The Heart of a Servant-Leader

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Berry Kercheville

One of the more insightful observations I ever heard from an elder was, “I worry about a man who wants to be an elder too much.” Indeed, when a man just can’t wait to step into a leadership role, he has a dangerous misconception of the work. Jesus repeatedly challenged the apostles on their view of kingdom people. In typical human style it seems their favorite argument was who would be the greatest or who would sit on the right and a left of Jesus. In response, Jesus presented two types of leaders. There is the ruler–leader and the servant–leader. Notice the text:

“But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

Just as in the first century, we live in a “Gentile” culture with similar leadership styles in our corporate environment. How can we avoid “exercising authority” over members of the body of Christ when it is so common to us in the secular world? The problem is solved when we accept that Gentile-leadership is not our identity as disciples of Christ whether on our jobs, in our homes, or within the body. If we lord it over or exercise authority over others as leaders in a company or a husbands and fathers in a household, we will practice the same ruler mentality as leaders in the church. Jesus said people in his kingdom will not exercise authority over others, and that includes elders. When Jesus highlighted being a slave, he was not simply referring to how we act, but what we are to become. As Jesus washed the disciples’ feet he was teaching us who God is. Jesus was not an actor “playing a part.” God actually “washes feet.” God has always washed feet, because that is the nature of God.

Are We Living as Slaves?

If we are going to fully embrace leading as a slave instead of a ruler, we need to be honest with who we are before we ever leave the house. Are we the ruler in our house or the slave in our house? What household job are we too important to do? Do we see ourselves as servants to our wives? Are our children drawn to our presence? Are we able to truly communicate to them on a heart to heart level and not as their boss? When Malachi spoke of restoration, the goal was to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers” (Mal. 4:6). A father who reflects our Father in heaven and our chief Shepherd, leads primarily by connecting his heart with the heart of his wife and children and ultimately with God’s people. If that can’t be done in the home, it certainly will not happen in the body of Christ. When hearts are bound together, submission happens naturally and with great pleasure. A father may have children who submit to him, but that does not mean they are following him as their shepherd, and so it is in the body. I was an agriculture major and there is a difference between leading a lamb and driving a steer. In both cases I could get the animal where I wanted it to go, but Jesus did not picture his people as cattle, and sheep do not respond to a heavy hand.

A Servant Leader Seeks God’s Glory

It is critical we understand that leading from the foot of the table is not only God’s pattern for us, it is the leadership style that is most effective and in which God is glorified. This is evident when we compare King Saul with David. While people were deserting Saul, others were drawn to David. Saul couldn’t tolerate anyone like David lest the spotlight be taken off him. Saul was concerned about his power, his control, and his honor before the people (1 Sam. 15:30). David was concerned with God’s honor, so much so that when moving the ark of the covenant he would not wear his kingly robes. When Saul worried that people were not following him, it was evident that he had his eyes on the wrong goal. His insecurity of desiring to be the one in control and the one to be honored had the opposite effect of causing people to withdraw from him. Saul’s example teaches us a valuable lesson. When a man has to insist that he is the leader, it is evident he isn’t the leader. In contrast, David did not seek honor or power. His concern was God’s glory no matter through whom it came. When some did not follow him, he did not use his power against them, but instead continued his trust in God. This is the same pattern of servant–leaders like Moses and Nehemiah whose only consideration was God’s glory. Great leaders magnify God, not themselves.

Servant–Leaders Have Their Focus on Others

Paul said, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). For a shepherd, everything is about the health and preservation of the sheep. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). To be a leader in God’s kingdom requires us to have our mind on the needs of others, not on ruling others. An elder goes beyond his intended role when he uses his position to control those within his oversight. Shepherds are not rulers, nor are they to exercise authority over others. Every leader, whether in the eldership or not, should ask the question, “What would I have to do to cross the line of lording it over or exercising authority over the flock?” An elder I worked with in San Diego demonstrated a shepherd-heart and set the tone for incredible growth when he announced to the church, “Please do not ask us if you can do a work the scriptures have already directed disciples to do. Take the initiative, and do it.” The result was that at one point, 34 home Bible classes and prayer meetings were being conducted by various members, none of which had been specifically generated by the elders. When shepherds urge and lead a culture of being servants, growth is unavoidable.

In Ezekiel 34:11-16, God described himself as a shepherd who seeks the good of the flock, rescues the flock, feeds the flock in rich pasture, and causes the flock to be at peace so they can “lie down.” He brings back the lost, strengthens the weak, and binds up the injured. When today’s shepherds immerse themselves in this work, their servant leadership will be obvious, and they will not have time nor need to “exercise authority” over those entrusted to them. For leaders who do otherwise God said, “The fat and the strong I will destroy” (Ezek. 34:16).