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What does servant leadership look like?

| by Jim Farrer

The term “servant leadership” was coined in 1969 by Robert K. Greenleaf, an AT&T executive, after reading Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East whose character Leo, a laborer, surprisingly held a team of travelers together. Greenleaf defines servant leadership simply as “caring for persons, with the more able and less able serving each other.” He elaborates this principle in his book Servant Leadership.

Ancient background

There are various theories as to the origin of this kind of leadership. Perhaps chronologically, the real architect of this model could be the biblical figure Jethro who far earlier advised Moses to divide his tasks of leadership among able and trustworthy men. Greenleaf references Jethro but believes that what is missing is the guardianship of the quality of their society. 

Investing in people

However, a deeper look at Exodus 18 shows that Moses’ subordinates were indeed to give of themselves in the midst of conflicts to bring about justice and mercy. Other ancient biblical texts behind the concept of servant leadership are Leviticus 19:18: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and Isaiah 61. 

This latter passage is the servant song which Jesus read in the synagogue at the start of his ministry and then assumed as his role. Jesus shared the servant concept with his trainees recorded in Mark 10:44-45: “...whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” 

According to James D. Smart in The Rebirth of Ministry Jesus exemplified the biblical ministry not only by giving help but by giving himself. 

The ministry of meekness

Moses is described in Numbers 12:3: “… the man Moses was very meek above all men.” 

Many today assume meek means weak. The term meek in the Hebrew language is anaw and in the Greek is praotes orpraus. These terms were used in reference to a horse which was broken and harnessed but not made into a plodding plow horse. They were used in reference to chariot horses whose fire was still there but were now under control of their master. 

Likewise, Moses who was known for an uncontrolled temper became disciplined to obey the commands of his heavenly master.

The blessed leader

Psalm 1:1 is usually translated “Blessed is the man.” In The Psalms and their Meaning for Today Samuel Terrien explains: “The Hebrew word ashre, usually rendered ‘blessed’ or ‘happy,’ probably derives from a root meaning ‘to go forth,’ ‘to advance’ and, in one of its forms, ‘to lead the way’ ” (p. 240). Thus a possible translation of Psalm 1 begins: “Oh, the leadership of the one who advances God’s vision for the world by walking not in the counsel of the wicked ... but whose delight is in the Torah of the Lord.” The word Torah is often translated law but really means the revealed instruction or more literally the pointing out of God’s way.

The servant of the Lord

Many denominations develop a matching process to connect a congregation’s needs with a pastor’s gifts and skills. Over the years these lists have often grown into 30 or more choices. 

In 1959, Joseph Sittler observed that at one time almost everyone knew the role of a priest or pastor, but the growing expectations of the ministry caused the clergy to be “macerated” or chopped up into small pieces and thus driven in numerous directions. Traditionally, clergy were to preach, administer the sacraments/ordinances, care, marry and bury. They were to guide the flock in reading scripture, praying and discerning the true but narrow path. 

Pastors should listen to the needs of parishioners; however, some expectations become shaped by tradition or whim. The Minister of the Gospel still must be bound over uncompromisingly to the service of Jesus.

The congregation’s masseuse

Eugene H. Peterson in Working the Angles (p. 8) reports that Flannery O’Connor believed that many people expect a pastor to be “one part minister and three parts masseuse.” Instead, pastors are not only to comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable. 

This happens more often when a congregation regularly engages the breadth of the Bible and relies on the wisdom of the Church through the centuries. Worship in the ancient church included such things as a corporate confession of sin and the reading of the Ten Commandments. 

While Jesus talked about an abundant and eternal quality of life, he did not preach “smiley-faced” Christianity. He was brutally honest about the narrow way into the kingdom and the cost of discipleship.

How do you spell service?

The question for each congregation or Christian group is: Will you spell the word: s-e-r-v-i-c-e or serve-us? Where will our time, effort and money be spent? On serving ourselves or serving neighbors/outsiders?

Photo source: istock 

Jim Farrer

A broadly-trained church consultant, Jim Farrer is the founder of Vital Signs Church Consulting and a member of the Society for Church Consulting. A veteran of ministry positions in Canada and the U.S., he has trained leaders from 18 denominations and led seminars and coaching sessions nationwide. His articles have been published in the Journal of Evangelism and Missions and the Great Commission Research Journal. You can reach him by e-mailing or calling 814 629-5211.

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