As I Was Saying

Everyone Wants to Be a Leader: Any Volunteers to Be a Servant?

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

It’s interesting that the Bible says very little about leadership. Not that there is no reference to leading: the good shepherd leads his sheep and the Lord himself leads us to still waters and good pastures. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. There is also sharp admonition to those shepherds who lead their flock astray. But there’s little mention of “leadership” in the way that we have come to understand it. In fact, the way Jesus approached leadership seems to fly in the face of all that we have come to associate with good Christian leadership.

Instead, the theme that seems to run through the Bible—and certainly in the teachings of Jesus and his apostles—is that of servanthood. There is no doubt that having the attitude and heart of a servant is fundamental to being a disciple of Jesus. So what does this mean, and what relationship (if at all) does servanthood have with leadership?

As a small boy I used to watch the servants in my grandmother’s house going about their work. Always the first to get up and last to go to sleep, their task was to do the bidding of my grandmother, in addition to being on constant alert to respond to the whims of the house guests, including me. No questioning and certainly no refusal. They would prepare meals, tend the garden, feed the pets, tidy the house, and clean the toilets among countless everyday chores. I didn’t realize until later that they didn’t have any time for themselves. They loved to play with me as it gave them time to have fun—but that too was scheduled work for them. I look back now and recoil at the abuse and exploitation—but that’s for another post.

Galley slaves during Roman times were used as under-rowers: chained to their seats, they lived in the hold of monstrous sea vessels and provided the energy that kept the ships on course. They would row to the beat of a drum; one beat, one action repeated a thousand times. If the ship sank in battle, their lives would be written off as collateral damage.

Being a servant comes with a huge price tag attached: the servant’s ego. The concept is hard to understand by folks who haven’t had an experience with servants or who don’t know what that really means. The closest might be those serving tables in restaurants but then again, those workers have rights. Servants in biblical times had none.

So what does it mean to set aside our own agenda for the sake of another? What does it take to row to the beat of someone else’s drum? Could we even think of giving up power, position, and status and instead take upon ourselves the form of a servant? And what does sacrifice mean in a world where we are taught that it’s every man or woman for themselves? Servanthood is a difficult concept for most of us, but was a very familiar posture for the one we follow. When Jesus “took upon himself the form of a servant” (Phil. 2: 7), he had only one thing on his mind—to serve us fallen, hostile, and rebellious human beings.

This kind of servanthood is what is required of all of us. It is a very clear call and command given to us by the master servant—one who left all so that we might receive all. But then, what about being a leader? Where does leadership fit in, and what is its place in the conversation about being a Christ follower? What is Christian leadership? Or have we just borrowed a concept that belongs to another domain and transposed it to fit our “Christian” paradigm? Are terms like servant-leader another (sanctified) way of saying that we are still in control?

I think that Jesus flipped leadership on its head. The apostles—Peter, James, and John―would have been the last people to have been considered had we been given the task of recruiting disciples for Jesus. There was no way these undereducated, rowdy men would have made it past the first cut or even been considered for the position. But Jesus saw them and identified hearts that could be molded. Ironically, the religious “leaders” of the day were the ones Jesus went after, exposing their hypocrisy and pride.

A re-think of the role and place of servanthood and leadership in the church is long overdue. I suggest that servanthood is an indispensable part of being a serious disciple of Christ, while leadership is the knowledge, skills, and abilities God gives his disciples (who are living lives of servants) to be exercised for the edification of the body of Christ and for the extension of God’s kingdom.

The order and priorities are critical. When we use our spiritual gifts as intended, we lead. But doing so without the loving, authentic heart of a servant renders us as empty “clanging cymbals,” as Paul says. Are we willing to call ourselves servants and drop the “leader” tag?  How about a “Global Servanthood Summit” instead of a “Global Leadership” one or Servant-Disciple Institutes instead of Leadership Institutes? It may be a corny idea and probably will get little or no traction in a culture that values an upside-down leadership ethos. But then again, so does the gospel.

About the Author

Chris Pullenayegem worships at Friendship Community Church in Toronto, Ont. With an academic background in law, psychology, and change leadership, Chris helps congregations discover and fulfil their God-given potential, especially in rapidly changing environments.

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Amen and amen ... 

Yes, amen. As a parent of a high school senior, the college mail we receive is overwhelmingly focused on leadership and "changing the world"--the colleges that stand out to us are the ones whose priority is helping those with servant hearts to thrive.

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