Servant leadership in today’s ministry

Though Robert K. Greenleaf launched the modern servant leadership movement in 1970, its beginning can be traced to the earliest pages of Hebrew Scriptures. In this article by Perry W. H. Shaw, discover what it means to minister in Christ-likeness.

Redemption: The Authority to Serve
As a respected leader, so much of Jesus’ behavior was culturally shocking: he prioritized his attention to those others rejected; he showed little concern with his own image; he shocked even his own disciples by doing what they were unwilling to do in washing their feet (John 13:1–17); he humbled himself even to death on a cross—an event so shameful that our Muslim brethren refuse to accept that it happened. So easily we forget the shocking fact that God did not merely model fiat power; he also modeled self-giving and humiliating love. And Jesus calls on his disciple-leaders to be like God in self-giving love, even in the willingness to be humiliated. In other words, we can become like Jesus only when we stop trying to be God.

It is perhaps at this point more than any other that Christian leaders have been seduced by the fallen society around them. The “business” model of church (Budde & Brimlow, 2002; Sine, 2003;White, 1979; c.f. Symonds, 2005) and mission (Bonk, 1991; Engel & Dryness, 2000) with its preoccupation with methods, numbers, finances, and marketing has too often (albeit subtly) shifted our focus from internal transformation to external appearances—expensive buildings and the material success of the organization, even to the honor and respect of the surrounding society. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in theological institutions, where the emphasis (most notably in curricular development) has increasingly been shaped more by the patterns and wishes of the secular community than by submission to the values of the kingdom of God.

Particularly among Christian leaders who come from humble backgrounds, the tendency to crave recognition and control is an ever-present danger. Paulo Freire (1982) once observed, “It is a rare peasant who, once promoted to overseer, does not become more of a tyrant towards his former comrades than the owner himself” (p. 30). The seeking after the respect of this world is indeed seductive—and dangerous. By nature Christians are called to be different from the society around. When status and image become prime factors in institutional decision-making, the model presented by Jesus would suggest that those in leadership are living as those fallen but not redeemed.

The problem of course is that most leaders are very adept at putting on a public face to those who do not know them personally, and Christian leaders are no exception. So easily we can appear very humble and loving people, while those who know us know how much we crave the public eye and long for the “bravos,” and how reluctant we are to surrender our authority—even to those more gifted than we are. Christian history provides us with all the tools for hypocrisy. As Nouwen (1989) describes it, “The long painful history of the Church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led” (p. 60).

Does this mean that the divine model is that of the total forfeit of one’s selfhood in response to the felt needs of others? Bradley (1999) has rightly pointed out the dangers associated with a “servant leadership” model, particularly when the person in leadership is perceived as weak or indecisive, a problem particularly prevalent in high-grid societies (p. 52). However, I would suggest that this critique reflects a misunderstanding of servant leadership. As Gibbs (1981) puts it, Christian leaders are called to “hold the towel of humility, not the door-mat of subservience which everyone can walk over” (p. 379). The radical paradox of servant-leadership is that we are called not only to serve but also to lead.

The Search for Significance
But how can this work out in practice? Is the talk of “servant leader” simply a pleasant aphorism with little practical meaning? A careful study of the model of Jesus would suggest a solution in the source of the leader’s significance—the extent to which the leader’s identity is found in his or her relationship with God, as against the need for power or influence over others, or the significance attributed to his or her role and function as leader.

There is no question but that many of the problems we bemoan in Christian leadership are due to the search for significance. All people long to feel significant, and many seek this significance through position and authority, and through the respect and honor of others. But ultimately [Tweet “true significance is found not in the opinions of others, but in one’s relationship with Christ.”] It is only when leaders cease to need others for their own psychological well being that they are freed to see and to meet the needs of those whom God has called them to serve.

