Servanthood: The Mark of Authentic Leadership


January 10, 1993 | Ray Pritchard

Warren Bennis is an educator, a philosopher, an author, a scholar and a keen observer of the American scene. These are his words. “Leadership is a word that is on everyone’s lips. The young fight against it. Police seek it. Experts claim it. The artists spurn it. Scholars want it. Bureaucrats pretend to have it and politicians wish they could find it. Everyone agrees on this one fact. There is less of it today than there used to be.” True, and everyone does agree on that last fact. And almost everybody agrees on a second fact. There is a crisis of leadership inside the Christian church. Turn on the radio. Open the newspaper. Watch the 10:00 p.m. news for yet another story about a Catholic priest, a protestant pastor, a vicar, a prelate, a spiritual leader caught in yet another moral failure, financial scandal, ecclesiastical upheaval—some shocking new revelation almost every week.

There is a crisis in the leadership of the Christian church today. It’s 1993 and we’re at a generational break. We’re at that point in history where a generation of church leaders is passing off the scene. The generation that came to leadership in the Christian movement after World War II is now retiring and who will replace Billy Graham and where will we find another theologian like Karl Henry and who will be the next Francis Schaeffer to take the gospel and apply it to the problems of the modern world? One generation is leaving the scene. Where will we find the leaders of tomorrow?

Kent Hughes, pastor and author, addresses the question this way in his excellent book Disciplines of a Godly Man. He asks this question. Is there really a shortage of leadership in the evangelical church? He answers the question this way. “Simply from a demographic basis, the answer is obviously yes. There are fewer men involved in leadership in the evangelical churches of American today than at any time in this century. One reason is men are busy. Another reason is men have other priorities. Another reason is men are workaholics. Another reason is men just don’t want to take leadership these days.”

But the reason that Kent Hughes points to as the most obvious is that in the average evangelical church, men make up only 41% of the total church population. So it is easy for men to pass the buck of spiritual leadership. It is easy for them to abdicate and let somebody else do the job. He points out that in many churches today, especially in smaller churches, you can’t even find one man who is willing to rise up and take the role of an elder in the local church. That’s one problem.

Another problem concerning leadership is simply how to define it. One man did a study of leadership and in order to do his study he read all the books that are currently on the market. He discovered by reading the articles, that there are at least 350 current definitions of what leadership is. No wonder we’re confused and no wonder people don’t want to be leaders. Leadership is like the abominable snowman. His tracks are everywhere, but he is nowhere to be found.

The question that America is asking today, not just in the church, but the entire society, is where are the leaders we need? Was that not what the recent election was all about? At its bottom level, was it not just a referendum on leadership? Go past foreign policy, past social issues, past economic plans and health care solutions, was it not all about leadership? And isn’t it interesting that the polls in November told us that most of the people who voted, especially in the presidential race, were voting not for someone, but against someone. Many people said what they really wanted was a ballot where they could check the box NOTA—none of the above. It speaks to the crisis of leadership in City Hall, in Springfield, in Washington D.C., on Capitol Hill, and in the White House.

Now we are in those transitional days between Bush and Clinton. It doesn’t matter whether you like both or neither. The following fact is true: the old is going out, and the new is coming in. Maybe you liked the old and don’t like the new. Maybe you didn’t like the old and like the new. It doesn’t matter. The old is going and in ten days going, going, gone forever. New people and new ideas and new direction and new leaders, and who knows where our country will go next.

Did you see the cover of Newsweek Magazine this week? It showed the picture of a soldier from World War II, in the cover story “The End of the World War II Generation.” A whole series of articles about how the generation that came out of World War II came to power, led the nation, and is now passing off the scene. In ten days the baby boomers, that’s my generation, take control, for better or for worse, like it or not. A generation is leaving and a new generation is arriving.

The question becomes: who will lead us in the future? Who will lead the Christian church? Who will lead the evangelical movement? Who will lead this church into the 21st century? Where will we find the leaders we need?

