Pastoral Burnout” in Western North Carolina Conference, https://www.wnccumc.org/resourcedetail/5-shocking-realities-about-the-real-state-of-pastor-burnout-17392915; Excerpt: A Rapid Decline in Pastoral Security, Barna Research, May 2023, https://www.barna.com/research/pastoral-security-confidence/.

[2] Lifeway Research, 2022, https://research.lifeway.com/2022/05/23/17-ministry-struggles-pastors-face/.

[3] Barna Research 2022, https://www.barna.com/research/pastors-quitting-ministry/.

[4] Carol L. Meyers, Exodus, The New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge Press, 2005), 135.

[5] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, NAC 2 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 415.

[6] Stuart points out that Exodus is a bifid book which means it is presented in two parts (redemption to Mount Sinai/Sinaitic covenant and encampment). Interestingly, Exodus 18:13-27 proves to be a pivotal moment where Israel transitions from disorganized, decentralized slaves to meeting with God and becoming his covenant people.

[7] Victor P. Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 283.

[8] Zack Eswine, The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 74.

[9] T. Desmond Alexander, Exodus, Apollos Old Testament Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 354.

 

Josh Komis is the church planter and Lead Pastor of Living Hope Church in North Sarasota, Florida. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Shepherds Theological Seminary and a DMin from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Lacey, and they have four children.

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