But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.
— Exodus 17:12
Yesterday I sat with Natalie and read to her from 2 Corinthians (at her request). This was our second time through the letter together. She is resonating a lot with Paul’s talk of afflictions and “jars of clay” and thorns and weakness. But I began last night to think something else is at play here, and she might not even be conscious of it. See, Natalie is a leader. I don’t say was, despite her frail state. She still is, though she has withdrawn from the fray of church service and entered a fray of a different kind. And when I read Paul saying “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Corinthians 12:15), I think this describes Natalie to a “T.”
Last night I talked to another one of our deaconesses on the phone and she mentioned John Piper’s little catchphrase “Don’t waste your life,” saying Natalie is a perfect example. She has poured out immeasurably over the years for her family, her friends, her church, and her community. She seemed a tireless servant, sacrificing constantly to live simply and therefore generously. She is our church’s “queen” of benevolence. And she has been a tireless evangelist, maintaining several long-term relationships with unbelievers very dear to her, whose salvation she has labored for over decades. (She has high hopes and prayers her illness and perhaps her death will serve as a turning point for their receiving the gospel.) Given all of the hard work she has engaged in for so long, it has bothered her somewhat to be in this vulnerable position. She has always been the one who helps, the one who takes charge. But sometimes leaders need to be carried too.
Paul assumes so. Continuing in 2 Cor. 12:15, he writes, “If I love you more, am I to be loved less?” Elsewhere: “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open . . . In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also” (2 Cor. 6:11,13). As he opens in greeting, almost immediately discussing his great affliction and need for comfort, he asks for help: “You also must help us by prayer” (2 Cor. 1:11).
The truth is, our leaders need to be carried sometimes. At all times, they need to be carried to the Lord in prayer. This is the single best thing you can do for those who are responsible for your spiritual upbringing. They need your prayers more than than they need your praise, and they certainly need your prayers more than your advice. And while they do need your advice, they moreso need your encouragement, your consideration, your benefit of the doubt. They need you to not rehearse accusations in your mind against them, but advocate for them in your imagination.
Leadership of all kinds is lonely and costly. It is tiring. For every person with a problem, he or she is essentially all that exists. Affliction has its way of self-centering. But all the problems that exist are the leader’s. And for spiritual shepherds who take it all seriously, there is “the daily pressure on them of their anxiety for the whole church” (2 Cor. 11:28, par).
I remember the period of time right after I’d moved to Vermont to pastor Middletown Church. Becky stayed behind in Nashville, keeping her job because we needed her income to cover our mortgage there because our house had not sold. (It didn’t sell for four years, but that’s another story for another time.) I had our daughters with me. For nine months we did this, and while it may not seem like a lot for families accustomed to such separation, it was extremely difficult for all of us. Becky and I both suffered from deep discouragement. The loneliness and “left behind”-ness was crushing her. Trying to pastor and parent in a new place all by myself was crushing me. I began to question our decision, question my calling. I struggled to find any joy in our new home. I was breaking down in the pulpit. I was losing my temper with the girls. I was wandering about, numb and defeated. I was trying to tend to the care of a church full of new friends, and suddenly had to face the need for my own care. I have been through a period of depression before, to the point of entertaining very dark thoughts about myself, and I could feel the murky edges of this darkness closing in on me again.
The Lord came through, and he came through through the grace of our church, carrying me, carrying us in an extraordinary way. (I tell the remarkable story that began with a divinely-timed phone call from Elder Dale in my book on pastoral ministry.) It was in that time that I re-read Exodus 17, by happenstance, and the image of Aaron and Hur pulling up a stone for Moses to sit on and holding up his arms overwhelmed me. That simple, stirring image of the man’s being carried by his brother and his friend made me sob. It’s a beautiful thing to not just read Scripture but to feel it.
Good leaders carry their people when they’ve gotten lost, when they’ve gotten hurt, when they’ve gotten too tired to follow. At the very least, a good leader will sit with them while they gather their strength. Or when their strength is giving way to death. It is part of the calling. But sometimes leaders need to be carried too. Do you carry yours?
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
— Galatians 6:2