As I read the amazing story about Moses and his father-in-law in Exodus, I wondered, “Was Jethro the first management consultant? And who might show up suddenly and mentor me as a leader?”
In Exodus 18, the people of Israel had already crossed the Red Sea and arrived at Mount Sinai. At this moment, Jethro, the priest of Midian, came into the Hebrew camp, bringing with him Moses’ wife and two sons — Jethro’s own daughter and grandsons. That night, Moses told Jethro “all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake.”
The next day, Jethro observed Moses’ work habits. “Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening.” Jethro challenged Moses: Why was he sitting alone, mediating disagreements all day long? Moses replied that the people needed him in that role, and that he was able to explain the statutes of God to people in the middle of their disputes.
But Jethro disagreed. “What you are doing is not good,” he said. “You will surely wear yourself out” — and not just you, but the people who are with you as well. “For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” Jethro then offered some good advice, as fathers-in-law are wont to do: Find able, honest people, and set them as officers over various groups so that they can be judges in your place. Ask them to reserve the truly hard cases for you personally. “Then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.”
What are the lessons of this story?
First, engaging a hundred people to do the work is better than a single person doing the work of a hundred. This can be a very difficult lesson for presidents and other leaders!
Second, management is spiritual work. Jethro never told Moses that settling disputes and teaching people the ordinances of God was beneath him. On the contrary, it was essential for the health of the community, and thus it had to be done in a sustainable way. Jethro saw that the work could not be accomplished if Moses insisted on flying solo. He grew more and more insistent on this, starting by telling Moses that he would give him “counsel,” but finishing with forceful spiritual direction: “God so commands you.”
Third, mentoring is critical for leaders. Moses had plenty of training and experience — he had been educated in Pharaoh’s household in Egypt, had been chosen specifically by God for his role, and was already leading a vast nation. But when his father-in-law spontaneously took him aside, he listened.
In this issue, part 2 of Barbara Wheeler’s research lifts up the importance and unique character of presidential leadership within theological schools. The leadership that is demanded today is complex and expansive in scope. Yes, formal leadership training is critical, and like Moses, most seminary leaders have top-notch education. The story of Moses and Jethro reminds us, however, that spontaneous, informal mentors can appear at any moment — on our boards, among our administrative team, in our congregations, or on our faculties.
Or a mentor may be a member of our own family. In any case, we would do well to “hearken to the voices” of wisdom that surround us. These Jethros may be offering the very keys to making our communities thrive. Who’s your Jethro?