This sermon begins a series on leadership from the Christian point of view. This is the introductory message and the next sermons will get into the meat, the heart of the matter. I am doing it for two reasons. One, because we are at the beginning of our elder selection process. We approved a new constitution in November. We’re going to elect our first group of elders at the biannual business meeting in March, and the nominating committee has its first meeting this afternoon. I am preaching these messages so that you will have some idea of what the Bible says about leadership from God’s point of view. We know what the world says, I want to help you know what God says. I want to give you biblical guidelines for choosing church leaders who are biblically qualified.

There is a second reason that is bigger and more important. I am preaching these sermons because there is a vast difference between the world’s view of leadership and God’s view of leadership. The world’s view of leadership can be summed up in three words: perks, power, prestige. In the world, you are a leader if you have power, a title, some delegated authority, if you can tell people what to do. From God’s point of view, leadership is something entirely different. It is at this point that we come face to face with the shattering words of Jesus Christ, “Whoever would be great, must become a servant. Whoever desires to be first, must become the slave of all. You have heard that the gentiles lord it over one another, exercising authority over one another, but it shall not be so among you.” If you want to be a leader, be a servant. If you want to be Number 1, become a slave.

God’s view of leadership is servanthood. The way to become a leader is first to become a servant. That does raise the question that Loren Sanny, who was one of the founding fathers of the Navigators, raised. He asked the question “how do you know when you have a servant’s attitude?” Here was his answer. “You know you have a servant’s attitude when you react like a servant when you’re treated like a servant.” That is profound.

If servant leadership is what God is looking for, I am going to share four implications of servant leadership. This sermon will delve quickly into the question what a servant looks like. How do you spot a servant? You spot a servant by looking at his heart. What does his heart look like? Following are four qualities of a servant’s heart.

1) A servant has a humble heart.

Our text is found in Matthew 20 and Mark 10. “Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ ‘What do you want me to do for you,’ he asked. They replied, ‘let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’ “

The election is over. Bill Clinton won, and as one writer put it, it started the very next day raining resumes in Little Rock. Everybody who didn’t have a job started looking for a job. And everybody who didn’t vote for Clinton started saying, “Bill, you were my man from the time I was in kindergarten.” And everybody who had ever heard his name suddenly became Bill’s best friend. It happens every time there is an election. It doesn’t matter who wins. To the victor belong the spoils. When you win, you give your friends the plum positions.

You can see what James and John are thinking. There was going to be a crisis, and Lord, we’ve been betting on you all the way. After the crisis is over you are going to get to divide up the spoils in victory. We want to hit you up first, Lord, before these other guys get to you. If it’s OK, Lord, when you come into glory, how about putting one of us on the right and one of us on the left? It’s kind of like going to Bill Clinton and saying, “Let me be Secretary of State and let my brother be Secretary of Defense. You be the top man, but we’ll be on the right and on the left.”

That’s the way the world does it. When you win, you divide the spoils and you give your friends the plum positions. You fight hard, you win, and then the winner brings his friends in. That’s the way City Hall works. That’s the way it works in Springfield. That is certainly the way it works in Washington. But Jesus said “the gentiles love to do things that way…perks, power, prestige and plum positions. Not so among you.”

Let’s be honest. It is not what you know, it’s who you know, and if you know the right person at the right time, they lift you up to the right position. And Jesus said, that may be the way the world does it, not so among you. You want to be a leader? Great. Be a servant. You want to be #1? Become a slave. But in the church we haven’t heard his words very well. We have popes and cardinals, we have archbishops, we have bishops, we have denominational muckitymucks. We have presidents, vice-presidents, district superintendents. We have celebrities, we have superstars, radio preachers, TV preachers, Christian celebrities and Christian superstars, we even have Senior Pastors. Everybody has a title, everybody has a position, everybody has a place. And in the church, almost as much as in the world, there is a kind of pecking order. And you’d better know your place and you’d better keep your place.

Have we not come perilously close to the world? Have we not followed the world too much? Have we not copied the world’s pattern of leadership? And Jesus said in four words, “Not so among you.”

