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Evangelical Leadership Culture and The Jethro Principle: Lamenting Moses Model Church Leadership and Christian Consumerism

Seth Dunn

Overlaying the Jethro Principle

For those who believe in the inerrancy of scripture, the essential questions of Christian theology were settled long ago by the church fathers and their answers reiterated by the reformers. Except for the finer points of eschatology and soteriology, evangelical theologians have all but settled upon a systematic theology of Christianity. For those in the publishing business, this poses a peculiar conundrum. There is nothing new under the sun about which to write, but books must be printed to keep the presses, academic and popular, in business. This is perhaps why the top-selling Christian books of 2014 included superficially biblical titles about dieting, money-management, relationships, signals of the end-times, heaven tourism (montanist), devotional reflection, prosperity-gospel motivation, and Christian celebrities.[1] One of the top-selling books of 2014 was I am a Church Member by Christian leadership guru Thom Rainer. Church Leadership has become a very popular subject in Christian circles. Since the theological question of what the church is is long-settled, some authors have taken to writing about the contemporary question of how the church should be administered and marketed; they search the scriptures to support their findings. In so doing these authors run the risk of advocating for “scriptural” leadership principals that aren’t really prescribed in the bible. The “Jethro Principle,” purportedly gleaned from the book of Exodus, is one such principle. Christian leadership teacher Robert Welch has identified and written-about common-sense business management principles regularly taught in secular business schools,[2] which are potentially helpful in administering churches, and overlaid an eisigetical biblical foundation over top of them. While these business principles are good, useful common grace insights and sometimes proper to use in a church context, they are not scriptural and should not be considered as such.

The book of Exodus is a historical narrative that “recounts the formative event in Israel’s history, ‘the departure from Egypt…” The book centers on two crucial divine acts in Israel’s history; God mightily delivered his people from slavery in Egypt (1:1-18:26), and he entered into covenant with them at Mt. Sinai (19:1-40:38).”[3] Within the eighteenth chapter of this powerful and dramatic account of God’s power and providence, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro advises him to appoint judges to help administer the nation of Israel’s large population lest he wear himself out trying to do so all on his own. It is within this chapter of Exodus that Robert Welch purports to have identified “A Biblical Foundation for Organization.”[4] Welch is mistaken. Lasor, Hubbard, and Bush made no mention of a mini-leadership academy put on by Jethro for the former prince of Egypt, Moses, in their comprehensive book Old Testament Survey: The Message Form, and Background of the Old Testament. In considering the implications of Exodus 18, venerated biblical commentator Matthew Henry wrote, “We have reason to value government as a very great mercy, and to thank God for laws and magistrates, so that we are not like the fishes of the sea, where the greater devour the less.”[5] Henry made no mention of management principles in his commentary. His assessment is very good in that the immediate audience of the book of Exodus, the ancient Israelites, could look back upon their own history and understand the way in which they came to be governed.

Robert Welch has claimed something more for this biblical text, however. In Church Administration: Creating Efficiency for Effective Ministry, Welch presents Exodus Chapter 18 as illustrating a “Moses Model”[6] of leadership. Paraphrasing the text, Welch put the following words in the mouth of Jethro, “You’re crazy! If you keep this up you are going to experience burnout in ministry. What will become of my daughter if you go over the deep end? But worse yet, what will become of the people?”[7] Chuck Smith, pastor and founder of Calvary Chapel, similarly paraphrased Jethro in his commentary in Exodus 18 as follows, “Hey Moses, hey you’re gonna kill yourself, man, trying to keep up that heavy schedule. You can’t do it. So it isn’t right that you just wear yourself out in doing it. So you need to get other men to help you with this thing.”[8] Both Welch and Smith transform Jethro from an ancient Midianite priest giving advice to his son-in-law to a modern management consultant rapping with a client in a hip vernacular as he presents his “Jethro Principle” of leadership. To do so stretches the historical narrative of Exodus beyond its exegetical limits. There simply is no prescribed Jethro Principle in scripture. Sam Storms communicated the matter well in his article The “Moses Model” – A Recipe for Disaster, writing that those who advocate the Moses Model “ground their authority in an unbiblical appeal to the example of OT figures.”[9] Storms rightly concluded that the structures and spiritual authority operative in the Old Covenant aren’t necessarily applied to life of the church in the New Covenant. This doesn’t mean that such structures are not useful and worthy of consideration. Even where common-sense management principles are eisegesed, they can be useful. There are eight key concepts of the Jethro-principled “Moses Model” which deserve the consideration, the careful consideration, of those in church leadership:

