Exodus 18: Lessons on Avoiding Burnout in Your Ministries For God

Introduction. After you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, He wants you to make your life a “living sacrifice” for Him (Ro. 12:1). This is a life-long pursuit, not a one-time event. Paul compares it to running a marathon: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.” (1 Cor. 9:24). “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:14). Sitting out the race is a waste of your God-given talents. There is no role in the race or in the “body” of Christ labeled “spectator.” If you have not started, begin your race for God.

If you have started your race by serving Christ, Exodus 18 uses an account between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro to give you seven lessons to avoid spiritual burnout. First, to avoid burnout, make your family your first ministry. Moses made the mistake in assuming that he had to send his family away to be a leader for God. Second, to avoid burnout, give Jesus the credit for all your victories. Moses did not bear the weight of the nation’s victories or problems because he gave all credit to God. Third, to avoid burnout, don’t be a lone ranger for Jesus. Moses made the mistake in believing that he alone had to judge the nation’s disputes. Fourth, to avoid burnout, listen for God’s counsel from multiple sources. God reveals in this account that He can even speak to us through non-believers. Fifth, to avoid burnout, select Spirit-led believers to help you. Moses selected God-fearing men to help him. Sixth, to avoid burnout, delegate to other Spirit-led believers. After selecting Spirit-led men, Moses then delegated the responsibility for judging various disputes within the nation to these men. Finally, to avoid burnout, be a doer of God’s Word. Moses showed that he followed God’s advice.

1. To Avoid Burnout, Make Your Family Your First Ministry. Ex. 18:1-5.

  • Moses’ decision to send his family to a pagan land. At some point during his journey, Moses sent his family to stay with his father-in-law Jethro, a pagan priest who lived in the land of Midian: “Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Moses’ wife Zipporah, after he had sent her away, and her two sons, of whom one was named Gershom, for Moses said, ‘I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.’ The other was named Eliezer, for he said, ‘The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.’ Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moses in the wilderness where he was camped, at the mount of God. He sent word to Moses, ‘I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons with her.’ Then Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare and went into the tent.” (Ex. 18:1-5). Bible scholars are split on how to interpret this passage. Those with rose colored glasses assume that Moses merely used his family to summon Jethro when they were in his vicinity. Yet, this ignores the plain text in this passage. In reference to his wife Zipporah, Moses is clear that he “sent her away.” (Ex. 18:2). Moreover, he sent his two sons away. Furthermore, the point of the story in this chapter is that Moses was overwhelmed in his official duties until Jethro set him straight. Thus, the more likely interpretation is that Moses sent his family to be with Jethro because he felt that he could not care for them. Jethro immediately returned with the wife and children because he had no intention of caring for them and raising Moses’ sons. Moses’ mistake was assuming that his pious duties to the nation required that he give up his family. Are you letting work cause you to neglect your family? Are you carving out time each week to spend with them?

