A Model of Servant Leadership
A number of years ago I asked a pastor (mentor) friend Marlin Hardman how he expanded his church program and outreach. The answer was simply:
“Try not to plan any.”
Pastor Hardman went on to explain:
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against organization and corporate goal setting. I make my living doing these things. What I really want to get across is that planning, staffing, and supervising outreach programs is
a counterproductive effort for spiritual leaders in local churches. All the management techniques in the world won’t get Christ’s job done satisfactorily. However, the biblical approach really works.”
Pastor Hardman continued to speak from his heart:
“I have long ago lost count of the lay people, full of ideas and initiative, who are frustrated by a pastor who will not allow them room to exercise their ministries. Everything is dictated by the paid clergy. That is a tendency so reprehensible and so far from the teaching of the New Testament that I have fought against it long and hard.”
Three forms of dominant-leadership (ministry woundedness)
- Missed opportunities for laypeople to live out their gifted¬ness and callings. They ended up in disillusionment and often rejected the institutional church as a place of fulfilling their life's purpose.
- Hurt, confused, abused, and stifled staffers and layleaders. These folks wanted to give their best to their leaders, but found the dominant-leadership patterns hindering and obstructive at least, offensive and destructive at worst.
- Divided and diminished congregations. Within their com¬munities, they never had the impact they were designed to have.
As a Church we must let the Lay Leaders be heard and make decisions.
David Stark says it well:
“The free exchange of ideas must eventually culminate in actual decisions.
The Bible admonishes us:
“Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ” (Ephesians 5:21)
Jesus, the model for leaders
Neither autocracy nor hiding behind a committee decision is the right way to lead. We have a superb example of true lead¬ership in the person of Jesus Christ. Think of him for a moment not as the Son of God, but as the most distinguished leader who ever lived. He totally eclipses Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the Great, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, or Abraham Lincoln. None of those have many millions of people following them centuries after their deaths.
For 50 years and more, discussions of leadership have centered round a transaction, an exchange. The leader gives a reward in exchange for performance. Yet there is another kind of leader to which he draws attention: the kind of leader who transforms the situation – a Pope John Paul, Mahatma Gandhi, or Mother Teresa in religion, a John Kennedy in politics.
- Transforming leaders change the situation.
- Transforming leaders change what can be talked about.
- Transforming leaders change them.
- Transforming leaders talk about goals.
- Transactional leaders work within a situation.
- Leaders accept what can be talked about.
- Transactional leaders accept the rules and values of their organization.
- Transactional leaders talk about payoffs.
Jesus is the supreme transforming leader of all time. Two thousand years after his death, a third of humankind profess¬es to follow him. And remember, he lived in a small village, had no home and little formal education, never wrote a book and was executed at the age of 30. Some of his characteristics should mark any leader worthy of the name.
First, he knew who he was. He knew he was God the Father’s only Son, and spent time with him. What he did throughout his career proceeded from who he was. He had a very solid inner core to his being, so he was not constantly tossed about by the vagaries of public opinion, the attacks of enemies or the pressures of friends. He exemplified the truth that who we are is a lot more significant than what we do. If we are always wondering what people will think of us, we cannot lead. Our true identity is in our relationship with the Lord, not in our job. I believe we cannot treat our job in the church as employee/employer relationship. It is ‘Calling from God’. We are part of body, not part of an institution; the task of body leaders must be distinctively different from the management tasks of institutional leaders. We have all seen people so wrapped up in their work that they fold up when they are stripped of it at retirement. If you are going to lead others, you have to be very sure about who you are.
Second, Jesus had a very clear vision. Karl Marx concluded his Communist Manifesto with the words, 'You have a world to win,' and he was right. Jesus had that same clarity of vision, and he subordinated everything to it. He had come to found an alternative society, the kingdom of God in the midst of the political kingdoms of the earth. Justice, integrity and commu¬nity were among his goals, along with the greatest of them all – reconciliation to God. Mere managers want to do things right. Real leaders want to do the right thing, and they have the vision and the courage to go for it.
Third, the example of Jesus the leader was magnetic. People listened to him, followed him, laid down their lives for him, because he genuinely practiced what he preached. He taught, `Love your enemies ... forgive your persecutors' – and he did precisely that. He taught that nobility consisted in serving rather than being served – and he washed his disciples' feet. He taught that the greatest love one could have was to lay down one's life for one's friends – and then he did it for his enemies. The point is clear: unless people see leaders modeling what they teach, they will give them limited respect. Charisma without character is a catastrophe.
Fourth, Jesus was the servant of all, although he was the Lord of all. Real leadership springs not from asking, ‘How many people will help me?’ but, ‘How deep is my commit¬ment to serve others?’ When that is in place, people will follow a leader through hell and high water.
