Moses’ father-in-law was astounded and said, “What you are doing is a really bad idea! You and everyone else are going to wear out! Being a leader of so many people is too difficult for one person. Here’s some adviceGod will bless you for obeying. Be the people’s representative and bring their disputes before God.You also need to teach them God’s word, showing them the way to behave.In order to make time for this, select capable people who fear God, are trustworthy, and who hate dishonest gain. Make them leaders over groups of various sizes. Have them decide most things, so that you only have to deal with hard problems. Then, your work load will be lighter, because others are sharing it. If you do this as God commands, you will be able to stand the strain of leadership, and everyone will be better off” (Exodus 18:17-23, Author’s Paraphrase).
Wisdom is essentially the practical ability to react to concrete situations in ways that enhance human life and the functioning of human societies. Leaders, in every area, need wisdom. Most of us don’t necessarily think of management and organization being an act of wisdom, but they are. A good leader understands his or her organization and how to structure it effectively. Many groups fail because of faulty organization.
Unfortunately, churches are not exempt from this truth. One of the jokes I hear at nearly every church leadership and church growth seminar I attend goes like this, “All over America there are thousands of churches organized to grow rapidly–if ever the year 1950 comes around again.” As a church leader, I have seen churches with complex, committee-heavy organizations that simply cannot adapt to the rapidly changing religious environment of our time. Worse, sometimes I think that I am one of those caught in an old paradigm of church leadership and organization.
The text for this blog is from Exodus Chapter 18. It concerns a visit Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, made to see him while Israel wandered in the wilderness. Perhaps to show his father-in-law how busy he was, Moses allowed Jethro, who himself was a tribal leader and a priest of God, to see him working day and night leading Israel. At this point, Moses was personally settling every dispute and making all decisions.
Moses was a prime candidate for burn out. He was the leader of a huge number of people wandering around the desert. Israel was the size of a fairly large city, certainly large by the standards of the ancient world. God had used Moses mightily in freeing his people from captivity. Moses stood up against Pharaoh, and against the Jews themselves, as he freed them from captivity. You can imagine that Moses was tired by the time the people crossed the Red Sea. Nevertheless, he kept on going. He worked Morning to night. He was the chief political leader of Israel, the chief judge of Israel, and the chief religious figure of Israel. By the time Jethro came to visit him, Moses was undoubtedly tired and near burn out. He needed to hear the words of Jethro, “What you are doing is not good” (v. 17). When I retranslated it, I almost translated the phrase, “What you are doing is completely crazy!”
Not long ago, I was driving around a strange city with another pastor, lost in a rainstorm, looking for a home neither of us had driven alone to before. It took a while to get our bearings. Leading into today’s environment, in business, in government, and in the church is a lot like driving in a strange city on a rainy, dark night.
During that long drive we talked about our churches and about the future of the American church. We talked about the endless books on leadership and the endless array of programs and possibilities among which pastors and church leaders must choose. Along the way, one of us made this comment, “The one thing we can know is that forming small groups will be the right decision no matter what else is right.”
In the army, the primary unit is what is called a “Squad.” a squad is about ten to thirteen people usually led by a non-commissioned officer. Squads are combined into platoons. Platoons are combined into companies. Companies are combined into battalions, and so on, until an army, however large, is created. The largest army is composed of these small groups of men and women led by young officers and enlisted men. These units determine the success and failure of the entire army. They are its fundamental unit of action.
About thirty years ago, churches, pastors, and church leaders recognized that vital churches are essentially made up of small groups usually between three and twelve people, who commit for a period of time to work together to become better disciples or perform some ministry.  This should be nothing new. Jesus mentored and discipled in small groups. He spent time with Peter, James and John, a small group of three, and he spent time with the Twelve. It was in these intimate, small group times that he revealed himself most powerfully to those who would lead the church when he was gone. From what we know of Paul, his ministry was primarily one of traveling with a small group of companions and entering cities and forming small groups of Christians in the places they visited. The early church was a church of rapidly multiplying small groups.
In reality, in order to grow as disciples, people need to be in close relationship with a small number of people with whom they can share their Christian walk and Christian struggles. People need to have friends with whom they can share life at a deep level. In my book, Path of Life, I share how this need begins to be met in healthy family life, then in other social relationships, including the church. In the end, our civilization will be rebuilt by small groups of Christians sharing their lives in light of God’s Word in Jesus in little communities of wisdom and mutual love.
In recent weeks, I have had the opportunity to think about what matters in ministry and in the church. There is a temptation for church leaders , myself included, to focus on visible accomplishments.. By that standard, Jesus was a failure. What he accomplished that changed the world was changing the lives of a few men, who would take his message to the ends of the earth. If Jesus could focus on a small group, is suspect so should we.
Jesus was wise enough to focus his energy and attention on a small number of people with whom he shared himself as much as shared information. Jesus did preach to crowds. He did spend time in larger groups. Nevertheless, Jesus focused his energy on a small group of disciples. If Jesus adopted this strategy to found the church, we should think carefully about spending a lot more of our time and energy on small groups.
Leaders have to make fundamental decisions about how to move a group of people into a better future. Some of these decisions are organizational in nature. In the church, the fundamental unit is the small group, whether we call it a Prayer Group, a Bible Study Group, a Mission Team, a Ministry Team, or whatever. A good church organization focuses first on these groups and how to make and keep them healthy. This is the first principle of wise organization.
 Jeff Arnold, The Big Book of Small Groups (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 1992, 1.
Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved