Back to the Burning Bush. (Leadership 101)

By Willimon, William H. | The Christian Century, April 24, 2002 | Go to article overview

Back to the Burning Bush. (Leadership 101)


Willimon, William H., The Christian Century


LEADERSHIP IS all the rage at universities these days. There are courses in microleadership and macroleadership, leadership skills and leadership techniques. There are professors of leadership (some of them calling to mind the old adage "Those who can, do, those who can't teach") and institutes of leadership.

Students generally flock to these courses. After all, who among us doesn't like to think of himself or herself as a potential leader? Most people hope that going to college will help them to be in charge of something some day. I know enough of "leadership studies" to realize that leaders are not necessarily born, but can be made. I know that there are such things as leadership skills, strategies and traits. Still, something in me resists "the science of leadership," and that something may have to do with my faith.

Some time ago I was asked to speak on the "Principles of Christian Leadership" at a pastors' school. I was flattered by the invitation, since it suggested that someone considered me a leaden I had to admit that I didn't know much about the subject, but when has that kept me from accepting a gig?

So I read up on the new literature on leadership. Some of the books present leadership as a science, some of them characterize leadership as an art or a craft, but all of them claim to present the keys to effective leadership. I particularly liked the nuanced, historically informed book by Ron Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers. That's certainly how I've experienced it--without easy answers.

Then, since I would be speaking to a group of pastors, I decided to check out the Bible. The first leader who came to mind was, of course, Moses. So I searched Exodus 3 for principles of biblical leadership. I came away from my reading with the conclusion that there's no such thing as the science or art of leadership in the Bible, at least not in Exodus. Nothing there resembles what people learn in "leadership studies."

Exodus 3 tells the story of Moses the murderer, minding his own business, or at least his father-in-law's sheep, in Midian. A bush bursts into flame, and a voice issues from it. Despite Moses' innate lack of curiosity, he condescends to take a look. The voice says "Moses, Moses," thus tipping us off that this is going to be a story of call, for in the Bible, nobody seems to get called just once. To get someone's attention, God always says his name at least twice: "Samuel, Samuel," or "Saul, Saul." The call is not self-evident.

YHWH does all the talking: "I have observed the misery of my people, I have heard their cry, I know their sufferings, I have come down to deliver...." The idea of deliverance is God's before it is anyone else's. All the initiative is with YHWH. But then comes a surprising turn: YHWH says, "I will send you."

It is odd that God needs someone, particularly someone as inept as Moses, to do the work. One might think that being God means having the ability to work solo. It is odd of God to pick Moses--something Moses realizes. In quick succession he lodges five objections. Moses isn't just being humble when he says that he isn't good at public speaking, theology or politics. He really doesn't have any of the skills required for liberating leadership. YHWH answers Moses' objections by promising to give him what he needs: "You shall not go empty-handed." YHWH will give Moses the words and deeds he needs to get Pharoah's attention. …

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