Discussions about leadership today are often filled with wistfulness about our current lack of it. Alternatively, much of the promotional literature about leadership brims with unreflective enthusiasm about the prospects for creating more and better leaders. Institutions, including the church and the government, seem to be floundering, and in order to set things right we think we need “leadership.” Election season is upon us in the United States, although these days it seems that one election season bleeds right into the next, with little time for “governing season.” The airwaves are filled with campaign ads promising leadership that will solve our national problems. At the same time, both in the academic world and within the church, there is a growing demand for strong institutional leadership. In order to meet this demand, many universities and theological schools tout their leadership development programs, which are often heavily influenced by business management models. Regrettably, such programs are rarely shaped by deep theological reflection about leadership that is rooted in Scripture and the wisdom of the Christian tradition.
The Christian tradition has had a complex relationship with notions of leadership. The yearning for strong leaders can be a sign of insecurity and fear. And those who actively aspire to leadership are sometimes driven by egotism and an unholy desire for power. This can be a dangerous combination. Christian Scripture calls us to careful, critical reflection about our hankering to lead or be led. After all, it was “the rulers of this age”—the leaders and shapers of policy—who crucified the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:8).
But skepticism about leadership, power, and the relationship between leaders and followers is not the definitive Christian answer to the question of leadership. Scripture also speaks positively about the need for leadership, and it offers numerous stories of those called to exercise it. “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). The apostle Paul exhorted the church in Corinth, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). As these texts indicate, the testimony of the Bible does not allow us to reject the concept of leadership; on the other hand, neither does it portray leadership in terms identical to the corporate or political models familiar in our time. Thus, the challenge before us—in the Divinity School and in the church—is to think through the tasks of leadership in light of the examples that we find in the scriptural stories.
The archetypical leader in the Bible is Moses, who led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, on a long trek through the desert, to the borders of the land of promise. What might it mean for us to imitate his faith and manner of leadership? A close reading of his story suggests at least seven characteristics of faithful and wise leadership.
First, Moses’ leadership expressed the compassion of God. When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, he declared, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them” (Exodus 3:7–8a). The suffering of the people touched God’s heart, and so he summoned Moses as the instrument of their liberation. If Moses was going to carry out the mission given to him, he had to share that pain in the heart of God. It was God’s desire to free the people from their taskmasters.
One crucial task for those whom God calls as leaders today is to discern where people are crying out under harsh taskmasters; some of them may be subtle but insidiously powerful cultural forces. True leadership is impossible without compassion for the captivity and suffering of those who are to be led. Later in the story, after the incident of the golden calf, we see the full depth of Moses’ compassionate identification with the people when he interceded with God to forgive their sin and even offered himself to be blotted out of God’s book to make atonement for them (Exodus 32:30–32). Though God rejected Moses’ offer, the episode illuminates Moses’ deep concern for his people.
Second, Moses assumed leadership not because he aspired to it, but because he was unexpectedly called. In the story of the burning bush (Exodus 3:1–10), we may imagine the awestruck Moses, up through verse 9, nodding and silently cheering as God announced, “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8–9). No doubt Moses was thinking, “That’s wonderful, God. I’m really happy you are going to do that.” But God was not quite finished with the revelatory speech. He went on to say to Moses, “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10).
This was definitely not in the script of Moses’ career development plan at this time in his life. He found himself summoned to God’s agenda, not his own. And the task to which he was summoned was one that seemed humanly impossible: to confront the most powerful ruler in the ancient Near East with a demand to “Let my people go.” This public confrontation with the power of Egypt was not an ambition that Moses conceived on his own; rather, it was a result of hearing God’s unforeseen call to imagine a new liberating possibility and to act in faith to bring it into reality.
Listening to God
One strikingly consistent feature of the narratives about Moses is that he received guidance from God. Whether in the story of the burning bush, or in his dramatic conflicts with Pharaoh, or in his ascent of Mount Sinai to receive God’s Law, Moses is consistently portrayed as one who listened to God and received revelation that not only directed his own actions but also shaped the life of God’s people.
In the Chagall painting reproduced on the left, we see Moses reaching up to receive the Torah from the Lord. This posture defines his character. He is not portrayed in Scripture as a decisive strategist, a resourceful analyst, or a great military leader. Rather, he was the faithful recipient and teacher of God’s word, the one who mediated it to the people. This trait of Moses is described in God’s declaration in Numbers 12:6–8: “Hear my words: When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams. Not so with my servant Moses: he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the Lord.” Moses could be “entrusted” with “all God’s house” because he entered the presence of God and listened.