Here is the definition of humility. It is that virtue which, when you think you have it, you have lost it. When you think that you’ve just gotten hold of it, that you’ve finally become humble, that’s the moment you know you’ve lost it. It is like the story of the Dominican monk who was talking one day and comparing himself to other monks. He said, “Well, you know, when it comes to learning, the Jesuits are #1, and when it comes to piety, nobody can beat the Franciscans, but when it comes to humility, we’re tops!” That’s the tricky thing about humility. The moment you think you’ve become humble, it begins to slip away from you.

Chuck Swindoll, in one of his books, says, “There are two primary marks of humility in the life of the believer. The first is a non-threatening attitude when you are confronted by another person. You are approachable. You can be confronted without getting angry, hostile or defensive. The second is deep sensitivity to the needs of others.”

2) A servant has an honest heart.

By that I mean a heart without guile, without deception. A person who is honest in the biblical sense has a heart where what you see is what you get. When they say it, you don’t have to back off and think to yourself, “Gee, I wonder what he meant by that.” Honest means truth, integrity, wholeness, no trickery, no deceit, no game playing.

Psalm 15 is a text that will really challenge you on the issue of honesty and integrity. “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary and who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous and who speaks truth from his heart and has no slander in his tongue.” What is he saying here? He is answering the question, Lord, who will you let come close to you? Who will you let be your true friend? The answer is, he who speaks truth from his heart, who has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong, who casts no slur on his fellow man, who despises a vile man, but honors those who fear the Lord, who keeps his oath even when it hurts, who lends his money without unjust interest, and does not accept a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken.

You want something that could shake up your spiritual life this week? If you’re not doing anything special in your quiet time, let me challenge you this week to go back to Psalm 15 and hold it up. Let Psalm 15 be the mirror of your soul. Ask yourself, “How am I doing versus what Psalm 15 says?” You will be challenged and convicted by God’s high standards.

Honesty is hard to come by, even for Christians. It’s like the man who was called to testify in a court case. The bailiff said, “Raise your right hand.” The judge said, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” The man looked up at the judge and said, “Well, which one do you want?” There is the truth, there is the whole truth, and there is nothing but the truth.

I ran across a phrase this week that startled me. A writer was talking about the issue of honesty and he said, “Christians should practice habitual honesty, that is, truth as a standard operating procedure, integrity as a way of life, honesty in all that we do, honesty in all that we say, honesty in all of our actions.” You can tell a servant because he has an honest heart.

3) A servant has an unselfish heart

We’re talking about James and John. If you want a little further background on this, you can turn to Luke 9. At the end of the chapter there is an argument in verse 46 that breaks out among the disciples. They are asking themselves which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom. That sounds just like church people. Who is #1? Who is on top? Who’s the greatest? And in verse 47, “Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand before him. Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name, welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all, he is the greatest.’ “

What is the mark of greatness according to Jesus? It’s not arguing about who’s the greatest. How do you find the great person? The great person is likely the one who is on his knees playing with the children in the nursery. You are more likely to find the great person in the nursery than you are behind the pulpit on Sunday morning. That is what Jesus is saying. Not that you can’t be great and humble and honest and unselfish and do this, but I’ll be honest with you, it’s harder here. Back there, behind the scenes, out of the limelight, where you don’t get the praise and the applause and the gifts, that’s where you’re likely to find the great people of the kingdom of God. I am just the pastor, but I am far from the greatest person in this church. I am not sure if you made a list of the top 100, that I would even be on that list in God’s eyes. It is the ones who are with the children and the young people, and in the kitchen, and driving the bus—the ones that we don’t see and never hear from, the ones that don’t get the P.R., that’s where you find the greatness.

Read on in Luke 9. “Master,” said John, “We saw a man driving out demons in your name. We tried to stop him because he is not one of us.” (Maybe a little charismatic, I don’t know. Maybe a little Lutheran. Too much Methodist background. Too Baptist, a little Catholic.) He’s just not one of us, so we tried to stop him. We said, “Wait a minute, you didn’t go to our seminary. You didn’t study at our school, you didn’t sign off on our articles of faith. What are you doing casting out demons? Who gave you a license to do that?” We tried to stop him. And Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you.” What a lesson we need to learn.

