Servant leadership is a concept familiar to Jesus followers and also one that is increasingly familiar in the business world. Robert Greenleaf introduced his take on it in the late seventies, and the concept has undergone something of a renaissance in the literature in recent years. Obviously there are differences, but sometimes I wonder if some of the ‘business’ understanding of servant leadership in ways is closer to what Jesus was modelling and trying to get us to understand.
Is it possible that the church has got its understanding and practice of servant leadership badly wrong?
It seems to me that many people have an incorrect view of what it means to be a servant leader. Many interpret servant leadership as running themselves into the ground or pandering to the ‘needs’ (or perhaps more accurately ‘wants’) of those they lead.
The primary focus of service for the servant leader is the mission of which s/he is leading (and the God whose mission it is). This changes the dynamic slightly than if the primary focus is serving those who are being led. When serving God and the missio dei is the primary focus there can be no such thing as consumer church where the congregation are provided with what they want to hear and do in the ways in which they want to hear and do it. A servant leader who primarily serves the mission of God will ultimately serve those they lead, but it may not be an easy or comfortable journey for those being led. It will however be an ultimately fulfilling one. In this sense true servant leadership should always be missional, it cannot be focused on maintaining a nice Christian social club.
Secondly a proper understanding of servant leadership should result in a radical shift in how ministers, pastors and all church leaders operate. If the minister or pastor(s) are the ones doing everything then servant leadership is not being practised. If leaders truly are servants, then serving the mission of God and the people in the light of that means helping empower the people, building them up for acts of service, and releasing them into their gifts. In the words of Chua Wee Hian:
the primary task of leaders is to identify and facilitate the deployment of gifts
Therefore if the church leader is the one who is doing everything, leading every group or committee, teaching at every church gathering I would argue they are not exercising servant (or indeed biblical) leadership. Further in doing everything they are actually denying people the opportunity to identify and develop gifts, and are not building the church up, but rather their reputation, control and empire. Perhaps we need to get back to training when it comes to church leaders – in seminaries the leadership aspect needs overhauled (if it exists at all), and what of elders? What training is there for them? How does this understanding of servant leadership affect not only their role but also how they interact with full-time staff? Another example might be a church which struggles to find people to teach in worship services when the minister leaves. If God gives all the gifts a community needs then is the lack of people available to teach not a failure of the leadership to have developed teaching gifts in members of the congregation? Or indeed a failure of the practise of servant leadership?
If we really believe in the biblical concept of servant leadership, which yes is sacrificial (not in the ways used as an excuse for control freaks however) does it mean we need to radically change how leadership is exercised and modelled and not just taught?
To finish, it seems that identity is crucial for servant leaders. A leader who is not secure in who s/he is cannot and will not delegate responsibility and trust others with leadership and teaching within the church, and therefore cannot truly serve…