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Is There a Problem with Servant Leadership?

In addressing the problem of unhealthy leadership within the church, a common solution over the past few decades has been “Servant Leadership”.

by bob

Sep 30, 2022

Over the past week, I’ve posted a couple of times about problems with hierarchical leadership. In addressing the problem of unhealthy leadership within the church, a common solution over the past few decades has been “Servant Leadership”. Proponents of servant leadership point to the image of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the last supper as the perfect picture of this model of leadership.

Let’s dig into Servant Leadership a bit.

Where Did Servant Leadership Come From?

Robert Greenleaf first put forward the idea of servant leadership in his 1977 book Servant Leadership. Although Greenleaf was a Quaker, he wrote the book for business leaders, not church leaders. However, as with many business books, church leaders grabbed Servant Leadership and incorporated it into leadership theory within the church.

I first encountered the idea in the late 1990s, as my church planting coach inundated me with books and tapes by John Maxwell, Bill Hybels, and the like.

Concerns Regarding Servant Leadership 

I trust most reading this would agree that Jesus unquestionably embodied what both servanthood and leadership should be. However, legitimate concerns regarding the term Servant Leadership and its usage have been raised by many. 

An initial concern I have does not simply apply to the idea of servant leadership. I believe followers of Jesus should be open to learning and receiving wisdom wherever it arises (as all wisdom is from God). However, business books and theories are commonly applied to the church, with little recognition that those two worlds have very different purposes and goals (or at least they should). 

Qualms regarding servant leadership specifically begin with the words themselves. 

1) Leader and servant do not carry the same importance in scripture or Jesus’ teaching. The word servant appears far more frequently in the New Testament than the word leader. And when Jesus was asked questions about leadership, his answers consistently dealt with servanthood and not leadership (Matthew 20:20–28; Mark 9:33–37; Luke 22:24–27).   

2) The terms servant and leader contradict one another. Greenleaf acknowledges this issue when he writes, “The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types”. 

Hwa Yung, in his 2021 book Leadership or Servanthood: Walking in the Steps of Jesus, points to a tension that exists for the one who wishes to be a servant first and a leader by asking an important question:

‘Is it possible for sinful humans consciously to aspire to lead and still prioritize “servant first” over “leader first”?’.

Hwa Yung

Another author Duane Elmer argues that the term servant-leader is unhelpful and notes that “we don’t create similar hybrids when discussing other gifts in the church: servant teacher, servant pray-er, servant encourager, servant helper and so on” (Cross-Cultural Servanthood, 2009). Elmer raises the idea that merging these terms was intended to address abuse within the church as there is an inherent challenge to being a leader and a servant. He laments that if this was the goal, it has had little effect. 

3) The words are in the wrong order.
The key theme of the gospels is servanthood, not leadership. Servant should not be modifying the word leader as if there are other legitimate models for Jesus’ followers.

Yung sums this idea up well by writing that an

“examination of Jesus’s personal example and teachings, the apostles’ self-understanding of their calling, and the vocabulary on leading and serving demonstrates clearly that the heart of the New Testament understanding of ministry is primarily about servanthood and not leadership”

HWA YUNG

A Critical Problem

Unease regarding the usage of the wording of servant leadership is not only semantic. The concept of servant leadership is a good one. However, multiple authors have noted that servant-leader is frequently used self-descriptively by those who are not servants and by some who intentionally manipulate the phrase to justify their controlling behaviour. 

Denny Gunderson adds the painfully tragic truth that “those who most use the language of servanthood are often the greatest abusers and exploiters of other people”.   

What Do We Do With Servant Leadership?

I believe the scrutiny servant leadership has faced is deserved. Yet, at the same time, I desire to see churches led by servants.

In Greenleaf’s book, he posed a couple of crucial questions to help determine whether an individual is a servant leader, 

“Do those served grow as persons?” 

“Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

These questions remain a wise standard. Whether the servant leadership concept is accepted or rejected, being able to answer Greenleaf’s question affirmatively is a vital goal. (A leader who pronounces that they can respond yes to those questions…please go back and read the section title “A Critical Problem.”)

Conclusion

Jesus was not simply a servant leader. He was a servant who called his followers to become servants. Reread the gospels and ask whether servant or leader more accurately defines Jesus’ self-understanding. At the same time, this post is not meant to denigrate or downplay the role of leaders in the church.

Let me wrap this up on one last quote from Yung:

“This does not mean that the church does not need leaders. In fact, we are in desperate need of such today. But true spiritual leadership is exercised or results only when we have learned genuine servanthood and submission.”

What do you think? What does servanthood look like in church leadership? Has “Servant Leadership” outlived its usefulness?


As I have referenced a number of books, I have provided affiliate links to them below. If you buy them through the link provide

Ford, L. (2012) Unleader: Reimagining Leadership– and Why We Must. Kansas City, MO, Beacon Hill Press.
Greenleaf, R.K. (2002) Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. New York, NY, Paulist Press.

Gunderson, D. (2006) The Leadership Paradox: A Challenge to Servant Leadership in a Power-Hungry World. Seattle, WA, YWAM Pub.

Yung, H. (2021) Leadership or Servanthood? Walking in the Steps of Jesus. Carlisle, Cumbria, Langham Global Library.

Photo: Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet, by Giotto – Public Domain – WikiArt

What about Bob?

bob

I grew up in Western New York and have started and led missional church planting efforts for a little over 30 years. As you might gather, I have opinions about the church, and I share some of them here.

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