Servant Leadership:

What Does It Mean?

Everybody wants to be the Leader, nobody wants to be the Follower. If you are not the lead dog, guess what your view of the world is? It's a human quest as old as humanity [Gen.3:5].

The Twelve Disciples fought over who was leader. Jesus overheard their squabbles and called a child over as an object lesson. "Whoever wants to be top dog must become like this little child."  [Matt.18:4] They didn't learn very well, and were squabbling about the same issue all over again, the night before the crucifixion. Again Jesus gave them a graphic object lesson: he took off his nice tunic and took up a towel like a slave and washed feet. "Do it this way," he said, "Like a slave." [John 13:15]

Today everybody still wants to be the Leader. We argue over who can be ordained or not. Why? Because everybody knows the pastor gets to boss everybody around. We have gotten a little more subtle about it. Now we call it "Servant-Leader."  That way we can say "servant" while still thinking "leader." The point Jesus tried to make is that if you even think "leader" you have it backwards.

There was one fellow Jesus met who had more faith than any other person in all of Israel, and he wasn't even Jewish. He was a Roman centurion, and he had a sick servant. He asked Jesus to heal his servant. He was very deferential about it, Jesus didn't even need to defile himself (under Jewish law, entering a pagan Roman home was defiling) by coming into the house; Jesus could heal from a distance, just by giving the command. How did the centurion know this? Because he was a man under authority, and a leader of people under authority. Except he didn't use the word "leader." His focus instead was on obedience to authority. The centurion was obedient (servant) to his commanding officer, and those under him were also obedient. He was centurion because he understood that, so his commanding officer could trust him to do Caesar's business.

There is only one Boss and Leader, God. Not you. Not me. God, and God alone. You and I are servants -- and not very good ones at that. Paul called himself a slave of Jesus Christ, never a Leader in the church. Whoever wants to be a leader is not qualified. If you want to be a leader, then your focus is on the perquisites of leadership, not in doing the job of leadership. It is only when your sole concern is serving that you become qualified to lead.

The Mission Statement of the University (Adopted by the board of trustees, May 1997) says: "Southwest Baptist University is a Christ-centered, caring academic community preparing students to be servant leaders in a global society." There it is again, that oxymoronic phrase "servant leader." This is a pretty good Mission Statement, and I support it wholeheartedly, but when I read it, I pronounce it, "...preparing students to be servantleaders in a global society" emphasizing the Biblical "servant" part and diminishing the worldly "leader" part. If students learn and understand that they should be servants, they will be leaders in the world, and good ones. If they focus on the "leader" part, they won't even be good Christians, let alone leaders.

My place in this university is to serve my employer, which I understand means serving the students by guiding (leading) them into the ability to think clearly and solve computer-related problems. This enables them to serve their employers and customers when they get out of here, and thus make the world a better place. That will make them leaders in a world full of people who don't know their right hand from their left, but only because they are serving it. Leading the students turns out to be a part of my service also, but the focus is always on serving, not leading.

Tom Pittman
2003 November 20