Leadership in the Church: Managers, Midian, and Moses

By Joe Holland    |    October 30, 2023


Okay, we need to have a little talk, pastors. God doesn’t need the next great business book to “take your church to the next level.” I know this is hard to hear because those books seem to have so much promise. They come out with slick advertising and do actually describe problems that may be very real to your elder team or small group leaders. They have programs that you can run through—a few hours or a full day of creating traction goals, KPIs or OKRs, “getting your mind as still as water,” or figuring out your working genius. Going through the process of planning and spending time getting an overview of how your church is structured isn’t bad, per se, and has the added benefit of investing in a plan for potential growth. And maybe the plan is needed. The problem with organizational leadership in the church is that it can’t deliver on the promise that it offers in the business world for the very reason that a church isn’t a business. It’s a bluff.

I know the allure of effective business practices comes from a good place. Most pastors have an earnest and sincere desire for church growth, the mandate of making more disciples (Matt. 28:19). Churches aren’t started in a new city or town merely to reshuffle the denominational deck, convincing Baptists that they can be Presbyterians or vice versa. We want to see converts, people converted, brought from death to life. And new people, new converts, come to our churches, attend our small groups, and participate in the life of the church each Sunday and on the days in between. But for better or worse (probably worse), we do live in a managerial culture. This has a hammer-and-nail effect on pastoral leadership: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you’re expected to be a manager, everything looks like . . .

The Managerial Culture

In his book, The Managerial Revolution, James Burnham contends that a major revolution occurred in the twentieth century that repositioned societal power into the hands of managers. Unlike leaders in the past, managers are primarily tasked with the oversight and organization of the groups they govern. Managers are now the critical figures in organizations that otherwise could not grow as large or be as productive without managers. From your kid’s rec soccer team all the way to IBM, managers are seen as the sine qua non of responsible leadership. But, as Burnham points out, this is new and wasn’t always the case.

For example, when revival took place at the first Pentecost following Jesus’s resurrection and ascension (Acts 2:41), there were three thousand new Christians added to the church at Jerusalem in a single day. If you were an apostle in Jerusalem on that day, what would your first thought be beyond, “Praise God for his great grace”? You’d probably be wondering how you would manage all of those new converts. In groups of fifteen, you’d need two hundred new small groups. How would you run new members’ classes for all those folks? And the pastoral needs would be enormous. Should we start a Christian counseling ministry? But the church seemed to do fine without any managerial culture.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:42–47).

Now, what you need to realize is that we don’t live in Jerusalem two millennia ago. The culture they lived in wasn’t a managerial culture; it was more of a familial culture. The new Christians cared for each other like they would members of their own household. There is a principle there that is needed in the church today, but in applying the principle, we need to realize the time in which we live. Not only do today’s pastors think like managers, but the modern Christian expects the church to behave in managerial ways. All of us are influenced by the managerial culture in which we live. This explains, in part, why pastors are prone to overindulge in organizational management, reinforcing their congregants’ expectations of a certain level of managerial organization for basic pastoral competency.

God isn’t waiting on the next Peter Drucker.”

—Joe Holland

The church has long (and falsely) believed that accommodating business practices and organizational principles to the church is the priority for healthy church growth. Whereas there are common grace principles we can apply to groups of people, the power and efficacy of the church aren’t dependent on the next business book to hit the NYT bestsellers list. The power of Christ’s kingdom (and it is very powerful) isn’t and can’t be locked up into anything other than the proclamation of the gospel in the utterly unique organization that is the church (1 Cor. 1:22–25). So, how should church leaders approach organizational leadership? We’ll start by looking at a problem in the organizational leadership of God’s people described in Exodus 18.

Wearing Himself Out

Moses was on the road to burnout, and his father-in-law knew it. We read in Exodus 18:13–18,

The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “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?” And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; 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.” Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “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.

By divine fiat, a theocracy was born of a rag-tag group of Egyptian slaves. God was very specific in how his people would relate to him and one another. Moses was under strict orders to lead the people of God according to God’s command. Any deviation from God’s plan was unacceptable.1 God and God’s ways were clear, specific, and unalterable—righteousness and sin, obedience and disobedience. But within what was the larger sphere of God’s theocratic dominion, there were areas in which some minor points of governance could be informed by common grace and common sense.2 This situation was just such a situation. Within the concrete statutes that God had given, statutes that would ensure the continued blessing and prosperity of the people of God, some minor adjustments could be made to how leadership was administered. So, in Exodus 18:19–23, Midian makes a recommendation,

Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! 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. 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. 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. 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.”

Here, we have a pagan offering organizational business advice to the leader of God’s people. And it was good advice. It was likely that Moses would have worn himself out if he continued to try to mediate every issue that came up in the growing nation.3 We might even say (should say) that God’s providential ordering of Moses’s development as a leader included good advice from someone who was not a follower of Yahweh. As an added interesting note, Midian recognizes that his solution isn’t the end-all-be-all of organizational success. He admits that as Moses takes his advice, “God will direct you.” Midian realized the superiority of God’s plan for governing God’s people and was trying to offer some helpful advice that didn’t at all compete with what God had already said to Moses about the governance of God’s people. Midian recognized that his advice was superseded by God’s direction.

Moses took Midian’s advice: “So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves” (Exodus 18:24–26). It was a good organizational decision that certainly helped Moses avoid burnout. But it wasn’t at all foundational to Israel’s success (or failure) as a people. What was crucial to the covenant community was obedience to their gracious God and his law, his ways.

Managers, Midian, and Moses

The key is one of priority, proportion, and propriety. You need to see that we exist in a managerial culture that makes promises that not even secular managers can fulfill on: organizational skill will usher in maximum profit, productivity, and prosperity. Pastor, you will be tempted to handle spiritual problems with managerial solutions. Your people will want to be managed and rate you on your managerial skills. Managerial skill, however it’s defined by the latest management best-seller, cannot be your priority. Your priority is shepherding God’s people by the clear, unalterable dictates that God has declared in his Word. Your priority should be shepherding Christ’s sheep according to the means of grace—preaching, prayer, sacraments, and an accountable Christian community. Where organizational management can help you, you need to keep it in the proper proportion. There is no panacea for the challenges of pastoral ministry. It is hard. Sheep bite. You’re limited and still sin. These truths should drive you to God in prayer and humility rather than drive you to the business section on Amazon. And as you prioritize God’s ways for God’s people in the appropriate proportion, you’ll need to do it with propriety. Only you know the needs of your congregation. If you pastor a church under two hundred, your need for even appropriate organizational skills is relatively minuscule. Rather than discouraging, this is encouraging. Apple may need a complex organizational chart; the church needs Christ. God isn’t waiting on the next Peter Drucker; he already has faithful elders.

  1. For example, in one instance, Moses was commanded by God to speak to a rock that would provide water for the people (Num. 20:1–13). Instead, Moses struck the rock twice. For his disobedience, Moses was denied entry to the promised land (Deut. 32:51). God was very specific in how his people would be governed.
  2. The Westminster Confession of Faith echoes this principle in the sixth section of the first chapter on the Word of God, when it says, “and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed” (emphasis added).
  3. Church planters are nodding their heads.
Joe Holland

Joe Holland is professor of Christian ministry and academic dean for Grimké College. He also serves as managing editor for Grimké Seminary and College.

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