The kingdom of God is bigger than our own parochial concerns. It’s bigger than this local church and the circle of churches that we move in. It’s bigger than the churches and people who happen to sign off on our articles of faith. The kingdom of God is a lot bigger. In fact, the kingdom of God includes a lot of people we wouldn’t even want to associate with. It doesn’t matter. They are still in the kingdom of God. Whether we understand it or not or realize it or not or see it or not, just because they’re not like us or don’t act like us, doesn’t mean that we’re in and they are out. That is what the text is saying. True greatness comes from an unselfish heart that understands that God’s kingdom is bigger than you are.

Do you remember that story in Numbers 11? It’s the story of Eldad and Medad. I didn’t remember it either until I read it this week. They were elders in the congregation of ancient Israel. All the other elders went up to the tent, but they stayed out with the people. The elders up at the tent were prophesying, and then they stopped, and then Eldad and Medad who were out among the people started prophesying. Some little kid came running up to Moses, “Guess what! Eldad and Medad are prophesying out there in the middle of the people!” Joshua, Moses’ right hand man, said, “Moses, better stop that right now. It’s getting out of hand out there.” And Moses said, “Why are you jealous for me? Would to God that everyone would prophesy in the name of the Lord.” That’s a good point of view, a great way to look at life. To understand that God’s work is bigger than you, bigger than your concerns. To understand that you are not the center of the kingdom of God on earth. You are just a part and God has a million other parts.

Does the name Charles Simeon ring a bell to you? It probably wouldn’t unless you happen to be a student of preaching. A hundred and fifty years ago his name would have been known to you because 150 years ago Charles Simeon was considered to be the greatest preacher in Great Britain. How great was he? He was so great a preacher that six years after his death they collected his sermons in 21 hardbound volumes and published them. A hundred and fifty years later, the series of sermons he preached is still in print. For 54-55 years, he was the head vicar, the pastor, of the Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge. He preached to hundreds and thousands of people. He is the man who is credited with bringing evangelical Christianity back into the Church of England. He’s the one that created the evangelical wing of the Church of England which is populated to this day with men like J. I. Packer and John Stott. He is really the man who caused that movement to start. A tremendous preacher, tremendous leader, tremendous scholar, tremendous missionary-statesman, the greatest of the great in the day. He was a super star. Name the top names in the Christian world today, that’s what he was 150 years ago.

At the height of his career, he was struck down with illness. He couldn’t preach and for eight months was deathly sick. During that eight months, his second in command, a man by the name of Thomason, was given the job of preaching. Nobody had ever really heard Thomason preach. They didn’t expect much. The shock was that not only could Thomason, the #2, preach, but he was as good as Charles Simeon. He had lived in the shadows all these years. Everybody said he was just as good, and some even said he was even better than the great Simeon. How do you think Simeon felt when he heard that? Most pastors would get angry, bitter, jealous, and tell him good luck in your next church. Not Simeon. He rejoiced when he heard the news. In his biography, recounting that instance, he quotes John 3:30 and applies it to his second in command. He must increase, and I must decrease. During his sickness he told a friend, “Now I know why God has laid me aside, and I bless him for it.”

Back to politics. George Bush. Has there been a president in recent history more attacked than George Bush? Wait a while, it will happen to Bill Clinton. It happened to Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon. Whoever ascends to the presidency must face a withering barrage of criticism. Have you ever asked yourself how they take it? You open the newspaper on an editorial page, you are vilified, attacked, slandered, and your statements are twisted out of context. You turn on the news commentators, literally everything you do is analyzed, criticized and attacked. You receive 30,000 letters a week of which 10,000 are critical of you, of your family, of the way you look, of your conduct, of your speech. Literally everything you do is examined and everything is attacked. How does a man like that survive? How can you take it for more than a few days? How can you take it for four years? There is only one answer to that question. The men who make it to the White House are committed to a cause greater than themselves. It might be the Democratic Platform or the Republican Platform. It might be foreign policy. It might be some economic plan. It might be some vision they have given, but they are committed to a cause that is greater than themselves. The way they survive is they don’t care what happens to them as long as the cause itself moves forward. That is the only way you survive. If the cause moves forward, then it doesn’t matter what people say.