Action and Institution Building
Yet Moses is not only a contemplative figure. He listened to God and then acted on what he heard. He went back to Egypt and confronted Pharaoh by performing mighty signs; he instructed God’s people about the institution of the Passover feast (“By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel,” Hebrews 11:28); he led the long pilgrimage across the sea and through the desert; he painstakingly established the design for the tabernacle and the institutions of the priesthood (Exodus 25–31); he appointed 70 elders to share the responsibility of governance (Numbers 11:16–25).
To be sure, the sort of institution building that he did required the creation of provisional forms that were adaptable to the long wilderness journey; he never built a city or a temple. But perhaps for that very reason, he offers us a good model for leadership for the church today, in an era of transition and uncertainty. The important point is that he listened to God in order to discern the forms that would provide a structure for God’s wandering people to survive and flourish. And he then sought to implement God’s plan to lead the people, even when they remained grumbling and “stiff-necked.”
The recalcitrance of the people both required and revealed another character trait of Moses: his humility. Those who lead are often subject to temptations of pride and self-assertion. It is therefore surely significant that in the very same passage in Numbers where we are told God spoke face to face with Moses and entrusted authority to him, we also hear this: “Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). The Septuagint renders the key adjective (“humble”) here as praüs, “gentle” or “meek”—the same term that appears in Jesus’ Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
This quality of humility is visible in Moses’ call story in Exodus 3. After hearing God’s call to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses protested: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). Moses was acutely aware of his own limitations, including his lack of eloquence: “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). These limitations forced him to rely radically on God, who promised to be with him. And he also was forced to rely on his brother, Aaron, who was the public voice for Moses when he went before the Pharaoh. Moses knew that he could not accomplish his mission alone; he needed the help of his brother. And the whole bold venture could succeed if and only if it was sustained by the power of God. Leaders who possess humility know well that the success of their work does not depend on their own brilliance or force of will: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1).
Vision, not Popularity
A corollary of the first five characteristics we have named is this: Moses’ actions as a leader were grounded in a deep trust in God that enabled him to stay faithful to his vision even in the face of opposition. He did not seek popularity or strive to stay on top of opinion polls; instead, he stayed the course, following the vision he had been given. In the story told in Numbers 12, Aaron and Miriam spoke enviously against Moses, but he did not seek to rebut their criticism of his leadership. Instead, he trusted God to defend him against detractors, leaving his vindication in the hands of God.
Throughout the story of the wilderness wandering, the people again and again opposed and complained about Moses’ leadership, but even though he was sometimes deeply frustrated, he never wavered or compromised his mission. He kept his eye on the calling he had been given by God and remained faithful for 40 years, regardless of the swings of popular opinion—whether adulation or rebellion.
It is a delicate matter to discern the difference between steadfast faithfulness to a calling and stubborn resistance to the counsel of others. Surely the difference hinges on the authenticity of the calling to which the strong leader remains faithful. I would venture the judgment, however, that in our time too many who aspire to leadership are driven by the need for popular approval, or they use that approval as their barometer of success. Moses, by contrast, provides a model of a leader whose eyes remained on the prize of the promised land.
Passing It On
Finally, the story of Moses reminds us of the truth that even the greatest leaders never fully finish the work. They must anticipate not only their own mortality but also the need to raise up other leaders to follow them. Moses told the people of Israel, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people,” and he solemnly admonished them to “heed such a prophet” (Deuteronomy 18:15–19). He specifically identified Joshua as his chosen successor and commissioned him to carry forward the task of leading the people into the land, under the Lord’s guidance (Deuteronomy 31:1–8). “Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Deuteronomy 34:9). An important part of the responsibility of wise leadership is to identify and raise up the next generation of leaders to follow, and to “lay hands” on them in blessing to carry forward the unfinished work.
These seven qualities of Moses’ leadership offer a biblical model for imagining how we might faithfully fulfill the leadership roles to which we are called in our time. But the pattern described here also prefigures the way of one who is the truest paradigm of leadership, one who, “though he was in the form of God, ... emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:6–7). We cannot be Jesus, of course. But just as Moses’ pattern of humble service prefigured Jesus’ counterintuitive way of embodying authority, so also our leadership should reflect, even through a glass darkly, the Christ-shaped pattern of true leadership.
As we reflect on our own vocations to leadership, may God give us first the humility to say, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And then, if God persists in calling us to leadership, may God give us the courage to go.
Chagall, Marc (1887-1985)
Moses receives the Tablets of the Law,
1960-1966. Oil on canvas, 237 x 233 cm. MBMC12. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS),
New York / ADAGP, Paris