5 min read

We find one of the greatest examples in history of equipping leadership in the book of Exodus. You may be familiar with the story as an example of delegation, but it is much more than that. It is a great example of equipping people for ministry.

Moses had been serving as judge for the entire nation of the ancient Hebrews, personally handling every case brought before him. When Jethro, his father-in-law, saw what was going on, he recommended that Moses divide the work by appointing heads over groups of a thousand, a hundred, and fifty. Moses would only attend to the most serious cases that others could not handle.

“What you are doing is not good” (Ex 18:17). Moses was a good man, but what he was doing was not good—it was not smart according to sound principles of people management. Moses was like many pastors today. They are good men. They know the word and they know God. But their education has not prepared them for managing people.

Jethro tells Moses, “If you continue down this path, both you and also the people who are coming to you will wear yourselves out!” The reluctance or inability to empower others is a major cause of leader burnout. As ministries grow, leaders fail to develop the ministry capacity of others. Rather than building sustainable growth, the congregation eventually implodes because the entire structure was centered on one man.

The word that Jethro used for “wear themselves out” literally means to “wither.” Moses’ strength will wither because he is just one man and the people will wither because their needs are not being met.
The reason this is so is that “the thing is too heavy for you” (Ex 18:18).

What is amazing about this whole picture is the extent to which Moses WAS able to grow the community prior to this conversation with Jeethro. How did Moses survive to this point? It shows the tremendous stamina and commitment of Moses. Yet, even the greatest are mere men. The system was not designed to work this way. “You cannot do it alone.”

At this point, Jethro gives Moses some great advice, advice that will equip the people of God for ministry. Notice the precise elements of Jethro’s counsel.

1. Representation. “You shall represent the people before God” (Ex 18:19). One of the most important elements of equipping God’s people is to speak with God about them and for them. Lift up to the Heavenly Father the fact that you sense a mighty potential in this or that person. Ask God to protect you from deception in this. Ask God to work in the heart of this person preparing him to respond to the call to ministry. As you invest in these people, continue to represent them in your prayers for this will enable you to depend on God to empower and equip the disciple.

2. Instruction. “Teach them the statutes and the laws” (Ex 18:20). There is no need to belabor this point because the Christian church gets it. If nothing else, we know about teaching. All Christian teachers would benefit from some teaching about HOW to teach, but we all accept that we need to teach. This being said, there is a need to get beyond the milk of the Word and into the meat (Hebrews 6:1).

3. Action Learning. “Make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do” (Ex 18:20). This is where we often fail. Because of our cultural roots in the Platonic confidence in words, the church has often failed to incorporate action as a necessary part of learning. Jethro advised not just that people prepare for an exam. They were to show “the way” in which they must “walk” and what they must “do.” It was about learning through practice and through action.

4. Contingent Selection. “Select out of all the people able men who fear God” (Ex 18:21). One temptation of Christian leadership–especially when you are experiencing burnout–is to grab anyone willing and give them a ministry responsibility. This can be catastrophic. The Scriptures repeatedly emphasize this principle of contingent selection. We see it again, for example, in the selection of the food distribution administrators whom the Jerusalem church selected in the sixth chapter of Acts. “Pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” (Acts 6:3, ESV).

5. Empowerment. “Let them judge the people at all times” (Ex. 18:22). This was not mere delegation. Delegation is granting authority by one party to another for a specific purpose. It’s a form of “vicarious liability” where the delegator remains the owner of the project and responsible for the delegatee’s successes or failures. Empowerment turns ownership of the project over to someone else.

6. Escalation. “Let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor dispute they themselves will judge” (Ex 18:22). While escalation brings to mind increasing hostilities and actions followed by reaction, I am using it to describe the process of allowing responsible appointees to solve problems at the lowest levels first and only bringing it to superiors when necessary (hence “escalation”). The more pernicious and chronic problems need to be escalated to top leadership team—other problems are resolved by the team leaders.


Photo: Jethro and Moses by James Tissot, 1896. Public Domain.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.