Brothers and sisters, we have been given the privilege of being a part of the greatest cause in history, the kingdom of God on the earth. And the only thing that matters is that God’s kingdom go forward and that Jesus Christ be praised. What happens to you and me is of really no consequence. If you are raised up, that’s good. If you are pulled down, that’s O.K. Because the only thing that really matters is God’s kingdom on earth. It’s the only thing that is going to last forever. That’s the key to the truly unselfish heart. I think that’s what Paul meant in Philippians 1. He was in jail and he said, “ I am in a straight betwixt the two, whether to live or whether to die, whether to stay in jail or whether to be released or whether I am going to die and go to heaven.” Then he says, “It doesn’t matter to me. The only thing that matters is that, whether I live or whether I die, Jesus Christ be praised.” That is a truly revolutionary way of looking at life. Instead of counting up the good comments and then counting up the bad comments, or hoping all the compliments outweigh all the insults, all you have to do is say, “Lord, it doesn’t matter what happens to me. The only thing that matters is that your work go forward and that Jesus Christ be glorified.” Think about that. That will revolutionize your life if you will ever say it.

4) A servant has a giving heart

Here we come to the heart of Christianity. “For God so loved the world, that he gave.” “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that we through his poverty might be made rich.” And on the night before he was crucified, so they would understand what he was about to do, Jesus knelt down and gave them a parable in action. Taking the towel and the basin, he took those dirty feet and he brushed the dirt off. And one by one, he washed the dirty, smelly, repulsive feet of those men from Galilee. As he washed, he said, “Men, you see what I am doing. As I have done for you, go and do for one another.”

Six years ago it was my privilege to go down to Haiti. That is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. It is desperately poor. It is so poor that the poorest family in Chicago is rich by the standards of the average family in Haiti. The average income is $250/year. I was there in 1986, in 1990 with a group from this church, and God willing, a group of us are going back this summer to do a sports camp, a city-wide crusade and pastor’s conference. My first trip I was there by myself. What an eye-opening experience it was. I came from the South. I thought I knew what poverty was. I had never seen it until I went to Haiti. I never dreamed of a place like that. I have not the words nor the eloquence nor the images to convey how impoverished, how beaten-down the people are, how hard it is to live there.

I went to Peone, a city of 30,000 people. The unemployment rate then and now is about 90%. Only 10% have jobs, the rest don’t. No running water, no newspaper, no TV, no radio, no electricity, no paved roads, none of the things that we consider the normal conveniences of life. Some of the things you have seen in the pictures from Somalia are not far from the scenes from Haiti.

There I worked with pastor Lucien, a native-born Haitian. He is pastor of the Jerusalem Baptist Church. It started in 1977 with about 65 people, 47 of whom had the last name of Lucien. A family church. Today the Jerusalem Baptist church will have between 1000 and 1200 people in worship, meeting in a brick open air kind of sanctuary, in an area that is not as big as two of the pew sections of our church put together. When I was there, I experienced a kind of Christianity I have never seen. As much as I love this church, and I do love this church very much, we don’t hold a candle to the level of commitment of the people of Jerusalem Baptist Church.

The biggest offering that they took that year was $28.60. They are running a church of 1000 people with six associate pastors, three homes for widows, an elementary school, the beginning of an orphanage and buying land to build a Christian camp, and running it on a budget of less than $2,000 a year. You’re right, it can’t be done. But I saw it with my own eyes. I have seen people with nothing do things that far outstrip anything that this church has done. We have so much more.

