Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. -- Acts 6:1-7 (NRSV)
There's an old saying that "work expands to fill the time available to do it." Any organization that is growing finds that is probably an understatement; in their world, the amount of work to be done probably far exceeds the amount of time available to do it. Jesus's twelve disciples, now leaders themselves, were facing just this problem. The Hellenists in their group were complaining that the Jewish members were more interested in making sure that their own widows received their fair share of the daily allotment of food while the Greek widows were being put aside and were neglected, creating a great hardship for the widows and a problem for the twelve.
They weren't the first to have that same problem of too much to do and not enough time. Moses was one man trying his best to satisfy the requirements of both God and a whole lotta Hebrews he was trying to herd across the desert. Fortunately, Moses had a father-in-law with some good ideas. Solution: identify righteous men in whom the people already had some confidence, set them up in a hierarchy so that everyone had access to someone who could help resolve conflicts and solve problems. The big stuff would be referred to Moses but he would have a lot more time to do what he was supposed to be doing -- interacting with God, leading the worship and shepherding the entire group on its journey.
The twelve probably saw this as the way to go. What they did was to have the whole community choose seven men --righteous, honest, faithful and hard-working-- to take care of the food distribution and whatever else was needed, leaving the twelve time to preach, teach, heal and provide guidance to the group. It worked and Christianity continued to grow but now with a hierarchical model that spread like the roots of a great tree.
There are a lot of times when I see people at the top of even a small hierarchy act as if they alone were responsible for the success or failure of the whole thing. They exercise all the control and micromanagement they can grasp, even if it is not producing observably favorable results. Moses's delegates and the twelve's seven deacons (as we now call them) knew when to solve the problems and when to kick those problems upstairs. Jesus himself practiced the art of having the heart of a servant but the wisdom to allow those who served under him to go out and do what they had learned to do, all the while keeping his ear open to the One in the heavenly corner office.
I've delegated my taxes to my tax guy, my health diagnoses and treatment to my doctors, parts of my job to either my boss or a co-worker and my spiritual well-being to God. I can't do everything myself, even if I work on a much smaller scale than Moses or the twelve. Now I just have to remember not to try to take everything back, get overwhelmed and forget to do the really important things, like taking care of myself and the cats, doing the best job I can at whatever I try to do, and remembering consult with the CEO in the corner office, the One whose door is always open and who, I feel sure, will never hand me a pink slip.
Now, will someone please point me in the direction of tables that need wiping or widows who need some attention?
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Monday, December 26, 2011.