Leading as Moses Led

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One of the most fundamental elements of any successful organization is leadership. However, it is also one of the most misunderstood qualities as it relates to congregational development and structure. We are in the midst of a drastic shift within many mainline churches — some would say the shift has already taken place — in that membership is declining, the impact of the church on society is questioned, and effective leadership is a rarity.

Leaders must come to the realization that true leadership means guiding people into the vision that God has for them, individually and collectively.

Perhaps the reason for the deterioration of many churches is a result of a misunderstanding of what leadership is and what it is not. If the church is to reverse this trend, leaders must come to the realization that true leadership means guiding people into the vision that God has for them, individually and collectively.

Leader vs. Boss

First, it is essential to differentiate between being a leader and being a boss. A boss has authority and power based on his or her position. A boss tells people what they are supposed to do, and people do it because there are consequences for disobeying. A leader, on the other hand, may have authority based on position; however, a leader does not have the luxury (depending on how you look at it) of telling people what to do. People don’t have to do what a leader tells them to do. Therefore, a leader has to convince people that what they are doing and where they are going are in the best interest of the group. Our congregations are made up of leaders, not bosses, and we have to persuade people to follow.

This was the case with Moses as he had to convince the Hebrew people to leave Egypt. He did not have the power or the authority to make them leave; he had to convince them that they should leave. It began with a vision. Moses explained to the people that it was time to claim what God had promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: a land of their own. Where they were going and why it was better than their current situation became clear, and that’s why people followed the leadership of Moses.

Understand the People

Second, since a church is made up of several members, success depends on team effort. Moreover, because a church consists of many individuals who come together to work as one, each church will have its own way of doing things. The language, style, and images of a church are important aspects that must be taken into consideration to lead effectively. What is a perfect goal for one church might be completely unrealistic and irrelevant to another. To motivate and draw the cooperation of the parishioners, it is important to understand the ethos of the people and shape and mold a vision that is relevant and acceptable. The vision should become the natural definition of who the people are and what they are called to do.

The acceptability and relevance of the vision can make or break the vision becoming a reality. I doubt very much that Moses alone could have led a group of Egyptians out into the wilderness. The Promised Land was not a part of Egyptian culture, so traveling to Canaan under harsh conditions would not have been relevant to them. Shaping, articulating, and embracing the vision in a culturally relevant way is one of the most important roles of any leader, regardless of organization.

Establish Supportive Teams

Even with a dynamic vision and a clear plan, it is impossible to reach the vision without the right support. Moses’ father-in-law understood that Moses would not be able to successfully lead the Hebrews without a strong support system in place. Moses built a team of leaders who shared the same values. More importantly, Moses’ support team had a connection with the same God. No matter how gifted an individual is, if that individual doesn’t share the same values, beliefs, and culture as the leader, excellence should not be expected in that ministry. It is better to have a committed team that understands and accepts the vision, values, and beliefs than it is to have a league of extraordinarily gifted individuals who don’t value the same things. Leadership team members must be on the same page; otherwise, those you intend to lead will see the disunity, and if the leadership is not united, then the congregation will not be united.

Cultivate a Deep Prayer Life

Not only did Moses present a clear picture to the people of where they were going, but also the people believed that God was with Moses. When it comes to church leadership, it is imperative that the people understand that God is truly speaking to and through the leader. The book of Exodus clearly says that Moses got away from everyone to spend time alone with God on Mount Sinai. His alone time with God provided him with the vision, the strength, and the courage to lead the Hebrew people during their wilderness experience. Spending quality time with God is imperative when it comes to leadership.


This article is excerpted from Emanuel Cleaver III’s book Pastor on Track: Reclaiming Our True Role (Abingdon Press, 2014) and used with the publisher’s permission. The book is is available from Cokesbury and Amazon.

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About Author

Emanuel Cleaver III is senior pastor at St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of Pastor on Track: Reclaiming Our True Role (Abingdon Press, 2014). Emanuel participated in the Lewis Center's Lewis Fellows program for outstanding young clergy in 2008-2009.


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