Moses (played by Charlton Heston) and Jethro (The Ten Commandments)1

  • Your family is your first ministry. The Bible warns that a person who fails to provide for his family is worse than a non-believer: “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Tim. 5:8). According to Jewish tradition, a man who fails to provide for his children is to be rebuked in front of the entire congregation: “as a man is bound to provide for his wife, so he is bound to provide for his sons and daughters, the little ones, until they are six years old; and from thenceforward he gives them food till they are grown up, according to the order of the wise men; if he will not, they reprove him, and make him ashamed, and oblige him; yea, if he will not, they publish him in the congregation, and say such a one is cruel, and will not provide for his children; and lo, he is worse than an unclean fowl, which feeds her young.” (Maimon. Hilchot Ishot, c. 12. sect. 14). The obligation to provide for one’s children is not just physical, it is also spiritual. One of a parent’s most important duties is to raise a child according to God’s Word: “You shall teach them [God’s Commandments] to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up.” (Dt. 11:19; 4:9-10; 6:7; Prov. 22:6; Eph. 6:4). At first impression, it might have appeared fine for Moses to send his wife and two children to his father-in-law, Jethro. The Medianites were also descendants of Abraham through Keturah (Gen 25:2). Yet, unlike the Jews, they worshiped pagan gods. Moreover, Jethro was a priest of Midian (Ex. 18:1). Until Moses converted him, Jethro would have led the Midianites (and presumably his wife and children) in prayer rituals to pagan gods. Possibly to note the irony of the situation, the Bible tells us that Moses named his first son “Gershom” for Moses said, “‘I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.’” (Ex. 18:3). He was trying to subject his son to the exact same fate. Moses’ second son was named “Eliezer.” Moses picked this name because “‘The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.’” (Ex. 18:4). His name was in reference to Moses’ first escape from Egypt. If Moses had succeeded, both boys might have been placed back into the bondage worshiping a foreign god. God prevented this from happening by directing Jethro to send the family back to Moses. Even though Moses knew that God had delivered the Jews from Pharaoh and the Amalekites and had provided for them in the wilderness, he lacked the faith to believe that God would give him the ability to both lead his family and the nation at the same time. There are many children of pastors who grow up feeling bitter or because they feel their father was never there for them. Likewise, many children who feel emotionally abandoned by workaholic parents frequently engage in self-destructive or immoral conduct in an effort to feel a sense of belonging, importance, and attention. The lesson is that no ministry or job should cause you to sacrifice or ignore your family.

  • Your family is a blessing that will help prevent you from feeling spiritual burnout. The Bible is also clear that your spouse and your children are blessings from God. God gave Adam his wife Eve after he realized that he was lonely on his own. She was both his companion and his helper (Gen. 2:18-23; 1 Cor. 11:8). Likewise, God calls children “gifts” from Him (Ps. 127:3). Part of your Sabbath (which can be any day of the week) should include time with your family. Through your family and time spent with the Lord, God will restore you and bless you. In other words, your family will help to prevent spiritual burnout.

2. To Avoid Burnout, Give Christ the Credit for All Your Victories. Ex. 18:8-12.

  • Moses’ testimony of praise for God’s victories. After receiving Jethro, Moses praised God for all of their miraculous victories and provision in the wilderness. Moses’ testimony was powerful enough to cause Jethro, a pagan priest from Median, to accept Yehovah as greater than any of his gods: “Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had befallen them on the journey, and how the Lord had delivered them. Jethro rejoiced over all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, in delivering them from the hand of the Egyptians. 10 So Jethro said, ‘Blessed be the Lord who delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from: under the hand of the Egyptians. 11 Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods; indeed, it was proven when they dealt proudly against the people.’ 12 Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law before God.” (Ex. 18:8-12). Moses was able to bear the weight of the nation’s trials by giving them over to God. When God led them into either a battle or the wilderness, Moses gave that burden to God: “I will extol You, O LORD, for You have lifted me up, and have not let my enemies rejoice over me. O LORD my God, I cried to You for help, and You healed me. O LORD, You have brought up my soul from Sheol; You have kept me alive, that I would not go down to the pit. Sing praise to the LORD, you His godly ones, and give thanks to His holy name.” (Ps. 30:1-4). Conversely, he also gave God the credit for their victories. “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31). Are you giving God the credit for your victories?

“Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God” (Ex. 18:12)2

  • Share your testimony. Like Moses, God also wants you to be a witness to others: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” (Matt. 28:19). “And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.’” (Mk. 16:15; Acts 1:8). God does not want you to be ashamed of the Gospel. (Ro. 1:16). Are you sharing the Gospel with others?

  • Let your good reputation precede you. Long before Moses shared his testimony with Jethro, the soil for him to receive the message was made fertile from the news that Jethro had received of Moses’ character (Ex. 18:1). “A good name is to be more desired than great wealth, favor is better than silver and gold.” (Prov. 22:1). “A good name is better than a good ointment, and the day of one's death is better than the day of one’s birth.” (Ecc. 7:1). You are an “ambassador” for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). A bad reputation can cause others to ignore your testimony or, even worse, cause others to reject Christ in their lives. Will your lifestyle and reputation create a stumbling block for others when you share God’s Word?

