Leadership as Intercession Part 1: Key to Surviving and Thriving in Ministry
Editor’s Note: Every summer we offer a special eReflections series that offers the opportunity to reflect on some aspect of leadership that requires a bit more consideration and prayer. Since summer rhythms are often slower and more spacious for pastors and ministry leaders, we thought this would be the perfect time to encourage the practice of intercession as an essential leadership discipline. Enjoy!
“A major difficulty in sustaining one’s mission is that others who start out with the same enthusiasm will come to lose their nerve. Mutiny and sabotage come not from enemies who opposed the initial idea, but rather from colleagues whose will was sapped by unexpected hardships along the way.” –Edwin Friedman
A couple years ago, our family watched a season of the reality TV show Survivor because we were acquainted with one of the participants—former NFL quarterback Gary Hogeboom. Gary emerged early on as a leader on his team—probably because of his age, his experiences on the football field and his responsibilities as a father of five children. After the season was over, an interviewer asked how he felt about being recognized as a leader so early on and he responded, “I didn’t want to be the leader, because the leader always gets voted off the island!”
Most of us who have been in leadership for any length of time at all can resonate with this statement. I have seen and experienced things in leadership for which I still don’t have categories and may never this side of heaven—as I’m sure we all have. But one thing is sure: the choice to lead something, to orient your life toward some vision or ideal and to lead in that direction opens you to a world of challenge and pain that you might not otherwise have to face.
If It Wasn’t for the People
Gary’s comment is an apt description of what many of us experience in leadership and an uncanny description of what Moses experienced in leadership as well. It seems the children of Israel were always trying to vote him off the island even though he had sacrificed everything to lead them! They were a particularly difficult group of people to work with. They complained a lot. They were headstrong. Sometimes they lied and were in other ways deceitful. They were rebellious and fickle. They were ungrateful and seemed to have a very short memory regarding all that God (and Moses!) had done for them. At times they even maneuvered behind Moses’ back to oust him and appoint new leaders—one of the most painful things that can happen to a leader! Even his own brother and sister at one point questioned God’s anointing on his life, succumbing to an insidious jealousy that nearly cost them their lives.
The Scriptures describe in great detail Moses’ difficulties with the people he was leading and oddly enough, this is one of the things I find most helpful about Moses’ story. When people start to fix blame on the leader for all that is going wrong, the loneliness and disillusionment can be blinding. And yet this tendency to complain and blame the leader is one of the most predictable patterns we encounter in leadership. As a wise person once remarked, ministry would be great if it wasn’t for the people!
What is one to do with the people pains involved in leadership? How do we keep going when people turn against us and seek to undermine the very journey we have embarked upon together?
What’s Really Going On
One of the basic disciplines that characterized Moses’ life as a spiritual leader was his commitment to intercessory prayer; it seemed to be essential to his ability to persevere in ministry and find the wisdom he needed. But in order to carry the people into God’s presence with a pure heart and a real commitment to their well-being, he needed to understand what was really going on.
The late Edwin Friedman, in his work applying family systems theory to life in congregations, says that criticism of the leader (which is a form of sabotage) is so predictable that it should be viewed as part and parcel of the leadership process itself. “Self-differentiated leadership always triggers sabotage which is a systemic part of leadership—so much so that a leader can never assume success merely because he or she had brought about change. It is only after having first brought about change and then subsequently endured the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful. When the sabotage comes, this is the moment when the leader is most likely to experience a failure of nerve and seek a quick fix.”
This is exactly what happened to Moses. He had gotten the people out of Egypt—a huge and highly beneficial change; but after the initial excitement, patterns of criticism and sabotage kicked in almost immediately. The people complained and began to talk about turning back when they hit their very first challenge—the Red Sea (Exodus 14). Then they added insult to injury by reminiscing about being in the land of Egypt “when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” They accused Moses and Aaron of bringing them into the wilderness “to kill the whole assembly with hunger” (16:3).
Refusing to Play God
This pattern of complaining and blaming the leader repeated itself with utter predictability throughout their journey, and Moses dealt with it in a couple of different ways. First of all, he refrained from taking it all too personally and refused to accept responsibility for what was ultimately God’s responsibility.
Although Moses would not have had our modern-day jargon to discuss it, he seemed to have some understanding of the psychological process of projection—the way human beings unconsciously project their doubt and darkness onto someone else rather than taking responsibility for dealing with their own fear and anxiety. He might have also realized that people tend to project idealized expectations onto leaders—expectations that are often unspoken and held subconsciously—and then become angry when the leader does not meet those expectations.
But Moses refused to take on the weight of the Israelites’ expectations. He would not allow them to treat him as if he were God nor behave as though he were responsible for something he was not. When they tried to put him in that larger-than-life role, he stopped it immediately by saying, “What are we, that you complain against us? When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning . . . what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord” (Exodus 16:7-8). With one penetrating statement, Moses clarified the issue and shut down the projective process, insisting that they take it up with the One who was actually responsible.