Part of our problem in accepting the imperative of servant leadership is our lack of models. Our world of efficiency and control—even within the hallowed walls of our churches and Christian organizations—has little room for the inverted vertical theocratic form of leadership seen in Jesus. Yet, as Hiebert (1989) has observed, it is only through servant leadership that we can begin to address the worldwide leadership crisis in the church. So long as leadership is perceived in terms of power and status, the fear of training the next generation to leadership will persist, lest “my” position and status is taken by another. It takes a servant attitude to be willing not merely to train leaders for future replacement of my own ministry, but to rejoice when another is able more effectively now to take my position of leadership and do my job.

In a world of growing societal complexity and mistrust of institutions, the model of servant leadership is becoming an increasingly pressing imperative. The emerging generations are seeking authority and leadership, built not on power and control but on a proven and trusted record of self-sacrifice, service, and empowerment.

Empowering Authority
As with Christ, true authority comes not through forced authority but through a chosen submission of love. Rather than seeking to control those they have been called to lead, Christian leaders follow the divine model given in Christ when they seek above all else to serve their best, to seek the growth and enhancement of others, and to empower them in their own emerging leadership.

The pattern of empowering delegation evident in the Godhead is seen throughout the Scriptures: in the Old Testament God delegated and empowered Adam (Genesis 2:19),Moses (Exodus 3:12), Samuel (I Samuel 3:19–21), David (I Samuel 16:12), and so the list goes on. Most significantly, God delegated and empowered Jesus who delegated and empowered the apostles: “As the Father has sent me so I send you” (John 20:21). In each case the pattern is one of freedom under authority; Jesus did not seek to control the apostles’ every movement, but gave them the freedom to exercise authority under his authority—even when that exercise was imperfect and sinful. And even in their sinfulness and weakness (we must not forget that Judas was among those sent out), Jesus gave them the power needed “to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness” (Matthew 10:1).

The scriptural model is not one of studious oversight and control, but one in which those in leadership first delegate to those who are gifted and then seek to empower them to do the tasks for which God has gifted them— and all for the good of the whole body of Christ. When leaders function as though they have all the gifts, they are in effect claiming to be God. In reality no leader has all the gifts. Rather all believers are called on to complete one another and to let others complete them; only in this way can the community of faith truly aspire to be the body of Christ.

This transformation of leadership from a controlling follower-developing pattern to an empowering leader-developing pattern can emerge only in as much as leaders are freed from the need to find their significance in their role as leaders. Allen (1998) comments that through finding our significance solely through our relationship with God,“[Jesus] seeks to free us of the need to have our person established by domination over others. He seeks to free us of the need to gain recognition at the expense of others” (p. 297). The route to this realization is eschatological: “We therefore do not have to compete with each other in order to become ourselves; for what we are to become is not to be gained in the realm of earthly dominance . . . It is by following him that we can enter the kingdom in which we can serve each other” (p. 298).

Consummation: Vulnerable Authority
Being free to serve and exercising empowering authority is the redemptive ideal modeled in Christ.
Only when leaders are willing to be vulnerable—with self and with God—can they avoid the pitfalls of the abuses of autocracy and the paralysis of democracy, and truly serve with authority. Only when they are willing and able to hear and receive valid criticism without being controlled by it, only then can they aspire to excellence as individuals and as leaders of God’s people.

As Christian leaders living between the already of Christ’s Redemption and the not yet of the Consummation, the challenge is always before us to look honestly and carefully in the light of Christ’s model at our ourselves and our role as leaders, and strive toward the ideal of self-giving theocratic leadership. By so doing we can strive toward God’s way of excellence in Christian leadership—the excellent way of love and vulnerable authority.

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About The Author
Perry Shaw, Ed.D., is Professor of Christian Education and Director of the Educational Ministries Resource Centre at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. Perry and his family have been living in the Middle East since 1990, serving in a variety of church and seminary-based ministries, including curriculum and faculty development for ministerial training schools across Asia. E-mail:

Vulnerable Authority is taken from the Christian Education Journal, CEJ: Series 3,Vol. 9, No. 1 ; p 119-133. All rights reserved. Permission granted by Christian Education Journal.

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