Letting Leaders Wear Their Own Shoes
Preparing for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Two Days Before Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 138
Old Testament: Numbers 27:12-23
Epistle: Acts 9:26-31
O God, you spoke your word and revealed your good news in Jesus, the Christ. Fill all creation with that word again, so that by proclaiming your joyful promises to all nations and singing of your glorious hope to all peoples, we may become one living body, your incarnate presence on the earth. Amen.
Can one imagine what it would be like to follow Moses as the leader of the people of Israel? He has led them for many decades from deliverance as slaves in Egypt, through the wilderness, and now to the cusp of the Promised Land. Moses was not always well liked and had to deal with much whining, but he was faithful and competent. He persevered and has now led Israel to where God wants them to be. Having fulfilled his mission, it is time for him to step away from his charge.
God chooses Joshua as Moses’ successor. Today we might say that Joshua has some big shoes to fill. We human beings struggle to resist comparisons. We do this with leaders in all arenas—presidents, pastors, CEOs, and directors of you-name-it. It is true that we can find successors as better than their predecessors, but we also judge the successor negatively because she or he is not like the one who led before. We seem to compare by default.
The problem with this is that we take two good and competent leaders and judge one negatively because one is not like the other—prioritizing different values, having a different style of leadership, or displaying a different personality from the other. In so doing, what we miss is that we judge our leaders not by whether they are able to do the job, but we judge them by whether or not who they are makes us personally comfortable. Not only does that put the leader in a difficult situation; it makes it difficult for them to lead. Our unreasonable expectations of them are a set up for failure.
Joshua takes his place as leader of Israel at a crucial time. They are about to cross the Jordan River and enter into the Land of Canaan. Just as the people so often complained about Moses, there is no reason to think they will have no complaints against Joshua. Indeed, just as the people in the desert developed selective amnesia over the horrors of slavery subsequently longing for the “flesh pots” of food by the Nile, they will no doubt quickly forget about their frustrations with Moses and hold him up as the ideal leader in contrast to Joshua.
I am certainly not suggesting that leaders should be above criticism, but they should be judged based on the shoes they walk in, not the shoes worn by someone else. When one reads the Bible, God called a variety of people to be judge, king, prophet, and apostle.
Many years ago, when I was a young associate pastor at a large church, the popular senior pastor who had been there ten years decided to retire. After the new pastor was announced, the following week someone said to me, “NAME has big shoes to fill.” My response was that the new pastor would not be filling the current pastor’s shoes because he was taking them into retirement."
By all means let us judge our leaders. Let’s hold them accountable, but let’s judge by the shoes they actually walk in, not by the shoes we wish they were wearing. Our leaders deserve such consideration and we who follow need to exercise that kind of grace.
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