3. To Avoid Burnout, Don’t Be a Lone Ranger for Christ. Ex. 18:13-18.

  • God’s rebuke through Jethro of Moses’ leadership structure. After Jethro praised God for the Jews’ victories, God used Jethro to rebuke Moses for attempting to resolve all of the people’s disputes on his own: “13 It came about the next day that Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening. 14 Now when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, ‘What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge and all the people stand about you from morning until evening?’ 15 Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16 When they have a dispute, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor and make known the statutes of God and His laws.’ 17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘The thing that you are doing is not good. 18 You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (Ex. 18:13-18). Almost 40 years later, Moses admitted that he was suffering burnout acting as a leader for the nation: “I spoke to you at that time, saying, I am not able to bear the burden of you alone. The LORD your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are this day like the stars of heaven in number. May the LORD, the God of your fathers, increase you a thousand-fold more than you are and bless you, just as He has promised you! How can I alone bear the load and burden of you and your strife?” (Dt. 1:9-12). Even the lone ranger never really acted alone. He always had help from his partner Tonto. If you try to do everything on your own, you will burn out as well.

God used Jethro to rebuke Moses for failing to delegate responsibility to others3

  • Don’t forsake the fellowship. God says that believers should always act with one accord with others and never alone: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42). “Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart,” (Acts 2:46). “[N]ot forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” (Heb. 10:25). Attending church does not automatically mean that you are in fellowship with other believers. It is easy to float in and out of church without being accountable and in fellowship with others. Are you connected with a small group of believers who can uplift you, restore you, and pray for you?

4. To Avoid Burnout, Listen for God’s Counsel From Multiple Sources. Ex. 18:19-20.

  • God’s advice for Moses through Jethro. Through Jethro, God advised Moses that He would give him counsel. This counsel included having a specific role of teaching God’s statutes, not mediating each and every dispute within the nation: “19 Now listen to me: I will give you counsel, and God be with you. You be the people’s representative before God, and you bring the disputes to God, 20 then teach them the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they are to walk and the work they are to do.” (Ex. 18:19-20). Jethro was not a Jew, and he presumably had no business offering advice. But God used him to convey His advice. The message is that a leader or pastor cannot judge the advice based upon the pedigree of the person giving the advice. God can use a beggar, a poor person, or even a non-believer to send you a message. Are you listening for direction from the Holy Spirit from people who are unattractive, poor, and even non-believers?

Through Jethro, God showed Moses the proper way to delegate to others4

  • Test all things. Once you receive a message, you must test it to make sure that it does not conflict with Scripture or the Lord’s intentions for you: “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good;” (1 Thess. 5:21). “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 Jo. 4:1). This is what the Berean Jews did. After Paul and Silas connected Jesus to the Old Testament, they examined “the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11). In nearly every aspect of life from parenting, dating, marriage, to managing your money, experts are constantly trying to give you advice. Yet, it is not always Biblical. Are you testing the advice you receive against God’s Word?

  • Be a Jethro for someone else. Another important lesson from this account is the need for every leader to receive sound Biblical advice from others. Helping others is a sign of God’s love inside you: “Give instruction to a wise man and he will be still wiser, teach a righteous man and he will increase his learning.” (Prov. 9:9). “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Prov. 27:17). Are you mentoring someone in their walk by helping to instruct and build them up? If you feel you have nothing to offer, are you offering your prayers? “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men,” (1 Tim. 2:1).

  • Find a Jethro for yourself. In addition to listening to messages from brief encounters with people, God wants you to be looking for people to advise you who will build you up in your walk with Him. Being a “know it all” stems from the sin of pride: “A wise man will hear and increase in learning, and a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel,” (Prov. 1:5). “You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Pet. 5:5). Are you looking for someone to mentor you?

5. To Avoid Burnout, Select Spirit-Led Believers to Help You. Ex. 18:21.

  • God’s direction for Moses to select God-fearing believers. Also through Jethro, God advised Moses to select God-fearing men who loved the truth and hated dishonest gain: “21 Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens.” (Ex. 18:21). In the New Testament, such a leader is referred to as either being full of the Spirit or Spirit-led: “Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.” (Acts 6:3). God also wants you to seek the help of others as you serve Him. Are you looking for help from Spirit-led people to help you be a leader for God?

  • The laying hands upon a future leader should never be done in haste. Although selecting other leaders to help run a ministry or organization is critical to success, great harm can come to an organization or ministry that selects a leader who is not ready or qualified. The leadership selection process is not concluded until a senior leader publicly laid hands on the new leader (Nu. 27:19). This symbolized the transfer of authority (Lev. 1:4). Yet, Paul warns: “do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.” (1 Tim. 5:22). The Bible provides several tests to make sure a leader is ready to lead. First, as quoted above, the person must be an honest God-fearing and Spirit-led person (Ex. 18:21; Acts 6:3). Second, a person must be content (1 Tim. 6:6-9). Third, the person must be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach.” (1 Tim. 3:2). Fourth, the person also must not be “addicted to wine or be pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.” (1 Tim. 3:3; 6:6-10). Fifth, the person must also manage his or her own household well (1 Tim. 3:4). Sixth, the person must also not be a new convert (1 Tim. 3:6). Finally, the person must also lead by being a servant to others (1 Tim. 6:2). In short, you will know them by their fruits (Matt. 7:16, 20). Every believer is part of God’s nation of priests (1 Pet. 2:5). Ask God to show you where to improve as a leader.

6. To Avoid Burnout, Delegate and Supervise Other Spirit-Led Believers. Ex. 18:22-23.

7. To Avoid Burnout, Be a Doer of God’s Word. Ex. 18:24-27.

  • Moses’ obedience to God’s advice through Jethro. Although Moses had made mistakes with both his family and in how he judged every dispute within the nation, he showed himself to be a man of God by being obedient to the advice that God had given through Jethro: “24 So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25 Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. 26 They judged the people at all times; the difficult dispute they would bring to Moses, but every minor dispute they themselves would judge. 27 Then Moses bade his father-in-law farewell, and he went his way into his own land.” (Ex. 18:24-27). Moses was a humble man (Nu. 12:3). Part of his humility came from his willingness to both listen to and follow the sound advice that others gave him. Also, by being a doer of God’s Word, the people could not charge him with hypocrisy for failing to “walk the walk”. Is your life a living testimony of obedience to God’s Word?

  • Act upon God’s Word, and He will bless you. God wants you to study His Word. Yet, He does not want you to merely be filled with head knowledge. He also expects you to act on His Word. Obedience is not a test for salvation. Yet, for those who obey God’s Word, He promises many kinds of blessings that will prevent burnout: “So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.” (Dt. 5:32-33). “O Israel, you should listen and be careful to do it, that it may be well with you and that you may multiply greatly, just as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Dt. 6:3). “But if you truly obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.” (Ex. 23:22). Throughout the Bible, God reminds His people that vows of obedience must be followed by action: “And the LORD said to me, ‘Proclaim all these words in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, saying, Hear the words of this covenant and do them.’” (Jer. 11:6). In case anyone believes that these are relics of the Old Testament, they are repeated even more often in the New Testament: “Why do you call Me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). “Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” (Matt. 7:21). “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock.” (Matt. 7:24-25). “[F]or it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” (Ro. 2:13). “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” (Jam. 1:22; see also, Rev. 14:12; 22:14). God doesn’t want you to be obedient for the wrong reasons. Out of love (and not the promise of reward) are you being obedient to God’s Word, His Spirit and His calling in your life?