Once upon a time, there was a young pastor whose first church was in a small logging community in the Pacific Northwest. Everyone in the town worked for the logging mill, which was the only business and was involved in fierce competition with another mill just upstream.
To get a break from his study, the pastor climbed up a slope overlooking the river. To his horror, he saw his church members pulling logs branded by the other mill from the river, cutting off the branded ends and running them through their own mill.
The next Sunday, he preached a powerful sermon called “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Property.” After the service, the loggers shook his hand, patted his back, and told him how much they enjoyed his preaching. However, the next week, they were back in business stealing their competitor’s logs. So, he fired off another scorching sermon called “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” Again people commended him on his powerful delivery and keen insights into the Scriptures. But on Monday they were still swiping the other mill’s logs. Enough was enough. This time he decided not to hold anything back. The next Sunday, he preached a message entitled “Thou Shalt Not Cut the Branded Ends Off Someone Else’s Logs.”
He was promptly fired.
Leadership is hard. Leading God’s people is harder. The standards are high, and success is rarely measured by worldly standards. Our holy God operates in ways that confound human wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18-31), but his sheep often do not.
Moses was arguably the foremost of the Lord’s First Testament shepherds. The author of Hebrews uses Moses as the human standard by which the True Deliverer, Jesus Christ, is measured (Hebrews 3:1-5). God spoke directly to Moses, gave him a special calling, and set him apart as Israel’s long-awaited deliverer from the clutches of slavery.
Moses was not entirely enthused with God’s plans, so he tried to back out before reluctantly accepting the call. And his first day on the job seemed to confirm his suspicions. After obeying the Lord’s command to confront Pharaoh, Pharaoh reacted to Moses with firm resistance and vowed to intensify oppression of the Israelites, rather than release them (Exodus 5:6-9). In response, God’s people called a business meeting with their new leader and pronounced a curse on him (Exodus 5:20-21). Moses did what most normal folks would do. He went to the Lord in private and questioned Him:
“Why did you ever send me?”
You’ve got the wrong guy, Lord. I TRIED TO TELL YOU!
I pastored a small church for eight years, and I uttered similar prayers at times. Like other pastors, I sometimes wondered if I had missed God’s call or misread the Spirit’s promptings. However, Moses was different from your garden-variety modern pastor, for he met with God face-to-face (Ex. 33:11). Circumstances did not always match human expectations, and doubts crept in.
Moses had not heard wrong, though. God’s plan was right on course. So he continued to trudge, one step at a time through plague after plague until Yahweh’s final assault, the death of every Egyptian firstborn, finally broke the hard-hearted Pharaoh.
After 400 years, Israel was free! God’s promises had now come to fruition! The Lord had not failed in His plan, nor for Moses. All he had promised had come to pass. A new era was about to begin.
This is the point where the credits were supposed to roll, and everyone would live happily ever after. For Moses, though, this was only the beginning of a long endurance in pastoral leadership. For the next few decades, those who came out of Egypt would walk behind Moses, yet refuse to truly follow him. Whenever things went wrong, they would rage at him and blame him for removing them from the safety of Egypt. In their estimation, Moses was the problem. They would have been better off without him, even though remaining slaves.
Moses’ only real crime, though, was staying on course with God’s Word.
Exodus 32 reveals one of the most acute examples of this. Called by the Lord to Mt. Sinai (think loud rumblings and a Gandalphish voice), Moses would spend forty days in communion with the Creator of the Universe, Lord of Hosts, Almighty God, etc. He would come down to a scene of ungodly chaos, led by his “associate pastor” Aaron, who had replaced him at the demand of the congregation (behind his back and without severance).
Moses had been too slow to return from Sinai. He had not satisfied the congregation’s cravings. Aaron was the new man in charge and had complied with what the people wanted, rather than waiting on God’s Word. He endorsed their brand of worship that fed their deepest human desires and made following God fun again. But Aaron was not God’s man. Moses was.
Thousands of years later, the same spirit that infiltrated an impatient people still entices human hearts. Every week well-intentioned pastors seek to serve faithfully, biblically, and receptively to the Father through His Spirit. But in some instances, things rarely happen fast enough or right enough for the congregants. They want to grow, and they want to grow NOW! They want to see God move. They demand to see God working.
Spiritual maturity and deep unity cannot be microwaved. Most Christian journeys demand their own “wildernesses,” and God will not be mocked by human attempts to hasten the process. Instead of crying out to God, though, Christians may vent their frustrations on shepherds called to nurture them week by week, month by month, year by year, through a slow but sure renewal of the soul.
The apostle Paul spent several years in the shadows before becoming the most significant Christian evangelist and church planter in history. Like our own faith, Paul’s faith needed time to simmer before he could be used so extravagantly by God. If that is true of Paul, how much more of us?
But we can get impatient, especially as God’s shepherds seem to move in slow motion. Church people may become restless in the process and wonder if God is even at work in their little churches, especially when the church just down the road is thriving.
In his book, Leading With a Limp, Dan Allender writes, “God seems to choose leaders who don’t want to serve, and when they do follow God’s call, they often do so in a way that creates new chaos.”
That was certainly true of Moses, and it’s also the case with any shepherd who craves deep, enduring faith in his flock. We have an enemy who seeks to hinder fruitful growth by promising shortcuts instead of processes. And long processes are not a part of our American DNA. If we don’t like things the way they are, we get something newer, shop at a different store, or change the channel.
It is easy to let this mindset drift into discipleship. The chances are good that on any given Sunday, someone sitting near you has changed churches about as often as they have upgraded their phone. And there’s probably someone else nearby clinging to a mental list of all the things they don’t like about Sunday mornings—the music is style, the pastor talks too long, the seats are uncomfortable, the coffee is lame.
In short, many of us can become the Israel of old, as our hunger for shiny results can wear out pastors who may be in tune with God—the One whose norm is a long obedience in the same direction.
The success we crave may not always be as great as it appears. Several years ago, the pastor of a 14,000-member church was exposed for a private life that contradicted his public persona and, more importantly, God’s standards for a pastor. Based on numbers alone, this pastor had been an astounding success. The church he led had become one of America’s largest congregations. Indeed, this man started well, but he stepped off the path of righteousness somewhere along the way. Why? We may never know. Maybe the pressures had grown so acute that he saw no other way to deal with them than with a secret sexual life.
We can say from stories like this that human metrics for leadership don’t always match God’s, and we need to be careful to assume such. Moses was often viewed as a failure in Israel’s eyes, but he never was in God’s economy. He did experience a failure that prohibited him from entering the land of promise, but He was never fired by the Lord, despite the peoples’ demands. Only death would sever Moses from his calling.
No matter how successful (or unsuccessful) your pastor may seem, I can guarantee that they face numerous days of discouragement, especially as they try to live up to their calling. Satan will not leave them alone. He will assault them at every turn, tempting them to give in, give up, and get out.
All of this reminds me of the need to encourage our pastors and leaders. Let your pastor know you’re praying for things like enduring faithfulness, a heart to seek the Father’s will, ears to heed His call, strengthened knees to keep standing firm, the courage to speak hard truths with soft words, a repentant heart, and a private life that matches a public witness.
Many of Moses’ peers missed what God was doing through him, and yet they were in the company of a legend. Maybe that’s where you are. Perhaps you’re in the company of someone who doesn’t always look the part, but who one day will hear the Savior say in the presence of many, “Well done.”
Don’t miss what God is doing through the faithful work of enduring shepherds.
Lance Ward is the Pastor of Congregational Care at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak.