Rediscovering Servant Leadership

Unselfish servant leadership refuses to rest on the inherent power of a position and desires to empower and release others for ministry. Servant leadership focuses on the needs and growth of those being led, not the needs of those who are leading.

How does the responsible Christian leader approach leadership? A bewildering array of leadership techniques and principles are available for contemporary Christian leaders. Bolstered by success in various leadership environments, some of these methods may seem attractive. Leaders may reason that since a certain leadership approach works, it must be good. Pragmatism can win the day.

Most Christian leaders are aware of the principles, values, and methods that have been accepted in the bustling marketplace of diverse leadership practices and theories. We must not forget, however, that Scripture offers a leadership model that should be the linchpin for leadership within the body of Christ. This biblical brand of leadership is uniquely expressed through what is called the servant attitude of the leader—the desire to enrich and enhance the lives of those being led through unselfish servanthood. This overarching model of biblical leadership is expressed through an authentic humility that serves others and leads them to become servants as well.

During the last three decades, this leadership style expressed through servanthood has been called servant leadership. The term servant leader was created and popularized in the early 1970s by Robert K. Greenleaf. Inspired by the vision of Greenleaf, other contemporary writers have produced an appreciable body of literature embracing servant leadership as a means for renewing institutions and creating a more caring and compassionate society.

As a leadership model, servant leadership has crossed many boundaries and has been applied in universities, health-care organizations, and foundations. When applied to the Christian leader, servant leadership is characterized by authentic service that prioritizes the enrichment and enhancement of those served. The test for Christian servant leadership is the progressive spiritual health, freedom, and autonomy of those served. Servant leadership focuses on the needs and growth of those being led, not the needs of those who are leading.

Leadership models that are oriented toward power and control continue to be problematic for the church. Power-oriented leadership laden with posturing, protectionism, cynicism, and adversarialism may contribute to a low-trust ministry environment in which leadership effectiveness is marginalized. On the other hand, wise church leaders will revisit the teachings of Jesus and other New Testament writers and allow their perspectives to bring refreshing insights to the ministry of leading the church.

Those who practice servant leadership discover the overwhelming joy of developing and equipping the diversity that exists within the body of Christ.


The concept of servant leadership emerges from the teaching of Scripture concerning the individual as servant of God. The concept of servant has roots in the Old Testament. The Hebrew ‘eved was originally applied to a slave, but came to mean a trusted servant. This term was often applied to those who did a work for a ruler or God. Kings and prophets were often called servants of the Lord (2 Samuel 3:18; Isaiah 20:3; Ezekiel 34:23,24).

Isaiah painted vivid pictures of servants who, through serving God, serve others (42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–9; 52:13 through 53:12). Contextually, Isaiah’s servants have three levels of identification: the nation of Israel serving God; a godly and faithful remnant who served God in difficult times; and the Messiah who would become the suffering servant.1 These examples from Isaiah clearly confirm that the fundamental spirit of the biblical servant first embodies a deep and intense feeling of serving God. Through mediating the covenant and bringing others into God’s will, biblical servants had a consuming desire to flesh out essential service to God through ministry to the world around them (Isaiah 52:7–11).2 Formationally speaking, biblical servants first anchor themselves in service to God and stand ready to serve and lead others, if called.3


Isaiah 61:1,2 is another servant refrain. Jesus read this passage in the synagogue at Nazareth to inaugurate His ministry. Although the term servant is not used in Luke 4:18,19, these verses contain important ideas that connect them with the other servant passages.

Jesus’ mission to despondent and broken people and His own sufferings solidly connected Him with the servant of Isaiah. Although Jews in New Testament times applied Isaiah’s servant prophecies to the Messiah, they avoided attributing the sufferings to Him. Jesus created a new way of thinking about ministry and spiritual leadership when He clearly associated himself with the restorative ministry of the Suffering Servant, who served through great sacrifice and ignoble death (Isaiah 53:1–9).

What Jesus understood about His own mission He clearly articulated as an attitude for leadership in the Church He promised to build. Following an argument among His disciples about greatness in the Kingdom, Jesus turned common assumptions and values of leadership upside down through a revolutionary teaching. After arriving at Capernaum, He questioned them: “What were you arguing about on the road?” He then sat down and called the Twelve to Him. He spoke with intentionality: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:33–35).

Jesus’ use of the term servant (diakonos) clearly communicated with His disciples. They knew the word emphasized the service given on behalf of others. The term also carried the idea of deep devotion. Influenced by the conventions of the day, the disciples were probably puzzled by this crucial lecture on how to climb the leadership ladder. Others serve leaders, they reasoned, but Jesus literally turned this thinking upside down. True leaders are devoted to service that focuses on the needs, personal growth, and happiness of others. In time, the disciples would recognize that Kingdom leadership was not about climbing the ladder, but serving at the bottom.

Jesus’ view of the leader as a servant stretches itself across two millennia and informs the church of the 21st century. Jesus’ servant-leader concept brazenly defies modern concepts of power, authority, and control as the highest expressions of effective leadership. His concept of the leader as a servant reveals a pattern of leadership that embraces deep humility, disregards personal agendas, and puts others first.