  1. One individual cannot do the work of ministry alone
  2. It will lead to burnout – of the leader and the people
  3. The leader is to do the primary task – represent to God, instruct and teach, etc.
  4. The leader is to select qualified persons to assist him
  5. The leader is to delegate to those individuals portions of the task
  6. These subordinates report back to the leader
  7. The load will be lightened; the leader will endure
  8. The people will be satisfied participants

#1 – Going It Alone

It’s hard to imagine a CEO running a company all by himself, working noon and night everywhere from the factory floor to the penthouse boardroom. It just can’t be done. Similarly, Moses could not reasonably be expected to judge every contentious situation that arose around among millions of sojourning Israelites. His father-in-law’s advice to appoint judges to help do so was good. Moses was smart to take it. A pastor who tries to take care of every facet of church business by his lonesome is almost certainly doomed to failure. A pastor who is surrounded by a plurality of elders and servant-hearted deacons will find that many hands make light work. However, it should be noted that the offices of CEO, Prophet, and Pastor are very different. Though each is a leadership office, what works for one may not work for or be appropriate for another. Moses was not a CEO and neither was he pastor. The “Moses Model” seems to justify the existence of the highly-compensated mega-church CEO-model pastor who has no time to personally shepherd each member of his flock because there are far too many of them for him to do so. The local church and the million-strong[10] Old-Covenant ancient political nation of Israel are simply not comparable on an apples to apples basis. The best possible comparison to a Moses Model pastor of millions is the Pope of Rome, who no evangelical pastor should seek to emulate. When a pastor becomes a “Moses” he gains his own cult of personality. While such a cult is workable for for-profit companies such as Apple and its visionary founder, Steve Jobs. All too often a vision-casting pastor becomes as venerated as Moses when the only personality cult a church should subscribe to is that of Jesus Christ. It’s His church.

#2 – Flaming Out

Ministry “burnout” was not an extant concept during the time of Moses. Neither was the local church or seminary. It’s true that “between one-third and one-half of a seminary’s graduates are not in church ministerial leadership positions a decade after graduation.”[11] However, this statistic is completely irrelevant to the life of Moses, who was called by God out of the burning bush. Moses’ call is indubitable since it is recorded in Holy Scripture. The “calling” of individual seminary students is not a matter of biblical revelation but their own personal claims. The droves of seminary graduates who do not last in vocational ministry may have just made poor career choices and gotten a professional degree not suited to themselves. 73% of protestant pastors work more than 50 hours a week.[12] Such grueling workweeks are similar to the ones worked in other high-burnout professions such as law and accountancy.[13] In an article posted at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants website entitled The Key to Avoiding Career Burnout, Ron Rael, a CPA and “leadership consultant”[14] recommended that CPAs combat burnout by “developing a personal mission statement.”[15] This is the same advice given by church leadership consultant Aubrey Malphurs in Chapter 8 of his book, Being Leaders: The Nature of Authentic Christian Leadership. In The Key to Avoiding Career Burnout Rael cites career burnout causes that are very similar to the ministry burnout causes cited by Robert Welch in his book. There is simply no “Jethro Principal” for how to avoid burnout. Burnout is just a potential pitfall of any stressful career. Though the idea of ministry burnout was unheard of in Moses day, people did know what it was like to get tired. Moses was no exception. He needed Aaron and Hur to hold up his arms while the Israelites battled Amalek[16] because his arms were tired. Moses needed to appoint judges over the people to keep from wearing out both himself and the people awaiting his decisions. Pastors don’t need examples from historical narrative to tell them not to try and do everything themselves. Common grace provides that common sense insight. Rael’s advice rings just as true as that of Welch and Malphurs without an artificial scriptural overlay.

#3 – Preaching and Teaching

Moses is not a type of pastor; Moses is a type of Christ. In the New Testament church, Jesus has replaced Old Testament figures such as Moses as the mediator between God and man.[17] The Jethro Principal idea that pastors somehow represent God before the people is a faulty one. Each member of the New Testament church is a member of the priesthood of all believers and is in relationship with God Himself through Jesus. A pastor does, like Moses, have a responsibility to preach and teach. Being two thousand years removed from the writing of the last book of scripture, pastors need significant study time to determine how to communicate timeless truths recorded in ancient languages to contemporary people. In his day, Moses talked to God to God “face-to-face”[18]; pastors have God’s word in old, written scriptures and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Reading the Bible is not exactly a face-to-face conversation and communicating it requires intense study. Without day-to-day shepherding assistance from fellow elders, a teaching pastor may not be able to adequately present an understandable sermon each Sunday.

