Servant leadership is more than a nice concept, it is the model offered to us by Christ Himself.
One of the principal rules of religion is to lose no occasion of serving God. And, since he is invisible to our eyes, we are to serve him in our neighbor; which he receives as if done to himself in person, standing visibly before us (John Wesley). For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
Imagine sitting in a large Sunday morning service when you get the news that all the toilets in the building are clogged and unusable. Worse, it’s the Sunday your congregation is hosting the governor, who happens to be a member of your denomination. What would happen if in the middle of the chaos you realize that the governor himself has gone to the janitor’s closet, grabbed supplies, unclogged and cleaned the toilets, and even mopped the floors? Unbelievable — and unacceptable, right? This is precisely parallel to what happened during the Last Supper in the upper room. John 13 records the scene with such powerful detail when, in the middle of the evening meal:
[Jesus] got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him (John 13:4-5).
Here was a radical act of service—an unbelievable and unacceptable act of service. Peter, protesting Jesus’s act, acknowledged that (John 13:8). The world’s expectation has always been for leaders to be served, for their needs to be met, for their feet to be washed. Not so with Jesus. In fact, Jesus taught His disciples one of the deepest leadership lessons when he gently told them: Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you (John 13:14-15).
As a model of leadership, Jesus served His followers to show how the leadership pyramid would be clearly turned upside down. He had started the lesson earlier, while traveling to Jerusalem, when He told them that to be great they must be the servants of all the others (Matthew 20:26). This time, His teaching was beyond a mere lecture. It was a practical example of servanthood. Also, Jesus showed the disciples that servanthood is not just a matter of casual service. At that time, the washing of feet was considered one of the lowest, most menial of tasks — fit only for slaves.
Yet Jesus dignified such service by performing it on behalf of those He served. That model of service was the supreme lesson of leadership. Like Jesus, leaders are first called to be servants. While the modern-day concept of “servant leadership” was made popular by nonreligious scholars such as Robert Greenleaf, who coined it with his 1970 essay “The Servant as a Leader,” the concept is not new. And certainly it is the essential requirement for Christian leadership.
Servant leaders look after the needs, aspirations, and priorities of others before their own. In exchange, followers learn to do the same, and the church becomes a true expression of the servant spirit of Christ, our head and supreme leader. Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore puts it clearly for leaders today:
I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I served and behold, service was joy.
A church that serves is a church full of joy!
Gustavo A. Crocker, general superintendent Holiness Today March/April 2016