During my second year of college, I joined a fellowship program. One of the requirements of the program was to also take a course component for the fellowship. The course was on servant leadership. I’d never heard the term before, although I suppose that would make sense for a young adult only a few years removed from their parents telling them what to do. Still, the concept of servant leadership intrigued me.
‘I thought leaders simply lead?’
‘How does a leader serve?’
I never asked these questions aloud, but I pondered on them.
Over a decade later, I’ve developed a deeper relationship with Jesus, and the answer to how a leader serves couldn’t be more obvious. The answer lies with Jesus himself.
What is Servant Leadership?
Servant leadership was coined in the 1970s by Robert K. Greenleaf. It is the belief that leaders emerge from serving others and choosing to serve others first.
Jesus is the Ultimate Servant-Leader
Jesus is the epitome of serving others first. On a macro level, he was given as the Son of God to die for us (John 3:16). But the Bible highlights single instances where Jesus served the people he was meant to minister to as well as those that ministered with him.
The Washing of Feet
John 13 recounts the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples on the night of his betrayal. I can imagine the care that Jesus showed to each of his disciples — how he carefully took their feet and handled them. How time consuming and laborious it must have been. After the completion of this task, Jesus talks with the disciples. He says to them:
If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. (v. 14–16, ESV)
The previous verses show Jesus stepping into the role of servant. However, in the above mentioned conversation Jesus is having, he acknowledges that he is the leader when he refers to himself as Lord and teacher. And as the leader, Jesus recognizes that he must be the example for us to follow on how to treat others. He even tells us to follow his lead.
Servant Leader to Everyone
John 13 makes careful mention to let us know that Judas Iscariot had already been influenced to betray Jesus (v. 2). Even after the washing of their feet, Judas was admonished to “do it quickly” (v. 27). What happened to Judas between verses two and twenty-seven? Simply put: Jesus served him, too.
Does that truth stand out to you like it stands out to me? Imagine Jesus, in all his divinity, knowing someone in the room is going to betray him on this very night and he still chooses to wash his feet.
Servant leadership is about choice.
Perhaps you work with a difficult employee or coworker in the workplace. Every time you read an email with their name or see their face around the office, you roll your eyes. I’ve been there. But the instruction from Jesus is clear: serve them well and serve them first. As Marketplace Ministers, as image bearers of Jesus’s love and truth, we don’t get to choose not to serve difficult people. Because Jesus did not choose. He was spoken down on by the religious leaders of the time for choosing to sit amongst sinners (Mark 2:13-17). We are called to serve everyone.
Servant leadership is about humbling ourselves and serving where we are needed. Not where we choose. Not dependent upon who we are serving. To be a light to a lost and dying world. Let us answer this call with all joy.
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