Jethro, Moses and the Hands-On Pastor

dirty handsOne of the biggest mistakes I made when I was trying to get my Small Church to think and act like a big church, was that I put too many layers between myself and the congregation God called me to serve.

I did that because I was told it was a necessary, even desirable step in getting the church and my ministry to be all that it could be.

This idea came from many church leadership conferences and books, in which the Jethro/Moses model was taught as the ideal pastoring method.

We all know the story. When Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, saw how much time Moses spent judging every petty dispute among 2 million ex-slaves, he suggested a system of under-shepherds for groups of 10, 50, 100 and 1,000, so that only the most difficult cases came to Moses. This freed Moses to deal with the more important matters of leading a great people to become a great nation.

That’s a wonderful model for leading massive groups, which is why Moses adopted it and the bible tells us about it. Churches of 500, 5,000 or 50,000 can practically cut-and-paste Jethro’s method onto their church leadership template.

But when you’re pastoring a Small Church, it requires some serious adaptations.

Jethro would not have suggested that model if Moses had been leading 50 people.


The Goal Is Better Pastoring

Of course every pastor needs to delegate the work of the church to as many people as possible, no matter what size the church is. It’s a vital element in developing a healthy church and discipling the congregation. And it’s something that most Small Church pastors I talk with admit we aren’t doing as well as we could – certainly not as well as we’d like to.

But one of the dangers of promoting big- to megachurch as the standard, is that we’ve led a generation of ministers to believe that delegating leadership means not being accessible to your congregation. And that such a lack of accessibility is an ideal to strive for. It’s not.

Moses was a shepherd. That was his heart and his occupation. He didn’t make the shift from shepherd to manager by choice, but out of necessity. And with some helpful guidance from someone who had significant leadership experience as a priest of Midian.

We’re sometimes told that, if want our church to grow, we need to become managers. I think that’s backwards.

Moses didn’t become the leader of a massive number of people because he developed an administrative leadership style. He adapted to an administrative leadership style because he found himself leading a massive number of people.

A pastor’s goal should never be to manage the crowd better, but to pastor the people better. 

When a church gets big, that can only be done by delegating the pastoral work to a greater number of undershepherds, like Jethro taught Moses. But, in a smaller group, adopting a multi-layer management style means the people get less pastoring, not more.


The Small Church Pastor Is a 50- Or 100-Level Leader 

Most people want to be pastored by their pastor. Especially in Small Churches. That’s one of the main reasons they choose a Small Church over a big one.

Many, perhaps most pastors are called and gifted and called to be hand-on pastors, not managers, organizers and fundraisers. Myself included. If that’s who you are, be who you are! Don’t let anyone tell you that being a caring, loving, hands-on pastor is the wrong way to do ministry.

In a big church, Jethro’s 10, 50, 100 and 1,000 level leadership model can, and should be fully implemented. When it is, there are at least four levels between the members and the pastor, meaning only the most vital, big issues get to the pastor. And rightfully so in a church of 2,000 or more.

But in a church of 50, even if the pastor has done a superb job of training, discipling and delegating 10-level leaders, the pastor is still dealing with all the 50-level problems. That means the Small Church pastor deals with a lot more personal and family issues than a megachurch pastor will ever see. And those are the issues that require a lot of time, patience and emotional fortitude. You know, the hands-on stuff.

So, if you’re pastoring a church of less than 100, by all means, train and delegate church members to minister and help each other. But, as a 50-level leader (or a 100-level one, like me) training people to do the work of ministry in a Small Church should never be done at the cost of the pastor no longer being accessible to congregation members.

In a smaller group, we can’t train other to do hands-on ministry unless we’re hands-on ourselves.


So what do you think? Is there a better way to balance delegation with hands-on ministry?

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(Dirty Hands photo from Kyle Van Horn • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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5 thoughts on “Jethro, Moses and the Hands-On Pastor”

  1. A good shepherd will always have the smell of sheep on them. In ministry training school I was taught that a lead pastor should never get close to the sheep. We were told to make friends only with other ministers / pastors. After pastoring an amazing small group of people for almost 7 years, I am so very happy I never followed that advice! There is waaay too much separation in churches today between the “clergy” and “laity”. The beauty of small churches is that they can be more “communal”, which is actually more biblical.

  2. The levels of separation between pastors and congregants often has nothing to do with efficiency, or with helping to create capable ministers within our small congregations. It has to do with lordship—with exalting ourselves far above the congregation. If we can’t do it through our good character and their growing respect, we can do it quickly and artificially with a good organizational chart.

  3. I find this very helpful, and a validation to small church pastors who don’t want a lot of levels between them and their church. As I think you mentioned, and is a principal I have heard from a lot of leaders, even in business, that you shouldn’t add layers that aren’t needed. The goal is to function better. But levels add complexity and limit connectivity, so unneeded layers or committees can create a rift. If we are taught not to get to involved with our people, something is wrong with this teaching.

  4. I think the emphasis on management/admin skills is a reflection of the larger culture. We have a tendency to see bigger as better and to see promotion in an organization to be about moving “up” to a management position. Therefore management and admin skills are equated with success, efficiency, discipline, etc and managers seen as leaders while more direct skills are seen as being held by those who are managed by such leaders. On top of that, the larger the company, the more important it is seen to be. And equally therefore the same job in a large company is seen as more prestigious than in a smaller one. When you translate this into the church/synagogue it means that larger congregations and those clergy who have the particular set of skills to minister such congregations are also seen as better and more important.

  5. Thanks again for the reminder Karl. Pastoring is hard but at the same time a rewarding calling especially when you see the sheep advancing. That can only happen when pastors get out of the office and in the field with them.

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