The Dangers of Micro-Management (Exodus 18).
In this chapter we see a big change in the pace of the story. Up till now it’s all been rip-roaring action and the narrative has moved along at a great speed. Events and people have been on the move. Israel escaped from Egypt and up till now have been travelling south down the western coast of the Sinai peninsula. If they’d carried on at a reasonable pace they would have reached the Promised Land in just a few weeks, despite their odd route. If things had gone differently, the Bible narrative might have gone straight from Exodus to Joshua. Ok, so we would have still needed Leviticus, and bits of the others, but really, Numbers and Deuteronomy shouldn’t have been necessary. They are books of delay and disobedience, or re-iterating things that should have been learnt first-time around.
So what we actually have is three and a half books of the Bible pretty much set in one place and proceeding at snail’s pace. We’re going to spend the rest of Exodus encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and even when we get moving again it’ll take a long time to reach the Promised Land and the start of the real action again.
And as the action slows down so the purpose of the book changes. The first half told us a wonderful story and testified to God’s love and amazing power. Now it takes on more of a teaching role. Mirroring the fast and slow seasons of life, having just rushed through an exciting time now we slow down to hear directly from God and to establish the basics of what He wants for us and from us.
There’s about to be a lot of mountain-climbing and the Ten Commandments are right around the corner, but first we have a really cool interlude in which we see a glimpse of Israel’s daily life before the giving of the Covenant. And it has a lot of teach us.
Enter Jethro. Moses’ father-in-law, whom we haven’t seen since chapter three, breezes into the story again, sets Moses straight, lays out some vital principles for all of us, and then disappears again. Jethro plays a vital, instructive cameo. This guy has two names. Back in chapter 2 he was Reuel, which means ‘friend of God’; now he’s Jethro, which seems to denote ‘his excellency’. He’s a fairly important figure in Midian (a country not far from where the Israelites now are) and clearly a wise and devout man. He’s been taking care of Moses’ wife and children (vv. 2-3) while Moses was risking life and limb back in Egypt, and now he brings them back.
He hears the amazing story of the Exodus from Moses and gives thanks to God. It’s really important to do what Moses did, to recount the amazing things God has done for us and to give Him all the glory. Jethro responds, rightly, with praise, and also with personal conviction. When he says “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods, for He did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly” (v. 11) we get a flash of insight: this guy knew God before but didn’t really know Him. For Jethro, God was just one deity among many, and he certainly didn’t have a close personal relationship with Him. But now, with this brilliant example of early evangelisation, he is brought to faith by hearing the good news.
This sets Jethro up to be able to say what he says next. Suddenly he’s no longer just a wise man giving good advice (v. 19), now God is using him as His mouthpiece to deliver an important command (v. 23). It’s worth pausing a moment to reflect on how God can use anyone, at any stage of their faith, to speak His words and embody His authority.
What is this advice that actually turns out to be a command? It’s about micro-management. More specifically, the dangers thereof. It’s a common term in the workplace and even in churches these days. It happens so much that it’s widely recognised, and yet so many people seem unable to avoid it. Many of us try and do too much and don’t trust others enough to delegate the work. These are one of the worst kind of leaders because they burn themselves out and alienate others. Moses was in grave danger of being such a leader.
Moses had been a fantastic leader in standing up to Pharaoh and in leading the Israelites out of Egypt, confronting extraordinary obstacles and problems. But it’s very different being a leader in the sense of day-to-day management than the leader in the thick of the action. The challenges are different – Moses had the legal, domestic and spiritual needs of an entire nation to deal with – and so are the dangers – “The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.” (v. 18).
Here was Moses trying to be arbiter and judge for millions of people. Jethro doesn’t criticise from a distance or in ignorance, but only after watching Moses closely. “The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening.” (v. 13). He would have been listening to petty quarrels, solving important disputes, giving spiritual advice and pastoral care. And not just on one day. How many out of all the millions of Israel do you think he could get through in one day? No, this would have been happening day in, day out. Think of all the arguments that would have been breaking out on the march and building up ready for resolution whenever they made camp. It was too much. It would have been physical draining, mentally exhausting and emotionally consuming.
There was no one to help him, maybe because no one offered, and maybe because Moses wouldn’t let them. We could be generous and say that he felt it was his responsibility and was struggling manfully to fulfil it; we could be more critical and say that Moses was jealous of his prerogatives and disparaging of the ability of others to do it as well as him. Either way, or somewhere in-between, it wasn’t good. Jethro called him on it, no messing around. He saw correctly that “You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out.” (v.18). Moses couldn’t cope, and the people would get impatient waiting so long for decisions.
No pastor or leader can do everything. Ask any senior church leader. Leaders are supposed to delegate, both for their own sakes and for the empowerment of others around them. Good leaders won’t jeopardise important roles by trying to deliver them all sub-par and they are secure enough to let others step in without feeling threatened. In the body of the church each member has a role to play. The “officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” were appointed to provide better, more personal care, and also to develop them as leaders. Think how held back they would have been if Jethro hadn’t convinced Moses to delegate to them, to raise them up and train them. Think how much growth they would have been denied.
In the modern church it’s not just the settling of disputes. Sermons need to be given, welcomes given, drinks served, toilets cleaned, small groups organised, lighting and media put on, admin done, songs sung and so on and on. So much needs doing that one person or even a small team couldn’t possibly do it all, and certainly not to a high standard. No, everyone is supposed to get involved. Everyone has talents and gifts to contribute, and everyone has a growth path laid out by God that they need to progress on. If they don’t, they’ll become stunted and unfruitful in a spiritual sense.
We’re all guilty of this, so let’s use this chapter as an opportunity to examine ourselves: where are we trying to do too much? What are we holding on to that we should be sharing or delegating? In what areas is our work-life balance way out of kilter? Are families suffering because we’re spending too long in the office? Are the next generation of leaders missing out on vital opportunities because we’re still doing all the stuff? What should we give up in order to free up more space and margin in our lives? The answers to these questions will be different for everyone, and so will the actions needed as a result of those answers. The important thing is to ask them, seriously and honestly. Micro-management hurts us and others through burn-out and exclusion. As in the Israel that Jethro helped to shape, so in today’s church: everyone gets to play.
To take away:
Do you find it difficult to trust others with important tasks? If so, ask God what you can do to change that.