#4 – Looking for Help

There are clear scriptural qualifications for the offices of elder and deacon. No church should appoint individuals to these offices who do not meet those qualifications. This is not a requirement gleaned from any secular management school and it’s certainly not a Jethro Principle. It is a requirement plainly stated in Paul’s Pastoral Epistles. The Pastoral Epistles do not speak to the hiring of janitors and secretaries (W-2 employees). Neither does Exodus 18. In Exodus 18, Moses is essentially appointing officials in the Israelite civil government. This scripture simply does not apply to hiring paid church staff nor does it imply that such hires should be made at all. If church leaders do choose to hire paid staff, they should use the same caution and business sense that secular business use. Furthermore, they should stop and ask themselves the questions, “Are we employing hirelings like a secular business would do? If so, Why?”

#5 – Sharing the Load

The larger a secular business organization becomes the more employees and more departments it needs to run: finance, operations, warehousing, shipping, legal, human resources, and administration. Additional executives, middle managers, and shop-floor managers are needed to help operate these departments and carry out their business functions. In the realm of secular business, no one would ever call such leaders “commanders of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.”[19] Even to many Christian businessmen, doing so would seem completely absurd. Hiring such managers is simply how business…not church…is done. To be certain such managers should, like Moses’ judges, be trustworthy men who abhor corruption. Crooked managers are bad for the bottom-line. As churches grow (perhaps into megachurches), more and more middle-managers are needed. However, it sounds tacky at best to call church leaders “middle-managers.” Thus, they become ministers of certain age groups and operations functions. Under the “Moses Model” this is biblical. On any other model, it’s simply business as usual.

#6 – Supervision

Advocates of the Jethro Principle believe that it demonstrates by biblical example that subordinates should report to their supervisors. This is perhaps the biggest strain on credulity foisted by the Jethro Principle upon those who study church administration. Even before Exodus 18, Joseph reported to Pharaoh, his jailer, Potipher, and his father. His doing so doesn’t seem out of place to the biblical reader because that’s just what subordinates do…they report to their leaders. The idea that Exodus 18 somehow draws this out for the church to see is ridiculous. Of course subordinates, in any organization, should report to their leaders. The better the relationship between subordinates and their leaders, the more efficient and effective their organizations will be. Supervisors, whether they are shop-floor managers or sergeants, should be trained to manage people respectfully. Church employment, paid or volunteered, is no exception. No one needs Exodus 18 to understand this. It doesn’t teach this.

#7 Enduring in Ministry

Some leaders will burn out no matter what their job is. Leaders with a great support staff are less likely to burn out. This is true of anyone from a football coach to a construction foreman. If a top leader, such as a CEO, has a great supporting team from top-to-bottom, his company is bound to be successful. Pastors are not CEOs. Pastors are also not Old Testament prophets. Moses endured because it was simply the will of God that he do so. He was called for a specific task by God and God’s plans do not fail. It may be the case that a given pastor endures in ministry because it is God’s will for his life. Endurance in the ministry is not a matter the financial bottom line, a support staff, or an organizational chart. It is a matter of prayer and spiritual strength and the sweet and gentle mercy of a loving and forgiving God. It’s not a Jethro Principle matter at all.

#8 Satisfied Sheep

It’s a commonly accepted tenet of business that it’s cheaper to retain an existing customer than to win a new one. There is a great danger of in the ministry of looking at church attendees as not served sheep but satisfied customers. In November of 2014, Thom Rainer wrote a blog post about the “Top 10 Ways to Drive Away” First Time Guests. In his post, Rainer listed reasons why someone might visit a church once but never again. Many of the reasons were the same reasons someone might not go back to a restaurant or tourist attraction after an unsatisfactory visit. People don’t like to wait in long lines at the DMV, the theme park, or to be judged by a prophet. Churches need to do a gut check when engaging in Jethro-Principle-style delegation. Are they doing so to meet ministry needs or are they doing so to keep people from going to church somewhere else. Hungry people are going to out to eat somewhere; saved people are going to go church somewhere. Pastors should concern themselves with being available to their sheep themselves, not concerned simply with making someone available. If a church is as big an Old Testament Israel so that a few elders can’t handle everyone’s needs, maybe it’s just too big.

