That Time Moses Failed in His Marriage
The title isn't click bait! I am being completely serious. There was a time in Moses' life when he failed in his marriage. It took me by complete and utter surprise. While preparing for a future sermon series, I was drearily reading through the book of Exodus and a verse in chapter 18 quickly awakened me.
"Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses' father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. After Moses had sent away his wife Zipporah, his father-in-law Jethro took her back, along with her two sons (Exodus 18:1-2a, NRSV)."
Has an annoying, younger sibling ever run and pounced on your back without expectation? That's how I feel about verse two. "Where in the world did you come from? Why are you on my back?"
Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim labels this section of scripture "Faith and Family." He notes that not only has Jethro come to hear Moses and Israel's victory story, but also to express concern for the family's welfare. It is not clear when or why Moses and Zipporah had become separated. It is only a given in the text and one of the factors that prompts Jethro's visit. But I have a suggestion to at least the why.
Moses' marriage was failing because of an overwhelming ministry.
It doesn't take long for Jethro to intervene into Moses' business, as any good and loving father-in-law would do. That's the job of father-in-laws (and mother-in-laws). For better or worse, when they see a problem they intervene. Sometimes this is healthy and helpful, other times it is not.
In Moses' case, Jethro is a good and loving father-in-law.
After the family reunion, Jethro sticks around for a couple days and he notices that Moses is completely overwhelmed with ministry. Moses sits as judge for the Israelite people, all by himself. He alone sits and listens to the people's problems. He alone sits and speaks with God. He alone discerns, solves issues, and renders answers. All by himself, he runs the entire ministry.
No wonder Moses' marriage was in the toilet.
The ministry tax is an expensive one. Often a pastor's family is forced to pay the tax. "I'm sorry I can't make it to your play tonight honey. I've got a budget meeting. Mom is recording it though and I'll watch it when I get home."
The ministry tax is an expensive one. Often a pastor's physical health must pay the tax. "I preached eight times this weekend, three times at church and five times at a retreat, and now I'm sick, but I still have to make it through business meeting tonight."
The ministry tax is an expensive one. Often a pastor's mental health suffers the tax. "I feel like I'm at the end of my rope, doc. I'm starting to feel hopeless, like there's no way out of this."
Dramatic? I don't think so.
In his book over pastoral ministry, William H. Willimon ends the introduction with this story.
"One day the dean casually commented that a member of my annual conference once wrote him a particularly moving letter. Did I know him? Before I could answer, the dean continued,
"He wrote that he had been called into the ministry some years ago. He commuted to seminary not far from his home, doing just enough work to get by. He said that he got along well with people and knew how to please a congregation. For four years at his first church, he delivered this 'package,' and it worked. He delivered the same series of pleasing sermons and showed similar caring concern at his next congregation and, for four years, it worked there too. He is now at his third congregation, and his 'well has run dry.' He needs renewal, but he doesn't know enough theology to be able to read his way back into ministry. He asked if he could come here for a sabbatical and spend time working through the theology that he had missed. We tried to help him, but with his family and all, he just couldn't swing it. Do you know what happened to him?
"Somberly I told the dean, 'He was put on leave of absence to receive treatment for his alcoholism. Last week, he was found dead in his kitchen, drowned in his own vomit after a bout of drunkenness.'"
Again, that's how Dr. Willimon ends his introduction to pastoral ministry! Bottom line? Ministry is taxing. In Moses' case, it appears his wife and family were hit hardest.
When Jethro sees all this, his comment is pure gold: "What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! (Exodus 18:17-19)."
Jethro then sets out to help Moses reorganize the ministry and the key to success is delegation. "Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you (Exodus 18:22)."
Such an easy solution, right? It almost seems like a no-brainer.
However, delegation is harder to do than it sounds.
Case in point. At Trinity Baptist Church we recently started our Trinity Kids and Trinity Nursery programs up again. If you read anything about my story in previous blogs, then you know our church was flooded by Harvey the Sunday before I was to begin.
Finally, we were able to get cleaned up enough to have kids, toddlers, and babies back in the building on Sunday morning. But having kids, toddlers, and babies meant a plan! It meant lessons and curriculum! It meant crayons and construction paper! It meant glue and a colored printer! It meant teachers and a check-in system! It also meant someone to organize all of this stuff for Sunday mornings.
And this was seriously my plan for making all of this happen, are you ready for this?
I was going to do it all!
