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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Servant Leadership in Crisis

When Mennonites talk about leadership, the conversation quickly turns to servant leadership, always described as a good thing.  I too believe in servant leadership, but fear that our understanding of it has slipped into idolatry, one of those clever ways we humans come up with to worship ourselves.

I suspect the emphasis on servant leadership in recent decades has its roots in a much needed corrective to abuses of authority and the ability of leaders to act with impunity.  This is a good thing.  The emphasis on servant leadership has also highlighted the fact that all Christians are ministers in their own way, and each is a necessary part of the body of Christ.

I am concerned, though, that the concept of servant leadership has become co-opted by an individualistic, consumer-oriented and materialistic culture that understands service or servant in light of the individual consumer.  For Pastors, we sometimes think servant leadership means satisfying the wants and needs of individual religious consumers in our congregation.  Servants serve at the pleasure of their masters.  Their job is to make those whom they serve happy.  We don't like poor customer service.

Jesus on the other hand was a servant leader who did not do what people wanted, often made them unhappy, surely was a disappointment to many, but yet gave of himself sacrificially in love.  Jesus acted out of a call to serve God and live out the Kingdom of God.  This sometimes converged with the desires of the people around him, but often involved challenging them to evaluate their sense of self and want and need, reorienting them to God.  That sure is a different model of servant leadership than we have in the late capitalism of the early 21st century.

The question is, how can we empower servant leaders to lead us toward God's vision, challenge us when we need to be challenged, yet still lead in a culture of accountability and a spirit of humility?  Critical to this, I think, is asking ourselves not what we want, but what God wants.  Anything less, I dare say, is idolatry.


GoshenPeacheyRetirement said...

Maybe we need to talk about "leader behavior" rather than leadership.

Phil Waite said...

Hooray! A comment. Congratulations on being the first. I wish I could offer you a prize.

Thank you for the comment!