“Next year, there will be empty chairs in this room.”
I remember hearing those words at a pastor’s conference in my 20s. The speaker was reminding us that leaders who are more gifted and better trained often crash and burn. I knew I didn’t want to be one of those—an empty chair.
Over the last few years, there have been moments when I was concerned I might be. Not because of moral failure (though I’m not beyond destroying my life in sin), but because of two pressures Moses confronts in Numbers 20: grief and grumbling. Every leader will face these. Some leaders will be sidelined by them.
After years of leading God’s people, Moses commits a grievous sin. As a result, he will not be going into the Promised Land. God’s people will go in, but Moses has to settle for a view of the land from the top of Mt. Pisgah (Deut. 34). Let’s look at these two pressures from Numbers 20, and consider how to faithfully avoid their derailment of pastoral ministry.
Moses loses his sister, Miriam (Num. 20:1). It’s dangerous to psychoanalyze biblical characters, but we can at least say that Moses faced a similar grief to others who lose family members. It’s substantial grief.If we don’t learn to grieve losses and lead grumbling people, we’re at risk of making ministry mistakes with dire consequences. Click To Tweet
But she’s not just his sister. Miriam has been an ally for him, leading the women to sing after their deliverance through the Red Sea in Exodus 15. And though they had conflict (Num. 12), Moses has never led God’s people without Miriam in his life. This is a significant loss. Moses is fully responsible for the choices that follow, but we must be aware of the effects of grief on his life and decisions.
Grumbling isn’t new for Moses. God’s people were barely through the Red Sea before they started complaining (Ex. 15). Though God provides in a miraculous way, the people continue to grumble and complain.
In Numbers 11, Moses tells God, “If this is what it’s going to be like to lead your people, just take my life” (paraphrase). The grumbling of God’s people grates on the soul of a leader. We don’t need to underestimate the cumulative damage of grumbling on a leader.
This takes us to Moses at the rock. Moses is grieving; the people are grumbling. So Moses prays (Num. 20:6). God tells him to take the staff, assemble the people, and speak to the rock to yield water. Moses obeys, but rather than simply speaking to the rock, Moses strikes it twice and says to the people, “Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?”
Effects of Grief and Grumbling
Certainly, Moses is disobedient in striking the rock, but more than that, why did he say “we”? When did Moses join God in bringing water from rocks? He didn’t trust God or uphold him as holy in the eyes of the people (Num. 20:12). Moses not only disobeyed God’s clear command, he robbed God of glory. And it cost him the Promised Land.
Moses is completely responsible for his sin, but we would be wise to notice the occasion for it. Grief and grumbling can dramatically affect the best of leaders. Leaders must learn to grieve losses. If we don’t, we’ll be prone to leadership mistakes that could be costly.Leaders need thick skin, tender hearts, and sober minds to lead through the grumbling that will come. Click To Tweet
Leaders must also learn to lead and love grumbling people. Every leader of God’s people in God’s Word dealt with grumbling people. Leaders need thick skin, tender hearts, and sober minds to lead through the grumbling that will come. We’ve got to be leaders who can listen to the grumble while loving the grumblers. If we don’t learn to grieve losses and lead grumbling people, we’re at risk of making ministry mistakes with dire consequences.
Because we know these times of grief and grumbling are coming, it’s wise to have a healthy rhythm so we’re in a healthy place. Here are four suggestions:
- Daily time with God – Time to read his Word and pray. Time to bring your heart before the Lord.
- Weekly Sabbath – Time to take a break. Turn off the phone. Entrust yourself and your ministry to God’s capable hands.
- Monthly day away – An extended time for you to pray, think, and process your life and ministry.
- Yearly prayer retreat – At least once a year, I take extended time away to pray, rest, and process what God is doing in my life. I love the unhurried time in God’s Word, to think about my calling, and to enjoy space to create as the Lord leads.
This preventative maintenance helps create emotional margin so that when times of grief and grumbling come, we are in a healthier place to deal and process. There are many things that can sideline leaders. I’ve seen far too many empty chairs. Grief and grumbling sidelined Moses. Don’t let them sideline you.