Even though I am the senior pastor, I was going to also completely run the Trinity Kids and Trinity Nursery program. I would read all the curriculum myself. I would prepare the crafts myself. I would run the check-in system myself I would do it all, because...
Well, I'm not sure why I wanted to do it all. Maybe I'm a control freak, who wants it all to go exactly like I planned and envisioned? Maybe I'm a perfectionist, who wants the programs to be run perfectly? Maybe I'm desperate to make this work, because I'm a young pastor at my first church and I want to prove something?
There maybe a little truth in all of those things, but the real reason is that I often feel bad asking other people to help with ministry needs. I feel like I'm burdening people by asking them to help with ministry. After all, isn't that why they hired me, to do the ministry of the church?
In Greek mythology, Tartarus was the underworld of the underworld. It was a bottomless pit where the Titans were said to have been imprisoned. The Greek poet Hesiod claimed that if a bronze anvil were to be dropped from heaven it would fall for nine days before it reached the earth. The same anvil would then take nine more days to fall from earth to Tartarus. In The Illiad, Zeus accounts that Tartarus is "as far beneath Hades as heaven is high above the earth."
I don't want to be a Tartarus pastor. I don't want my congregation to think of me as a bottomless pit of need. So more often than not, I just suck it up and do the job myself.
My phone rang one afternoon. It was a woman in the church that had helped in the children's department before. I didn't know her all that well. All I knew is that she had strong opinions about children's ministry. She said that she would like to organize and act as secretary for Trinity Kids and Trinity Nursery. I hadn't said a word about needing help to anyone and she called out of the blue.
My first thought was, "How can I tell her I don't want her to do this without it blowing up in my face?" I racked my brain trying to think of how to say it, but I couldn't think of anything, so I said, "Sure." I had my doubts, but I still gave her the green light.
It turned out to be one of the best things for me.
This woman works her tail off to make sure Trinity Kids and Trinity Nursery is well prepared every Sunday. She puts in office hours during the week. She shows up early on Sunday mornings to set everything up. She even sticks around to clean when it's all said and done.
Now I find it so strange and exhausting to think that I was going to try and do everything she is doing along with all of my other responsibilities. How silly of me. How silly, selfish, and arrogant of me to assume that I had to do it all for the ministry to succeed.
What did Trinity hire me to do? Did they hire me to do the ministry of the church? Did they hire me to run all of it on their behalf?
No, they didn't! Trinity did not hire me to do all of the ministry myself. Trinity hired me to help them do ministry. They hired me to help them figure out what God is calling them to do and help them accomplish it. It's one of the best thing that a pastor could do for any church. Teach them to do the ministry. Teach them to run programs. Give more ministry away. Don't be a ministry hoarder.
One of my favorite images of this comes from a former colleague and mentor. He told me that far too often pastors think of themselves as the hero of the story. We preach the sermons. We lead the meetings. We start new programs. We grow the church. We are the heroes! This is a huge mistake. He advised me to think of myself as the wise, old hermit instead.
Think about every good story you know. What do they all have? They all have a flawed hero who is on his/her way to being who he/she is supposed to be. They are called to be something great, but they are deeply flawed. In "Lord of the Rings" it's Aragorn, the rightful king who has abdicated his throne and can reclaim it, if only he can shake his inner demons. It's also Frodo Baggins, the one who is responsible for returning the one ring to Mordor. These are the heroes!
Is that who pastors are in the story? Are we the hero on the way to the throne? Nope! We are the lesser characters surrounding the hero. We are the Gandalfs and the Samwise Gamgees.
We were hired to help our congregants overcome their flaws and become the hero God is calling them to be.
The more ministry you share, the more opportunities you provide, the more needs you offer, the better off your congregants will be. They may struggle with it at times, because remember, they are the flawed hero. But it will help them get to where God is calling them. And one day they will hear God say to them, "Well done my good and faithful servant."
And hey, you never know. It just could save your marriage as well!
As for you, church member of FBC Wherever reading this, help your pastor. He/She is probably more overburdened and overwhelmed than he/she will ever show or tell. He/She is probably too proud or too scared or too silly to ask for help at times, but they need it.
I am blessed to work at a church that understands this and it chomping at the bit to get involved. Most days it seems that at Trinity I have trouble keeping up with how active and willing our members are to dig their hands into the warm soil of ministry. But as I've always said...
It's better to use a bridle than a cattle prod!