Fifth, vital quality of a good leader is the determination and ability to equip others. Jesus refused the role of the manager behind the big desk and preferred, if anything, the principle of the inverted cone. He concentrated first and fore¬most on three men in his inner circle. Then he poured himself into a group of twelve men, and to a lesser extent into 70 others. It was brilliant leadership. He did not dominate them, but enabled them to discover and use their gifts. He poured
himself into those disciples, and he was ready to move aside and let them get on with it when they were ready. It is inter¬esting to notice how he prepared them for their future min¬istry. He had them along first to watch him at work. Next, they were allowed to give him a little help, as when the 12 sat the crowds down at the feeding of the 5,000 and cleared up the broken fragments afterwards. They were, you might say, junior partners in the enterprise. Then he entrusted them with an assignment of limited duration on their own: when he sent out the twelve and the 70, they reported back to him at the conclusion of their task. Finally, they were ready to carry the work forward and become his successors. The Acts of the Apostles shows how well such training paid off. One of the great weaknesses of many leaders is that they do not equip others. They have illusions of their own indispensability. Nobody could say that of Jesus, the supremely great leader and equipper.
Sixth, notable feature in Jesus as a spiritual leader is his loyalty to Scripture. He saw it as the authority for his min¬istry, and he lived to fulfill it. He was far less influenced by tra¬dition, political correctness and expediency than he was by the Scriptures. ‘It is written’ formed his clinching argument time and again, and all his major initiatives, all his core teaching, all his self-understanding, sprang from that source. That is not a notable feature among some Christian leaders I have known.
Seventh, a further characteristic of Jesus the leader is that he was radical and challenging. Nowhere else do you find such a radical appraisal of human nature, and such a radical remedy for it. Think of his willingness to touch lepers – something unheard of in his day. Moreover, he dared to challenge people. He challenged the rich, the prostitutes, the demonized, the political and ecclesiastical leaders. This was never done to show off or to provoke an argument, but always to serve the truth. We need leaders like that.
Eighth, quality which I see supremely modeled in Jesus is the willingness to sacrifice. That is essential in a great leader. It is costly to endure despite the knocks, to be unjustly attacked without hitting back, to endure pain rather than inflict it, and to be totally committed to the welfare of your followers whatever the personal cost. Jesus did all that – and endured the excruciating agony of the cross as well.
James and John provoked the incident by encouraging their mother to ask Jesus for key power positions in Jesus’ coming kingdom. When the other ten disciples heard about this request, they were very indignant at the two brothers. Taking this teachable moment, Jesus called them together to speak of the nature of leadership in the fellowship of the church. Jesus contrasted the leadership style and method of secular rulers against the leadership style and method of those called to lead in His body.
This passage attacks many of our ingrained presumptions about leadership and helps us define how a servant leads.
The passage states it clearly: the ruler is “over” those he leads. But the servant is “among.” We cannot be servant-leaders if our position or role or our own attitude
tends to lift us above others and makes a distinction between us and the rest of the people of God.
Rulers “lord it over” and “exercise authority” over the led. Here is a command-type of authority, which tells others what to do and demands conformity of behavior. But we cannot even imagine that a servant entering a household where he is assigned would issue commands! To attempt to use such a command authority calls forth one of God's most powerful rebukes: “Not so with you.”
Command authority tells others what to do. The leader¬ship mode involves issuing orders, passing on decisions the leader has made. Servants have one role in the household—to serve. Rather than tell, the servant shows. Example, not command, is the primary mode through which the servant leads.
The command authority of the secular ruler does lead to behavioral change. There are all sorts of sanctions that secu¬lar leaders—be they in the military, in government, or in business—rely on to obtain the behavior they require. But servants must rely on an inner response in those they influ¬ence. Without the power to coerce behavior, servants must seek the free choice of the ones being led. The one style achieves behavioral conformity; the other style achieves heart commitment.
The secular leadership style has a wider range of coercive means to enforce response. In business, raises or denial of raises and many other symbols of approval and disapproval are used to coerce behavior. But in the church of Christ no such means of coercion are available. All such methods are decisively rejected!
- Share the spotlight with others
- Make Jesus the focal point
- Develop many people
- Have a low turnover because people stay and are loyal
- Make Christ the central focus and agenda
- Affirm and participate in kingdom agendas
- Are committed to being a servant first and foremost
- Are committed to recon¬ciliation and relationships
- May have a title but sel¬dom refer to it
- Respect people for their freedom to think, act, and respond
- Abhor the thought of using power images
- Never abuse people or get their way only because of their position
- Develop many followers for the Lord
- Feed on the spotlight
- Are the focal point of the ministry
- Don't develop other leaders
- Have a high turnover as people leave the ministry
- Keep the focus on themselves and their agenda
- Cannot share agendas with laity
- Feed on being in charge and having power
- Leave people feeling hurt and abused
- Refer to their title frequently
- Are masters of manipulation and/or abuse those who get in their way
- Use power images, offices, and perks to reveal their place
- Pull rank to get their way
- Recruit many followers for their work
There are many more contrasts implicit in the illustration Jesus chose to use. There are implications about the attitude and character of the leaders. There are implications about where authority resides. There are implications about the relationship and attitude of the leader toward others. But the most striking and significant element of the passage is seen in the simple words: “Not so with you.”
