Servant Leadership

  FULL ESSAY TITLE: What do you understand about the servant nature of leadership?  Support your answer from the life and ministry of Jesus.  (2000 words). 

Introduction 

“‘There will always be more people willing to do ‘great things’ for God than there are people willing to do the little things.  The race to be a leader is crowded, but the field is wide open for those willing to be servants” (Warren 2002, 261).  Sadly, this statement accurately depicts the attitude of so many in the Church today, but it is the exact opposite of the way  Jesus demonstrated and taught Christian leadership.  To be a leader in the church is to be a servant.  It is true, leaders must lead.  But, as Peter says, “do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock” (1 Pet.5:3 NRSV).  Servant leadership is Christian leadership.  It is the kind of leadership that Jesus modeled.  This essay will look at three aspects of servant leadership.

  • Servant leadership protects the Church
  • The servant leader’s power is received power
  • Servant leaders serve Christ by serving his people

Servant leadership protects the Church

One of the great problems in the Church today is that of spiritual abuse.  A large number of church leaders think that to be able to lead, they must have power and authority.  Blue writes, “When I present my views on servant leadership at conferences and seminars, the pastors in the group often ask: ‘How can a ‘servant leader’ at the same time be a strong leader?’ Pastors appear to be especially concerned about leadership’s relationship to authority and power” (Blue 1993, 147).

It is preoccupation with power that is causing such problems in the Church.  One of the principal ways of gaining control of members of abusive churches is the emphasis on the authority of the leadership.  Enroth writes, Members of all abusive churches soon learn that the pastor or leader is beyond confrontation.  As one former member of an abusive congregation put it, ‘Since no one in the church was allowed to murmur and complain, or to disagree with the pastor, there were many, like myself, who suffered in silence lest we incur God’s anger’” (Enroth 1993, 168).

This is an extreme, but unfortunately very common example, of the opposite of a servant attitude in the church leader.  Jesus said “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43 NRSV).  Similarly, after setting the example for the disciples by washing their feet, he said “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14 NRSV).  Jesus demonstrated to the disciples what he wanted church leaders to be, compared to secular leadership, which is what he didn’t want them to be.

In so doing, Jesus showed us true Christian leadership.  He said of himself, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Matt 20:28 NRSV), and we’re told in Phil 2:7 that he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (NRSV).  It is this servant leadership that is the protection of the people of God.  The Christian leader who has this attitude of servant-hood is the one who will build up the church.  A pastor who is protecting his own power base cannot be as effective as the pastor who is protecting his flock, because he intimidates and frightens those he seeks to lead.

There is a great need for leaders to be willing to get alongside the congregation, to identify with them in all their trials and joys.  Jesus “wants Peter to feed his sheep and care for them, not as ‘professionals’ who know their clients’ problems and take care of them, but as vulnerable brothers and sisters who know and are known, who care and are cared for,…forgive and are forgiven…love and are being loved”.  (Nouwen 1989, 42).

This is the attitude Jesus himself had.  He wept when Lazarus died (John 11:35); he yearned over Jerusalem (Matt 23:37-39); he had compassion on the crowds who followed him, so he fed them (Mark 6:30-44); he loved the rich young man who couldn’t part with his wealth (Mark 10:21); he was angry at the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, false shepherds who prevented the weak from entering heaven (Matt 23:1-36); and he ate with tax collectors and sinners (Matt 9:9-10).

How different this is to those leaders who stand aloof from their congregation, constantly haranguing them from the safety of the pulpit, and from a position of power and authority, and never getting involved in their lives, or if they do, controlling them rather than guiding, leading, and walking with them.  Whether the leader intends it or not, a barrier is erected between him and the people he would lead.  Nouwen says, “When the members of a community of faith cannot truly know and love their shepherd, shepherding quickly becomes a subtle way of exercising power over others and begins to show authoritarian and dictatorial traits” (Nouwen 1989, 44).

It is this very attitude, demonstrated in James’ and John’s request for positions of authority, that Jesus was correcting, when he said “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:35-45 NRSV).  Leaders who abuse God’s people come under God’s anger, as can be seen in Ezek. 34:1-10, where he rebukes them because “you shepherds of Israel have been feeding yourselves.  Should not shepherds feed the sheep?”, and because they were not feeding, healing, binding, seeking  the strayed and lost, “but with force and harshness have you ruled them” (NRSV).

It is clear from scripture, and especially the life and teaching of Jesus, that a true leader in the church is a servant, not a lord.  So we need to consider the nature and effects of power.

The servant leader’s power is received power 

Webster’s Dictionary (1973, 902) defines power as, among several definitions, 1a: “possession of control, authority, or influence over others….6a: a source or means of supplying energy”.  Obviously, 6a refers to electrical power, but it serves as a good illustration.  Christian leaders possess a delegated power that is given for service.  The influence they have over others is to be used as a means of “supplying energy” to their congregation.  They need to see themselves as conductors of power, not the source of it.  The power they possess will then be directed to the “appliance” that needs it to function.

Jesus warned about the abuse of power in Matt 24: 45-51.  It is clear that both leader and those led are equally slaves in God’s household, and the leader’s task is to feed those led, not from his own store (as a slave he has none) but from that given him.  The ‘master’ (God) in the story is the source of all power and authority.  There are also consequences for the right use, or abuse, of power delegated to the leaders. 

