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As soon as you accept the invitation to walk with God, you begin the lifelong journey of becoming a servant leader. I can already hear many of you asking, “Who me? A leader?” Some of you may have the opposite reaction, knowing wholeheartedly that leadership is in your DNA. Whether you feel called to lead or completely out of your league, trust me that this article is for everyone who wants a more personal relationship with Jesus and a more powerful ministry.
While our culture tends to recognize leaders as those with a particular skillset or personality, servant leadership isn’t based on talent or position, rather, it’s God’s high call on everyone’s life who is committed to following Jesus. This includes parents, corporate executives, students, Amazon delivery drivers, and whatever it is you do with your time. God Himself has invited you to be on mission to represent His Grace and Truth to a very broken world. We do this anywhere and everywhere we set foot, whether we have an audience of one or fifty. All are called, but very few become the leader God envisioned. But why not?
Because we are far more interested in serving ourselves and finding followers, than serving a mission that brings followers to us. This is where servant leadership, the way Jesus teaches, radically diverges from your typical leadership models. Rather than working to get ahead, or hold a place of honor, He calls His disciples to focus on others first and the unique missions He has created for us to fulfill. When others see your passion for God and commitment to a cause, then they want to get on board.
True servant leaders attract followers to God’s character, plans and purposes – not their own. As a result, visions are realized and God is glorified.
The servant leader who is self-focused will always find her false self and not God. A servant leader who is other-focused will develop leaders who find their true selves and want more of God.
What kind of leader do you want to be?
Even the leaders you admire most have some tendency toward self-preservation and celebrity. It’s who we are without Jesus. But we are called to more.
How is your heart feeling? Excited? Scared? Discouraged? Hopeful? Keep reading, the Holy Spirit wants to speak to you! Ultimately, excellence in leading God’s way is about the heart, not raw talent. As such, servant leaders aren’t born, they are developed through a willingness to be transformed by intentionally living in God’s will and being obedient to His Word. While there are plenty of resources to learn about servant leadership, Jesus is our role model. He embodies what it means to truly give your life for another. His life and death illustrate that why we lead is far more important than where we lead, or how many follow. It all comes down to motivation.
Henri Nouwen writes:
“The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross. This might sound morbid and masochistic, but for those who have heard the voice of the first love and said “yes” to it, the downward-moving way of Jesus is the way to the joy and peace of God, a joy and peace that is not of this world. Here we touch the most important quality of Christian leadership in the future. It is not a leadership of power and control, but leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.”
It might sound like a big stretch to find peace and joy through powerlessness and humility in your circles of influence. But, scripture makes it clear that the gap isn’t as great as you might think – in fact, it’s as simple as washing a few dirty feet.
One of the most shocking and intentional acts of servant leadership Jesus performed next to His crucifixion was washing his disciples’ feet prior to his crucifixion. While it sounds mundane, this simple gesture illustrates for us what downward mobility looks like in action:
“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 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. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”- John 13:12-17: 12
Ok, so we can’t go around washing stranger’s feet – or even our best friend’s. That would be weird, right? Washing the feet of those who serve Him was a symbolic act intended to teach His followers then and now three points.
The radical love servant leaders have for God results in joyfully giving your time, talent and treasure to those who have nothing to give in return – and those who don’t deserve generosity. As Nouwen said, we can only give freely with no strings attached when we know God’s love for us (sidenote: completely unearned).
Don’t confuse godly humility with neglecting or negating yourself. Jesus calls us to love others as ourselves. He just wants us to get over ourselves enough to do it out of love, not obligation or pride. Again, it’s the heart space of caring enough about others and fulfilling God’s special assignments in your life to drop your ego and agenda to meet the need in front of you.
Jesus made a point of including Judas in the clean foot club after he had betrayed Jesus. Take note he made darn sure the other disciples had this powerful image imprinted on their minds and hearts before sending them out. While Judas had the power and means to mortally hurt Jesus, we all know people who can harm us and our callings with their words, gossip, criticism, and lack of support. Jesus went further into suffering than He will ever ask us to go, but He does ask us to extend love and grace (sometimes from a safe distance) to those who refuse to reciprocate.
Washing stinky, smelly feet in Bible times was slave’s work. Today, it might look more like cleaning up an overflowing toilet at a church retreat, making amends without receiving an apology, or staying up most of the night to pray or care for a sick friend. We all have our own opinions about the tasks and roles we think are beneath us. Guess what? Your willingness to do it anyway might be the tipping point that makes someone take a second look at Jesus.
Spend some time considering your own circumstances and where Jesus might be asking you to “go low”. Remember, those who follow Jesus’ model of servant leadership descend into greatness.
The servant leader’s greatest desire is seeing others achieve God’s best for their lives, even if it means sacrificing their own agenda. This is often the hardest part – but only for a while. It’s one thing to say we care more about others than ourselves, it’s another to truly feel this in the depths of our beings. Only God can transform us into servants that love as He does.
One of the best ways to spur on the process of developing a servant’s heart is to find role models:
“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” – Hebrews 13:7
Oftentimes we are most inspired by those with strong character, versus an impressive position or large platform. Character reflects the heart space more than anything else; it is cultivated in the fine stitching of our lives but becomes apparent when we are under stress. A true leader makes the right decision even when no one is watching, and it shows in every aspect of their public life. Your greatest opportunity to influence others is born of how you handle crisis, personal obstacles and even flat-out failure, not what you are able to accomplish.
Ask God to help you invest as much effort into building your character as you do into growing your skills wherever He calls you to serve.
Building a principled life doesn’t require an impressive resume. In fact, the most influential leaders often bring nothing to the table but a deep faith in the goodness of God and a commitment to becoming more like Christ, regardless of the cost. Servant leadership is the narrow road and runs countercultural to what the world expects, but the return is far greater. By adopting the above principles you can have a far greater impact on those in your circles of influence. What greater honor is there than to serve others in such a way that their greatest desire is to know Christ?
Katie Pearson is the owner and founder of Be New Ministries, which provides faith-based retreats, workshops, coaching and leadership development training for women. Her writing has appeared in numerous magazines, publications and training programs. She is a Certified Professional Life Coach, has an M.A. in English Literature, and has trained yoga instructors for more than twenty years. Katie and her husband Kevin have two daughters in college, and live on Bainbridge Island, WA, where she was raised.
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