Monday, April 16, 2018

Jethro's Wise Advice

Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.’ (Exodus 18:17-23, NRSV)
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I have always found this part of Exodus quite interesting. On one level, it is intriguing that after all the dramatic events of Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea and the struggles in the Wilderness (thirst, rebellion, hunger, battles, &c.) we suddenly have a highly personal moment with Moses and his father-in-law, Jethro (a non-Israelite), wherein Moses gets some trenchant advice. On another level, this passage helps me to maintain focus as a priest, pastor, and leader.

When I have heard or given sermons on this passage (usually at the Embertides when it is appointed to be read), the natural tendency is to treat it very much as “management,” combined with some enlightened teaching on ministry-of-all-the-faithful, seasoned with a dash of needed humility: an altogether attractive package of servant leadership very much in in the form we currently (officially) admire in the Church today. This is true and helpful, but not enough.

As I read it at Mattins today, I was reflecting on another way of looking at this passage. This involves going ‘round to the other end of the telescope and looking back, as it were. In addition to helping Moses learn the value of delegation, this section of Exodus may also be read as help in getting Moses to be about his real calling: truly leading God's people through a focused, prayerful life of encounter with God.

Jethro’s advice was for Moses to deal only with the “hard cases,” those beyond what a well-trained team of assistants could provide. This left time for Moses to pray, reflect, and listen; in the words of the text, “to endure.” This is terribly important in a modern technology-focused world where multi-tasking is implicitly valued and encouraged.

Multi-tasking is not exactly new. It is said that Napoleon could manage up to seven conversations simultaneously when in the midst of a battle or in his administrative “office hours.” I think, however, most of us cannot manage this.

And neither should we.

Parsonhood, the concept behind my approach to being a priest/pastor in this tradition, is based in large part upon the idea of role clarity.  By this, I mean the recognition that each part of the Body has its proper function and that the best health in the Body is achieved when each part is doing its work well and with proper respect for the other parts.

Multi-tasking, tempting as it may be, always means a degraded form of attention; it means not doing one’s own work well—and likely messing up someone else’s into the bargain. In the Christian Church, it often means a kind of false efficiency leading to personal and communal spiritual sterility.

Jethro’s wise advice to Moses not only opens the doors to shared leadership, but also frees Moses to do what he was truly called and gifted to do as a leader: to embody true personhood, not be a sort of spiritual factory churning out decisions and “product.”

I think leading this way requires real commitment and clarity. Doing the easy thing, the conventional path of putting out fires, chasing ambulances, and “meeting needs” is surely appreciated and rewarded in the Church today, but it leads to burn-out rather than endurance.

Parsonhood assumes ongoing, solid growth in discipleship and spiritual understanding, something impossible if we set up ministry to be primarily about crisis-management. Jethro saw this and impressed it on his son-in-law’s mind. Moses had the humility and wisdom to accept it.

My question is who or what in the Church today is taking Jethro’s part and upholding this principle?