If you’re a church leader, have there been times these past few months that you have been asked to make decisions all day every day? Have you felt the weight of listening to congregants and colleagues, pundits and politicians? The people had questions in March: how can we do church during a health crisis? Will we close? There were more questions in April: how long will we be closed? Will online church work? Systems and processes were put in place, but they were supposed to be temporary. Instead of opening our doors, faith communities had to close our buildings. We hoped this would go away when the weather changed, or a treatment was discovered, or because the hearty American spirit would prevail, or whatever we told ourselves to give hope toward the end of the questions.
The people of Israel came all day, every day, asking for an exhausted Moses to interpret the law and decide their disputes when Jethro told him, “What you are doing is not good” (Exodus 18). Jethro proposed that Moses should appoint capable leaders to share in the decision of simple cases, but that Moses would still interpret God’s will in difficult situations. Following the model of Moses, rabbis reconciled major issues by debating and discerning Scripture and the Torah. In rabbinic literature we find descriptions of Elijah appearing and visiting later rabbis to help them discern God’s will. So if an issue presented itself that seemed to be irreconcilable, it wouldn’t be decided, “until Elijah comes.”
Every day, for months on end, the seemingly irreconcilable questions haven’t stopped for pastors wrestling with how to come together for koinonia (meaningful Christian fellowship) without being present together. As a result, you may feel like Moses, or you may be ready to throw up your hands and say you won’t know “until Elijah comes.”
A better solution for our time might be a different Jewish saying about Elijah. Instead of waiting for the pandemic to resolve itself and being unsure what we should do until then, let’s recall a practice from the Passover Seder meal. Families traditionally pour a fifth cup, reserved for Elijah, in the expectation that the prophet will be with present with them. The family then follows the practice of opening the door in expectation of the arrival of the prophet Elijah, who will announce the coming of the Messiah. Instead of giving up hope or avoiding decisions about difficult questions, what if we open the door to answers? As believers in Jesus Christ, we know that he stands at the door and knocks, and will come in and eat with us – if we will only hear his voice and open the door (Rev. 3:20). We also know that if we lack wisdom, we need only ask God (James 1:5). We need to have an open door for the Spirit of God to speak to us in this time.
In the past, I’ve often written about principles of organizational change management and strategic leadership for Wesleyan Accent. But I feel like now is not the time to share “ten ways to lead in a crisis” or “failsafe steps to reopening during a pandemic.”
We need to practice opening the door for the Spirit of God to enter our striving for answers in contradictory times. When we have opened the door to ask God for wisdom and to invite Jesus to the table, then we can open the door for others from different walks, ages, genders, cultures, and political persuasions to offer their perspectives. If we have invited Jesus to the table, we can then sit at a table (even a virtual Zoom table) and wrestle (from a safe distance) with the irreconcilable questions of our day with others who also love Jesus but might see things differently than us. There may be some questions that are so very impossible to discern that we set them aside “until Elijah comes,” but if we struggle with them honestly, transparently, and with others, that very process may be the koinonia that we seek. No management textbook paradigm can better illustrate leadership than when we “open the door for Elijah,” inviting God into the midst of our struggle, and share in the decision-making with others who love Christ and his bride, the church.
Leave the door open.