“Not so with you”
In these words Jesus once and for all cuts us off from all those approaches to leader¬ship that is implied in the ruler style. Jesus limits us to a leadership that finds expression in servanthood and relies on a servant's seeming weakness.
Yet it is the servant style that brings victory. The servant-leader will bring the body into a harmonious relationship and will lead its members toward maturity. The living Lord will act through His servants to work out His own good will.
But commitment to servant leadership carries with it a high cost. By forsaking the world's kind of leadership, the body leader is sure to be misunderstood. He will seem unim¬pressive. He will suffer under misunderstanding and may be reduced at times to near-despair. And it takes so much longer to gain heart response than behavioral conformity. His gen¬tleness itself, in a world where decisive and competitive men are admired, will lead to charges of weakness. But if he retains a total commitment to servanthood and all it implies, the spiritual leader will be used by God in the body, and through his ministry Jesus will build His church.
Finally, Jesus was vulnerable – vulnerable to exhaustion, loneliness, criticism, betrayal, pain and death. When others see us shed our masks of invulnerability and come over as the frail human beings that we are, albeit strengthened by God's grace, they will love us the more deeply and respect us more. That was true of the followers of Jesus. It is universally the case.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, the outstanding leaders I have met all exhibit some or all of the characteristics of Jesus Christ. They have tended to adopt these crucial char¬acteristics from their Master. I would love to see these quali¬ties more required of ordination candidates, but, on the whole, little training is given in the area of leadership in most theo¬logical institutions.
Again, let us go back to Christ’s encounter with James and John, (Matthew 20:25-28; Mark 10:41-45) when they asked for seats of honor and privilege beside Him. It’s truly a pivotal passage on leadership.
In many ways, the attitude of these two disciples effectively sum¬marizes the prevailing attitude about leadership, one that reasserts itself with every generation. The “lords of the Gentiles”—the power leaders—naturally seek a rank above others. Human nature looks for the shortest path to the top, the most self-gratifying position, regardless of the cost to others. The leader gets to call the shots from his position of power and control. James and John recognized this, and having seen that Christ could put them in a place of honor if He chose, they asked Him to make them leaders.
I find it interesting that Jesus never reprimanded His disci¬ples for wanting “to be great.” Instead He dramatically redefined the terms of greatness and pointed His disciples in another direc¬tion entirely. You can be leaders, He told them, but you must take the route of sacrifice, suffering, and service. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44).
This classic passage in Mark brings us to a fork in the road called leadership. The fork gives us two distinct directions, or models, and each will lead us to entirely different outcomes. One route relies on power, authority, and control. The other path—the one that follows in Christ's footsteps, however imperfectly—is a road of humility and of putting others first. In other words, Jesus cut through the superfluous issues surrounding leadership and moved straight to the heart of the matter. His words address our motives and values.
Thus, we are drawn to consider the unseen realities from which we move into others’ lives. Each of us has a mental model of lead¬ership, and that model defines how we operate, how we go about ministry. The model is constructed from more than our church tra¬ditions or the particular branch of theology we represent. A lead¬ership model that rests on the power inherent in the position will eventually hinder the task of releasing and empowering others for ministry. A servant leadership model, on the other hand, helps equip and liberate others to fulfill God's purposes for them in the world. As such, our leadership models are crucially important. Bottom line: Are you ready to say, “How can I serve you?”
In Christ’s service,
Jerry E. McKeehan
P.S. Ok, I know this was not a short dialogue. I have been journaling on this subject for many years. I know because of my nerdiness, geekiness, and quirkiness it has been hard to find a ministry that will hire me full time to be on their pastoral staff. Again, I do not believe ministry is an employer/employee relationship but a ‘Calling from God’. We are part of body (Organic Organization), not part of an institution; the task of body leaders must be distinctively different from the management tasks of institutional leaders. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy studying God’s Word and hope and pray that this short dialogue on leadership will bless and stir you. I look forward to our dialogue on leadership.
- Max De Pree, “Leading Without Power: Finding Hope in Serving Community” (2003)
- Max DePree, “Leadership as Jazz” (2008)
- Max DePree, Called to Serve: Creating and Nurturing the Effective Volunteer Board (2001)
- Robert K. Greenleaf, “The Power of Servant-Leadership” (1998)
- Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness (1977)
- Hans Finzel, The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make (2007)