A Personal Perspective

Before I enrolled in seminary, I completed two business degrees at secular public universities. I’ve worked in the business world as an accountant for almost 10 years. I’ve had plenty of leadership training during my time in school and time at work. The only difference between what I’ve been presented with in that training and what I’ve been presented with studying leadership in seminary is a facade of scripture. Otherwise, it’s no different. I think it should be. Christian leaders err when they pretend that there are scriptural Jethro Principles of leadership in the bible that just happen to look like common-grace business ideas from the for-profit, government, or military world. It’s said that Alexander the Great wept when there were no more world’s left for him to conquer. Perhaps the academic theologian wept when he saw that Augustine, Athanasius, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley had already written all the theology left to write. Christian orthodoxy was pretty much figured out except for two pedals on a tulip and millennium that may or may not have come. Drying his tears, the academic theologian decided he could write on biblical leadership…and it came out looking a lot like John Bisagno’s recommendation to make the church look like Starbucks and Disney World.

Secular business ideas work; they are good….but they are not scripture and they are not meant for a profit-disinterested church. I see no difference between the Ron Rael’s of the world and the Aubrey Malphur’s of the church. Why does the church need a management consultant? Didn’t God give it a Bible and His Holy Spirit? Career ministers who have never worked in the secular world or been educated at a secular college may think they are receiving some unique Christian insight when studying Jethro-Principal-type material. They are not. I understand that it is the responsibility of a seminary to prepare pastors to work in churches. I understand that modern churches are becoming more and more corporate as they struggle over attracting a dwindling attendance base. Teaching leadership is a good thing. Yet, somehow my most frustrating experience as a seminary student has been studying secular leadership and profit-making principles subtly disguised as biblical wisdom. It shouldn’t be this way. I love God and I love His word. It’s so much greater than the wisdom of this world. I’ve been blessed beyond measure to be able to study God’s word with fine brothers in seminary. Christians should respect God’s word and be honest enough to not teach secular leadership, no matter how useful it seems and how good it sells, and say it comes from God’s Holy Word in Exodus 18. It does not.

[Contributed by Seth Dunn]

*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.


Christian Book Expo. “Christian Bestsellers, Best of 2014.” 2015. (accessed March 10, 2015).

Henry, Matthew. “Matthew Henry :: Commentary on Exodus 18.” Blue Letter Bible. (accessed March 9, 2015).

High Road Institute. “About Ron.” (accessed March 10, 2015).

Holdridge, Bill. “The Real Moses Model.” 2015. (accessed March 9, 2015).

LaSor, William Sanford and David Allan Hubbard and Frederic Wm. Bush. Old Testament Survey: The Message Background and Form of the Old Testmament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Rael, Ron. “The key to avoiding career burnout.” September 18, 2014. (accessed March 10, 2015).

Smith, Chuck. “Chuck Smith :: C2000 Series on Exodus 16-18.” Blue Letter Bible. (accessed March 9, 2015).

Storms, Sam. “The “Moses Model” – A Recipe for Disaster.” July 14, 2014. (accessed March 9, 2015).

Welch, Robert. Church Administration: Creating Efficiency for Effective Ministry. Kindle Edition. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2011.

Wikipedia contributors. “Chuck Smith (pastor).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. February 20, 2015. (accessed March 9, 2015).

[1] Christian Book Expo. “Christian Bestsellers, Best of 2014.” 2015. (accessed March 10, 2015).

[2] Welch has written about about Drucker and Taylor, both of whom I studied while earning my undergraduate business degree.

[3] LaSor, William Sanford and David Allan Hubbard and Frederic Wm. Bush. Old Testament Survey: The Message Background and Form of the Old Testmament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996, p.63-65.

[4] Welch, Robert. Church Administration: Creating Efficiency for Effective Ministry. Kindle Edition. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2011, p. 1

[5] Henry, Matthew. “Matthew Henry :: Commentary on Exodus 18.” Blue Letter Bible.

[6] Welch does not use the term “Moses Model” in his book but this somewhat popular term accurately described what he presents.

[7] Welch, Robert. Church Administration: Creating Efficiency for Effective Ministry. Kindle Edition. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2011, p. 1

[8] Smith, Chuck. “Chuck Smith :: C2000 Series on Exodus 16-18.” Blue Letter Bible.

[9] Storms, Sam. “The “Moses Model” – A Recipe for Disaster.” July 14, 2014. (accessed March 9, 2015).

[10] Fighting men alone were 603,550 according to Number 1:46

[11] Welch, Robert. Church Administration: Creating Efficiency for Effective Ministry. Kindle Edition. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2011, location 80 of 10184

[12] Ibid 165 of 10184

[13] I am an accountant. I have personally witnessed and experienced high turnover and burnout in the public accounting profession from working long hours.

[14] High Road Institute. “About Ron.”

[15] Rael, Ron. “The key to avoiding career burnout.” September 18, 2014. (accessed March 10, 2015).

[16] Exodus 17

[17] Hebrews 9:15

[18] Exodus 33:11

[19] Exodus 18:21