This required real discipline, and I’m sure it was very hard to maintain at times, but the benefits were immeasurable. Not only did it relieve Moses of the burden of people’s projections—a weight too heavy for any of us to carry—but it also freed him up to do what was most needed in the moment, which was to enter into the work of intercession. Unencumbered by the weight of undue responsibility, he was free to carry the people into God’s presence and intercede on their behalf.
The Work of Intercession
One of the most consistent patterns of Moses’ life in leadership is the regularity with which he prayed for the people he was leading and sought God’s guidance for situations involving them. Rather than getting caught up in defending himself or arguing a point, he used his energy to carry the people into the presence of God, to cry out on their behalf and to listen to God for their next steps. Over and over again the pattern was very consistent: “The people complained . . . and Moses cried out to the Lord.”
At Marah, when the people complained that they could not drink the water because it was bitter, Moses “cried out to the Lord” on their behalf (Exodus 15:23-25).
When they quarreled with Moses and with God at Rephidim, “Moses cried out to the Lord,” asking God what to do (Exodus 17:3-4). Rather than lashing out at them or getting hooked into trying to prove himself to them, he battled it out in private with God.
When the people sinned by worshiping the golden calf, Moses’ intercession saved them from being completely annihilated by God’s anger. “Moses implored the Lord. . . . And the Lord changed his mind” (Exodus 32:11, 14). Moses laid his life on the line and identified with the people completely as he interceded for them, saying, “If you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book you have written” (Exodus 32:32).
When the people complained against God in the desert and the fire of the Lord burned against them, “Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire abated” (Numbers 11:2).
When Miriam was afflicted with leprosy because she and Aaron had become jealous and challenged Moses’ authority, “Moses cried to the Lord, ‘O God, please heal her’” (Numbers 12:13).
When the people refused to believe God and enter boldly into the Promised Land, they threatened to displace Moses and Aaron and appoint new leaders, and God’s anger burned against them. And once again, Moses interceded for the people, reminding God of his character and his covenant.: “Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love,” he prayed (Numbers 14:19).
When Korah led a revolt against Moses and the whole congregation assembled against him, which brought about a punishing plague, Moses and Aaron carried incense into the middle of the congregation to make atonement for them (Numbers 16:46-47). Moses literally stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped (Numbers 16:48).
When God sent fiery serpents among the people because they had become impatient and spoke against God and Moses, Moses prayed for the people, and God instructed him to make an image of a serpent and set it on a pole so that everyone who had been bitten could look at it and live (Numbers 21:9).
Intercession on the Front Lines
Perhaps the story from Moses’ life that most fully captures the significance of intercessory prayer as one of the basic functions of spiritual leadership is the battle with Amalek in Exodus 17. It is a picture that is worth a thousand words. Moses was usually the front-line person when it came to the challenges that faced the Israelites on the journey and he was no wimp; however, in this case somehow he sensed that his most important role in this particular battle was to stand on the top of a hill and intercede for the Israelite army.
He appointed Joshua as general for this battle. “I will stand on the top of the hill,” he promised, “with the staff of God in my hand”—a symbol of God’s empowering presence and his reliance on God in his leadership. (Exodus 17:9) And we all know the story—whenever Moses held up his hands, Israel prevailed and whenever he lowered his hands, Amalek prevailed.
The work of interceding—standing in the presence of God on behalf of others—was so real and so taxing that Moses’ hands grew weary. But he knew better than to engage in this ministry alone. He had brought with him Aaron and Hur (who, by the way, was the son of Caleb), two of his most trusted colleagues. They took a stone and put it under Moses to support him physically. Then they stood on each side of Moses and supported him with their presence, holding up his hands to keep them steady until the sun set.
The battle was literally won on the basis of Moses’ ability to remain in a stance of intercessory prayer on behalf of those God had given him to lead!
Leading on the Edge
Being this reliant on God for the actual outcome of things is a very edgy way to lead. We are much more accustomed to relying partly on God and partly on our own plans if the issues at hand are really important. “If you want to get the job done right, you better do it yourself!” is a sentiment that we apply not only to people but to God himself. It is always good to have a back-up plan if the life of faith doesn’t come through, we rationalize.
Thomas Merton provides a challenging perspective that encourages us to walk right out to the edge of faith at key moments in our own lives in leadership. “Cowardice keeps us double minded—hesitating between the world and God. In this hesitation, there is no true faith—faith remains an opinion. We are never certain, because we never quite give in to the authority of an invisible God. This hesitation is the death of hope. We never let go of those visible supports which, we well know, must one day surely fail us. And this hesitation makes true prayer impossible—it never quite dares to ask for anything, or if it asks, it is so uncertain of being heard that in the very act of asking, it surreptitiously seeks by human prudence to construct a make-shift answer.”
And so we might ask: What is the use of praying if, at the very moment of prayer, we have so little confidence in God that we are busy planning our own kind of answer to our prayer? It’s something to think about.
©Ruth Haley Barton. 2014. Adapted from Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry (InterVarsity, 2008). Not to be reproduced without permission.
Ruth Haley Barton (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder of the Transforming Center. A teacher, spiritual director, and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, and Longing for More.
How do you experience intercession as a significant aspect of your leadership? Or do you?