Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all. (Mark 9:35)
It should come as no surprise that the concept of “servant leadership” is commended by both popular Christian leadership writers and professional leadership scholars. I’m afraid, however, that some of the people who most often quote this simple and straightforward principle are among the worst violators of its true implications.
It’s not that they’re all hypocrites. Sure, some leaders are willfully dishonest as they give lip service to humble servanthood while they trample on their subordinates. But for many others, the disconnect between precept and practice is because much of our practical, theoretical, and even theological commentary on servant leadership fails to account for all the Bible has to say on the subject.
Good, Bad, and Ugly
I have had the privilege over a lifetime to observe and work alongside a good many Christian leaders of some prominence. Our local church was of sufficient size and “flagship” status in our community to attract guest speakers and various Christian artists of fairly high stature. The same was true of our local Youth for Christ chapter.
It was customary in my childhood years to collect autographs of visiting speakers. In church, we managed to turn even that pursuit into a competition. The flyleaves of my childhood Bible were pretty well filled with autographs of spiritual celebrities. My parents faithfully practiced hospitality such that rarely a month went by without us welcoming a Christian leader of some kind as a guest in our home. The chapel platform in our Bible college featured a parade of prominent academic, intellectual, church, and mission leaders. As a student leader and frequent musical performer, I enjoyed a more intimate access to those individuals than others of my contemporaries.
From my earliest days, I was an admirer and observer of people in ministry leadership. I have had the privilege of knowing and working with many men and women whose character was commensurate with their standing. My life is immeasurably richer because of their example and influence.
As my experiences and horizons expanded through my teen and young adult years, however, I gradually realized that some of the prominent people I encountered were not altogether praiseworthy. I was troubled to discover that some were vain, petty, critical, condescending, self-indulgent—yet this seemed to be inconsequential in terms of their elevated status and public reputation. We might well expect such incongruity in pagan political and marketplace leaders, but it was then and remains now unsettling to observe it among leaders of God’s people.
In my experience, far too little correlation is evident between the status of Christian leaders and their character. A gifted Bible teacher and Bible memory advocate to whom I had deep exposure in my early teens, when found guilty of sexual impropriety, clung to the ministry he had founded, fled from accountability, and started a competing ministry organization—into which a good many of his constituents and contributors followed him. A pastor I greatly admired for his fresh Bible exposition and leadership of church growth ultimately made his personal reputation and vindication into an idol such that he bitterly divided and destroyed the very congregation God had used him to build. He died a bitter and caustic man. The church never recovered.
Four decades of ministry leadership involvement have afforded me an unusually broad, rich, and diverse national and international network. The number of ministry leaders for whom I have deepest admiration is large. At the same time, my experiences have forced me to conclude that the incongruity between leadership status and true greatness is not nearly as rare as it should be. As I have worked on The Servant of All, I have grieved over and prayed for ministry leaders I know whose gifts are substantial but whose leadership is diminished, demoralizing, even damaging because they have mistaken true greatness for status and success.
The most disturbing observation of all is that my own advancement in ministry responsibility and prominence may have at times taken my gifts more than my graces into account. To be sure, I humbly appreciate the generosity and forbearance with which I have been treated. Nobody is perfect, after all. Over the years, God and so very many of his people have been gracious to and patient with me. Nevertheless, I regret the times my status was elevated and the scope of my responsibilities enlarged despite obvious and lingering character flaws. I am not sure that was good for me or good for the people I have been called to lead.
The longer I serve in ministry, the more I long to be found great in terms of character, not comparison. And that is where my story intersects with the story surrounding Jesus’ statement about greatness.
Servant of All is designed to help you see that Jesus had more to say on the subject of greatness than we typically think, and we will miss most of what he said unless we see and reflect on the full scope of his commentary. Only looking at a small slice of what Jesus said about greatness will likely cause us to misunderstand much of what he meant unless we see Jesus’ simple statement in light of its context. It’s obvious that plenty of people who can quote it have made that mistake. You don’t want to do that, do you? I didn’t think so. Then let’s begin by taking a look backward—to the events that led up to the lesson.
This post is adapted from Servant of All by Ralph Enlow Jr. (Kirkdale Press, 2019).