The pastor is a good man. He has a good heart, a giving heart. I stayed in his home. I couldn’t figure out who was in his family. There were too many people coming in and out at all hours of the day and night. People would come bringing food, coming to get food, people would come in, start cooking for a while, then they would leave; 15 or 20 kids would come in, then they’d leave. “Who are these people?” “They are my family.” Over the years, Pastor Lucien has adopted between 30 and 50 kids and raised them. I came from the crusade one night. There was a little girl about 8 or 9 years old named Wilda, a cute little girl. Who is she? She’s the daughter of a witch doctor. What’s she doing here? Even though he is a witch doctor, he knows and respects Dr. Lucien. He told his daughter to go live with the pastor because “he will tell you about Jesus so you won’t go to hell like me.” So Pastor Lucien is raising the daughter of a witch doctor.

There are about six associate pastors. The #1 associate is Pastor Eli, who is maybe 35 years old. A good man. I said, “Where did you get Pastor Eli?” “I raised him.” “What do you mean you raised him?” “I adopted him as a young boy, I raised him, led him to Christ, taught him the Bible, he is now my associate pastor. The same is true for four or five other men.” That’s the way to build a church staff. Adopt them, raise them, and get them right from the start.

After I had been there about a week, I saw people walking barefoot for 2-1/2 hours on dirt roads to come to church services. I saw 50 people coming in to the house with 3 or 4 chickens, and make it into a meal for 50 people. I saw them give and give and give. Finally, one day, I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I said, “How do you do this? What is the secret here?” And Pastor Lucien said, “Our church is not like the other churches of Haiti. In the other churches, most of the pastors are dictators. They have never learned anything else. They just say, ‘Do this, do that.’ Their people have to do it. God showed me years ago a different way. All I do is help the people he sends me. And when I help them, God sends me more. And he always gives me whatever I need.” Then he gave me, in broken English, the best one-sentence statement of the ministry of Jesus Christ that I have ever heard. He said, “When I help some, God helps me.” You have heard it said, “God helps those who help themselves.” Not true. God helps those who help other people. That is the giving heart. That is what Jesus was trying to explain when he washed dirty feet.

Come back to the text, back to that question which appears now in retrospect to be bizarre, crazy. I want to be on the right and I want to be on the left. Rash and impudent, rude almost. But you want to know something that will blow your mind? When they asked that rash question, Jesus doesn’t rebuke them. You know what he does? He asks a question back. His question is, “Do you know what you are asking for? Are you able to drink the cup I am drinking?” referring to his suffering and his death. He didn’t tell them no, he just said are you willing to pay the price? Do you want to be a leader? Great! Are you willing to pay the price and do you know what you are really asking for? Jesus is saying, you want to be on my right hand and on my left? Follow me, boys. About a week and a half later, he was crucified with a criminal on his right and a criminal on his left. You can be a leader. It’s going to cost you everything you’ve got. It starts when you decide to become a servant.

Frank Warren said it this way, “If you want to be a leader, you’re going to end up frustrated in life, because very few people want to be led. But if you aim to be a servant, you’ll never be disappointed.”

Four key words: humility, honesty, unselfishness, and generosity. I want to give you a chance to make this very personal, to rate yourself from 1-5, weak to strong. How do you really measure up in God’s eyes today? Take just a moment. This is where leadership begins—being honest about where you really are.

I close with this comment. We don’t have a leadership crisis. What we have is a servanthood crisis. We have too many people who want to be first, who want to lead the parade, who want to be on top of the heap, who want the big office, the title, the power, the perks and the prestige. We don’t have enough people who are willing to work behind the scenes. We don’t have enough people who really want to wash dirty feet. The question this morning is not where are the leaders? The question is much simpler than that…where are the servants?

Are you looking for leaders? Go find the servants, that’s where the leaders are. And you’ll discover they are not the big shots sitting at the head table. They are the men and women back in the kitchen preparing the meal. Find your servants, and you’ve found your leaders.

Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have made it simple. It is a little scary. God, forgive us, forgive me, for chasing after the world’s definition of leadership, thinking that a title or prestige or more money or a promotion was what it is all about. Oh, Lord Jesus, whatever it takes to make us servants like you, do it, Lord. Show us what it means. Help us this week to take the first steps. In Jesus‘ name, Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?