Throughout time humankind has desperately tried to gain power, prestige, riches, and fame. In this struggle to be the best, many, if not all, have ultimately failed; history is littered with their stories. Many of them are what we would consider to be noble in their efforts, because we can’t have a world with no one leading, right? So was the case in early Israel; refusing to be submissive to God alone, they begged for a king, a king to rule over the whole nation. Their actions in 1 Samuel 8 show their apparent ignorance of what we call servant leadership. No one can blame the Israelites for their ignorance; after all it, is a different way of thinking. How can someone lead and yet be a servant or a better term is slave? Isn’t that a contradiction? For many servant leadership seems to be a contradiction of terms, because it requires us to know the very nature of Jesus Christ; He alone is the model of true servant leadership.
Jesus’ example of this kind of leadership style is seen in John 13, when Jesus washes His disciples’ feet, but this leadership style is described in Isa. 42.1-4:
Here is my servant, the one I support. He is the one I chose, and I am pleased with him. I have put my spirit upon him, and he will bring justice to all nations. He will not cry out or yell or speak loudly in the streets. He will not break a crushed blade of grass or put out even a weak flame. He will truly bring justice; he will not lose hope or give up until he brings justice to the world. And people far away will trust his teachings. (NCV)
According to the book We Build People there are eight characteristics of servant leadership as shown by Jesus in this text. The first is “voluntary dependence” (v. 1) obviously Jesus was totally dependent on the Father. Second, is “Divine approval” (v. 1); God has chosen and supported Jesus. The third trait is “Divine anointing” (v. 1); this is also seen in Jesus’ baptism. Fourth, is His “meek spirit” (v. 2); Jesus was not interested in advancing himself but advancing God the Father. The fifth characteristic was His “Empathetic compassion” (v.3); Jesus was not too good to serve even the lowest of people. Sixth is the “Faithful optimism” (vv. 3-4) of Jesus that did not let Him get discouraged even till the end. “Championing justice” (vv. 3-4) is the seventh; Jesus was a defender of justice. And lastly, Jesus “inspired hope” (v. 4); he was someone people could believe in (101-102). These characteristics are the model of what all Christians should be.
The meaning of the words “servant” and “leader” go right along with the pattern of Scripture. First, the word “servant” simply means “somebody who serves another” (Encarta); while this seems like a rather simple definition, it is not. For a true servant is more than just someone who serves another; a true servant is a person who willingly sets aside his/her wants, needs, and desires for another. It is, in other words, denying ourselves for another; we could also say “Radical self-denial gives the feel of adventure. If we forsake all, we even have the chance of glorious martyrdom. But in service we must experience the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves” (Foster 126). This is demonstrated by mothers who without a second thought sacrifice theirselves to give their child what they need or want.
The second part to the concept of servant leaders is the word “leader.” Its basic meaning is “somebody whom people follow: somebody who guides or directs others by showing them the way or telling them how to behave” (Encarta). Being leaders who people look up to and respect is what we should all strive for. In the model mentioned earlier, there was no reference to a person losing his/her personhood to be someone’s slave. The servant leader has a proper balance of service and leadership. Servant leaders are aware that a church without any leaders is a church in trouble. Richard Foster says, “The point is not that we do away with all sense of leadership or authority. The point is that Jesus completely redefined leadership and rearranged the lines of authority” (127). The balance can be tricky to find between service and leadership, yet when found it brings a great sense of relief and joy to know that you can lead a group of people by serving them.
To truly merge service with leadership we need a definite humble spirit. Without it one cannot be effective in either service or leadership. Service is obviously not a part of the attitude of a person without a humble spirit. They cannot even think of serving someone equal to or less than them; they are the ones who will never offer to help someone because their hearts are too consumed with themselves.
However, a leader without a humble spirit will soon fail. God has shown us this principle: “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time” (1 Peter 5.6, NASB). A person who is humble will soon be exalted by God, thus showing the mark of a leader.
What I have learned about servant leadership is that we should want to be leaders in our churches and communities while at the same time diligently serving those who are under our leadership and those who are not. It is best said by Bernard of Clairvaux: “Learn the lesson that, if you are to do the work of a prophet, what you need is not a scepter but a hoe” (qtd. in Foster 126).
Clarensau, Michael H., Sylvia Lee, and Steven R. Mills. We Build People: Making Disciples for the 21st Century. Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1996.
Foster, Richard. The Celebration of Discipline. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978.
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