Summary: Jesus’perspective on servant leadership changes the way we see our our Master, our fellow leaders, and the church members we serve.
Dr. Roger W. Thomas, Preaching Minister
First Christian Church, Vandalia, MO
Introduction: Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, who died a few years, became a familiar sight to millions in his company’s television commercials. I used to refer to him as Uncle Dave. He wasn’t my uncle, but I hoped that if he ever heard about my referring to him that way he might remember me in his will. He didn’t. I guess I can just call him plain old Dave Thomas now.
Dave also appeared in a lot of in store training films. In those, as in many of the more familiar commercials, he would dress as his workers. One year he appeared on the cover of one of the company’s annual reports dressed in a knee-length work apron holding a mop and a plastic bucket. For many years, a framed copy of that picture graced the back rooms and manager’s office of most Wendy’s. That picture was built on the fact Dave was a self-made millionaire. He didn’t finish high school. He worked his way up through the ranks of Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken chain long before he went off on his own and started Wendy’s. Here’s how Dave explained that picture: “I got my M.B.A. long before my G.E.D. At Wendy’s M.B.A. does not mean Master of Business Administration. It means Mop Bucket Attitude.” Dave Thomas taught all of his employees that service comes before success. The Wendy’s owner could have learned that lesson from Jesus.
You are leaders. You have been selected by the fellow members of this church to lead and make decisions. What you do will affect the life and future of this congregation. You have agreed to accept that challenge. For that you are respected and honored by your brothers and sisters in this church. Your leadership is important.
But as followers of Jesus you are a different kind of leader. You are what Jesus describes as a servant leader. On the surface that might seem like an oxymoron—a contradiction in terms. Words like jumbo shrimp, baby grand, adult children, male lady bug, government organization, cafeteria food, or painless dentistry. Servant leadership—how can it be?
Jesus knew he was teaching something that seems out of place. He acknowledged that most people think differently. For the pagans, he said, leadership is all about who gets to call the shots. His disciples thought that way. This discussion started when James’ and John’s mother asked that Jesus name her sons his right hand men. The others protested. Only a few days earlier Jesus had caught them arguing over who was most important. That’s when he called a child to his side and warned his men that unless they became like little children they could have no part in his kingdom.
A servant leader is a leader that first serves. He leads by serving. This role is not limited to our elders and deacons but it certainly applies to those responsibilities. Consider the servant side of servant leadership.
A Servant Leader is first a servant of Jesus. To be a leader in a New Testament church means recognizing that we are not our own masters. One of the best biblical images of this single-minded resolve is found in Psalm 123:2: “As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God.” We want to be a church that Jesus builds. He is the owner and master. We are stewards. All authority belongs to him. His words not ours matter most. When we make important decisions, ultimately there is only one vote that counts. A servant leader’s task is to know Christ well enough that we know his will.
The Old Testament call still stands. “ Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
A Servant Leader is also a servant to his fellow workers and leaders. Jesus’ men would always have trouble with this. On the night before the cross, the Lord gathered his little family together for the Passover. It was a critical night. He knew it. He wanted them to know it. Jesus surprised the room full of future apostles by taking off his coat, picking up a towel and basin and washing their feet. They protested that this was beneath his position. That was a common servant or even a slave’s task. But none of them offered to take over. He told them. “I am leaving you an example. Do as I have done.”
It might be a good idea to literally do that from time to time. I have been in a few foot washing services through the years. Some churches practice it as a part of their Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services. It can be a meaningful experience. But Jesus’ point is more about a way of life than it is about a ritual. He calls his followers to never be too proud to do whatever is needed to serve one another. That’s still a tough pill for some of us to swallow—especially would be leaders. It requires humility. It leaves no room for arrogance or jealousy over position and authority.