Power-oriented leadership laden with posturing, protectionism, cynicism, and adversarialism may contribute to a low-trust ministry environment in which leadership effectiveness is marginalized.

The New Testament clearly indicates that Jesus’ servant teaching caught fire with His disciples. The Book of Acts reveals a caring church in which leaders and followers expressed a mutual and active servanthood toward one another (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–37). The leadership in the Early Church chose to follow Jesus’ example. Deep humility, a sense of sacrificial service to others, and a willingness to suffer hardship marked these leaders as they emulated Christ’s self-imposed humiliation and servanthood (Philippians 2:4–16; 1 Peter 2:21–25). The attitudes and behaviors of New Testament leaders allowed them to lead by example and principle (1 Peter 5:1–4). As servants, leaders understood the importance of training others to serve the body of Christ through their personal gifts and ministries (Ephesians 4:11–13; 1 Peter 4:8–11).


Lifestyle of the Servant Leader

The servant leader first serves. In practical terms, the servant leader places a strong emphasis on doing. Teaching and leading by principle is never enough. The servant leader is available, willing to minister within a moment’s notice. Servant leadership is a practical and applied art that finds creative expression in the varied life situations of others. Consequently, servant leadership creates and implements ministries that actively respond to the deep and significant needs of the culture.

Servant leadership was personified in one pastor who sought a unique way of recovery from a debilitating stroke. One aspect of his physical recovery included regular walks. Desiring to serve others through his daily walk, he combined both prayer and picking up trash along the streets of his small city during his health walk. His servant attitude blessed God and others with his prayers, his city, and himself—all at the same time. Simply stated, servant leadership is ennobled by its willingness to authentically serve in a manner that pleases God.

Attitudes of the Servant Leader

Positions of leadership often confer upon servant leaders more power over others than warranted. The subtle temptations of power and position led first-century leaders to challenge emerging leaders to live lives of humility and service. Addressing his fellow pastors, the apostle Peter outlined the pristine attitudes that characterize servant leaders. Often ignoring the inherent power of a position, a biblically based leader focuses on demonstrating a genuine concern for people through tenderly serving them, modeling the spirit and attitudes of Christ. In essence, servant leaders are caring shepherds who lovingly protect and nurture those under their care. And if required, would bleed and die for the welfare of their flock (1 Peter 5:2–4).

Servant Leaders Empower Others

Unselfish servant leadership refuses to rest on the inherent power of a position and desires to empower and release others for ministry. The servant leader does not hold back gifted people in a spirit of insecurity. Born aloft by the unselfish spirit of Christ, the servant leader is not happy unless others are soaring. Fired by the vision of creating other servants, the servant leader is dedicated to equipping and liberating others to fulfill God’s purposes in their lives and find meaningful expressions of Christian ministry through servanthood.

A Servant Leader Develops Servant Churches

Those who practice servant leadership discover the overwhelming joy of developing and equipping the diversity that exists within the body of Christ. Over time, this productive practice of developing other believers for servant-oriented ministry becomes the bedrock for creating the serving church.

Servants birth servants. Consider Jesus and the 12 men He selected to be with Him. This special group of 12 exhibited a high level of diversity. From this diversity flowed leadership who developed and equipped the Early Church in a manner reminiscent of their personal development under Jesus. What Jesus taught them, they taught and demonstrated to others. In this manner, the Early Church became a serving church.

The attitude of servanthood in leadership made the Early Church an amazing community for its time. Continuing the quest of Jesus’ vision to build an abiding community of faith, the vision of the Early Church embraced and served all that came under its care. The point men were the apostles and leaders of the church. Servant leaders created a serving church. Against the norms of the culture, the church became a place where social and class barriers were condemned and people were taught to love and serve one another in equality (James 2:5–9,14–18; Romans 12:7–10). The disenfranchised and deprived found a home in the church. The practical needs of all the people mandated a sensitive and caring approach from leadership (Acts 6).

The Servant Leader Interprets the Christian Life

The call to servanthood is the call to do many things. Poling and Miller contend that ministry is leadership that is called and trained to serve the community of faith in its local activities and its outreach to the world. They envisioned community formation taking place within an atmosphere where varied ministry skills are practiced, and leadership models a willingness to do many things to interpret its life to the world.4 Together, leader and followers prayerfully generate ideas and strategies that release the local church to serve the needy around them.

The call for leadership to serve finds deep roots in one of Jesus’ final gestures toward His disciples. Only hours before His crucifixion (John 13), Jesus washed His disciples’ feet (the act of a servant). This event reflected the full extent of His love for them. This servant-gesture sealed the meaning of Christian love and ministry in the minds of the disciples. What they experienced was a call of service to others. It was an example for them and all those who follow in their footsteps. Serving is not just another way to lead. It is leadership according to Jesus. It must be heeded.

*Scripture references are from the Good News Bible.

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