It is an alarming fact that even those closest to Jesus can be corrupted by the desire for power.  This is demonstrated in Mark 9:33-37, where the disciples were arguing amongst themselves as to who was the greatest, even while they were in Jesus’ presence.  In order to correct and teach them, Jesus told them that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”.  Using this account, Ford (1991, 150) points out that “leadership is a call from God, not a position we choose for ourselves”, and he says “there is a difference between preparation for service and seeking for promotion”.  He shows how the disciples were indignant with James and John, not because they were “righteously indignant” but because “James and John thought of the idea and got to Jesus first!  All twelve disciples were still ignorant of what really matters in kingdom leadership”.

Blackaby (2001, 24) points out a common mistake made by spiritual leaders, in which they ‘allow secular models of leadership to corrupt the straightforward model set forth by Jesus.’  He shows how these leaders “assume that along with the role of leader comes the responsibility of determining what should be done.  They develop aggressive goals….then they pray and ask God to join them in their agenda and to bless their efforts.  That’s not what spiritual leaders do.  Spiritual leaders seek God’s will….then they marshal God’s people to pursue God’s plan” (Blackaby 2001, 23).

Another mistake concerns the need for confrontation.  Sometimes the leader needs to exercise the authority he has (see Webster’s definition 1a, above) to confront a person or situation.  ‘Confrontation’ is often seen in a negative light, “as an attack…..on another person, though the attacker often says that it is for this person’s ‘own good’” (Egan 1982, 186).  A variation on this is used in some abusive church situations as ‘speaking the truth in love’ and then proceeding to attack the person.  But this is not the right use of confrontation.  Egan says, “Put most simply, confrontation, like other forms of challenge, is an invitation to examine some form of behavior that seems to be self-defeating or harmful to others and to change the behavior if it is found to be so” (Egan 1982, 186).

In a situation where a pastor needs to confront a person with a sin or destructive behaviour, he still needs to remember that he is a servant, even if he has to be ‘forceful’ in the situation.  Again, Jesus serves as the model.  In Luke 7:36-50, as he was eating at a Pharisee’s house, he confronted him by pointing out that the Pharisee had not performed any of the usual courtesies afforded a guest in the house, while a woman whom the Pharisee had been mentally judging, out of love for Jesus, had washed his feet with her tears.  In Mark 4:35-40, after stilling the storm, he rebuked the disciples for their unbelief.  In both cases, Jesus was focusing attention on their hearts so that right behaviour would follow.

Servant leaders serve Christ by serving his people

In Matt.25:31-46, of several theological concepts there, Jesus shows that as we minister to others’ needs out of compassion for them, we actually minister to Jesus himself.  Carson (1984, 522) says “True disciples will love one another and serve the least brother with compassion; in so doing they unconsciously serve Christ”.  However, while this is true, it can also be said that a servant leader is aware that he serves his Lord as he serves his Lord’s people, for this is why he is in ministry.  When Jesus called the disciples, he called them to “follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matt 4:19 NRSV).

Therefore a servant leader is strong for he knows that he serves Jesus Christ himself, and he is able to humble himself, putting aside all desires for power and control, because he draws all his strength from Christ, who strengthens him to serve.  But he must also have a genuinely compassionate heart which truly goes out to those in need.

The servant leader must always be aware that he is his Lord’s servant, sent to serve.  Willimon (2000, 24) warns of the danger of confusing the difference between serving as God’s minister, and serving simply as a servant.  He gives the example of a pastor who begins to pick up the parishioners’ kids from school in order to “meet their needs”, eventually meets a lonely female parishioner needing love, and ultimately commits adultery with her because “he is an extremely caring pastor”.  Unless the leader keeps his focus on the Lord who sent him, he is in danger of falling into such a trap.

So it is important that the leader knows he is called to his ministry.  Willimon (2000, 25) says “We must be called, recalled to the joy of being grasped by something greater than ourselves, namely our vocation to speak and to enact the Word of God among God’s people”.  He also describes the results of a survey held by his friend, Robert Wilson, among some clergy of the Episcopal Church and of the Church of God, in Anderson, Indiana.  Even though the Episcopal clergy had better pay and living conditions, they were not as content as the Church of God clergy.  The reason, Wilson concluded, was that the Episcopalians saw themselves as “professionals”, while the C.O.G. clergy “‘saw themselves as called, willed by God to work in the Church of God; people sent on a mission”.  ‘You can’t pay people to do the things that ministers routinely must do’ said Wilson.  ‘They need to think God has called them, or ministry is miserable.’” (Willimon 2000, 22).

Conclusion

This essay has looked at just three aspects of servant leadership.  However, these three aspects are essential to kingdom leadership.  Remove any one of these three, and problems will follow.  If the Church does not follow Jesus’ leadership and example, disaster is inevitable.  In the secular world, ‘those whom they recognize as rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  “But it is not so among you…” (Mark 10:42-43 NRSV).    Thus the person who would be a leader in the Church, the body of Christ, must have the same attitude as his Master, and be a servant to those to whom he ministers.

References

Blackaby, H. and R.  2001, Spiritual Leadership, Broadman and Holman, Nashville, Tennessee

Blue, K. 1993, Healing Spiritual Abuse, IVP, Downers Grove, Illinois

Carson, D.A. 1984, Matthew, EBC Vol 8, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Egan, G. 1982, The Skilled Helper, Wadsworth, Inc., Belmont, California

Enroth, R.M. 1993, Churches That Abuse, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Ford, L. 1991, Transforming Leadership, IVP, Downers Grove, Illinois

Nouwen, H. 1998, In the Name of Jesus, Crossroad Pub., New York, New York

Warren, R. 2002, The Purpose Driven Life, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Willimon, W.H. 2000, Calling and Character: Virtues of the Ordained Life, Abingdon, Nashville, Tennessee

Wool, H.B. (ed.), 1973, ‘(1) Power’, in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, Philippines, Copyright, 902

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