True Servant Leadership


A personal Journey – The full title of this article is “True Servant leadership: Evaluating Competing Versions of Church Leadership in View of a More Biblical Model”. The reason this is such a long article, and perhaps a little “collegy” for some, is because it is a final paper for a Master’s level course that I just completed. The course was “Models and theories of leadership” and it explored the various models of leadership in various institutions. My chosen focus for this paper, of course, was regarding church leadership. I am certainly no expert on the subject and but simly share some ponderings from my own journey of discovery and growth.  I found this research, and conclusions made, good for the soul. I hope it might be helpful and a blessing to you also.

There is a desperate need for a growing expression and experience of servant-leadership in evangelical churches today. This research paper supports the notion that true servant leadership is sadly lacking in Christian ministries and is often substituted with a pseudo version. In many cases, we may find a version of transformational leadership in place, in the worst cases, we might find leadership of authoritarian nature. Both may come under the guise of Servant-leadership but lack the essential qualities thereof. In contrast with other models of leadership, which may allow for people to be manipulated, undervalued, hurt, or ousted in the process of growing the church, benefitting the ministry or, protecting the brand, true servant leadership values and serves the people above all else. The servant-leader does not see people as a “means to an end” but sees the care of the people as the very center of their stewardship and purpose as church leaders. Oftentimes, the term servant leadership is used quite freely in evangelical churches with the assumption that their leadership represents that model. However, when this is assessed in terms of clear research and definition, it may be determined that many labeled or self-professing “servant leaders” would be more accurately described in other terms.

Based on research in the field of leadership and clear scriptural guidelines, this research paper seeks to propose a suitable church leadership structure and the most desired church leadership style. The term “structure” is used to in terms of how the authority is dispersed through the organization, for example, a hierarchal versus a non-hierarchal structure. The term “leadership style” has to do with how an individual leader leads according to certain traits, values, behaviors, and theories. While certain leadership structures and styles may be better suited for certain corporations and institutions, it seems that for the church the non-hierarchal structure, with a servant leadership style, best fits the purpose and function of church leadership. This is arguably the clearest reflection of the Biblical model of church leadership as laid out in the New Testament.

When considering the essential criteria for servant leadership, it becomes clear that many churches in evangelicalism today have both structures of leadership and styles of leadership that do not represent this model. This paper will examine the autocratic and transformational styles of leadership, often found in churches today, based on the servant-leader premise. It might be important to note that not all models of leadership are mutually exclusive. A leader may demonstrate traits of transactional, transformational and, servant leadership at different times to different degrees, with a shifting focus on self, goals of the organization and, the followers themselves. Subsequently, it may be easier to categorize some leaders than others.

New Testament Guidelines for Church Leadership
When Jesus instructed his disciples, preparing them for the leadership of the church to come, he said “Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chief, shall be the servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister” (KJV, Mark 10:42-45). Two things are clearly in view here, namely servanthood and leadership. Combining these two ideas gives us the term “servant leadership”, as was as coined by Robert Greenleaf in his book by the same name in 1970. Jesus clearly told his disciples that leadership for the church was to be different than what one might see in the secular world. The authority given to church leaders was not to be expressed in “lording it over” people, but in serving them. When the apostle Peter later wrote his first letter and exhorted the elders, he said “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock” (KJV, 1 Peter 5:2-3). The church elders were to not to be leaders who would “lord it over”, but leaders who would serve under.

The Church is More than an Organization
The church is an organization, but it is also much more than that. It is a living organism made up of living people. Paul likens the church to a human body with living parts or “members of the body” (KJV, 1 Cor 12:12–27). The word “church” may be used to refer to a building, but the true church is actually the people themselves. How tragic it would be for a church as an organization, institution, ministry, or brand, to become more important than the actual people within it. How far that would have strayed from Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesian elders when he said “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (KJV, Acts 20:28). How sad it would be to see some pastors who wield their authority or drive the flock in such a way that God’s sheep are hurt, maimed, or outcast because of power plays or for the sake of the work. Those pastors would do well to heed the warning pronounced by the prophet Ezekiel when he said “Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them and they were scattered because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered” (KJV, Ezekiel 34:2-5).

Jesus, the Ultimate Servant Leader
When Jesus was with His disciples in The Upper Room, as recorded in John 13-17, He provided a powerful object lesson and example of servant leadership when he, their own Lord and master, served them and washed their feet. Certain phrases from Philippians chapter two could be copied and pasted right into a servant leader’s manual. “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” (KJV, Phil 2:3) or “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (KJV, Phil 2:4). The passage goes on to say that this mind, heart, or attitude was in Christ when he came here to serve. In breath-taking language, it says that although he was God, he “took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death” (KJV, Phil 2:7-8). The call to service does not simply come from a high distant throne above, but through the personal humility, condescension and, example of Him who came, “not to be served, to serve” (KJV, Matt 20:28).

The Apostle Paul as a Servant Leader
Once again, in the book of Philippians, Paul says to the disciples “the things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you” (KJV, Phil 4:9). He offered his own upright and honorable example for them to follow. It was no secret that Paul and his team had suffered many hardships and yet he continued in ministry with love and service towards the saints and boldness in the gospel. Paul’s life and example clearly resulted in a great reciprocal response from those following in faith. The servant leader shows a willingness to empower people, to invest in people, and nurture their growth. Paul said to the Thessalonians that “being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls because ye were dear unto us” (KJV, 1 Thes 2:7-8). This is the heart of a servant leader, not “because you were needed to meet our objectives”, but “being affectionately desirous of you” and “because ye were dear to us”. Paul also told Timothy how important his example of a godly, spiritual life was for those in the church in Ephesus. He said, “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (KJV, 1 Tim 4:12). There is a clear reciprocal principle of servant leadership demonstrated in Christian discipleship.

Servant Leaders Raising up Servant Leaders
Timothy, as a servant leader, was to be an example of godliness to those who were under him as a leader (1 Timothy 4:12). Timothy would not have wanted to merely be a transactional leader, where the followers are motivated by a defined system of rewards, approval, penalties, or praise (Bass, 1999, p.184). He would have aimed to live a spirit-filled, godly life, arouse admiration, inspire, provide intellectual stimulation, and treat his followers with individualized consideration (Modassir, 2008). The disciple will be “more committed and effective in their performance” due to the relationship with the leader (Winston, 2003, p.5). Timothy’s leadership would have been based on the Christian worldview where the welfare of others is highly valued (Bass, 1999, p.186). As a servant-leader, Timothy would have taught and invested, with a vision for those he served to be raised up after him. Paul had told him that “the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2). The ultimate responsibility of the servant leader is the enduring investment of the leader’s life in the lives of those who follow (Blanchard, 2004).

The Focus and Characteristics of a Servant Leader
The core tenet of servant leadership is the desire to serve (Allen, 2016). The main characteristics of servant leaders may include, listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community (Spears, 2010). Patterson (2003) proposes that servant leadership would be accompanied by virtuous constructs such as love, humility, altruism, vision, trust, empowerment, and service (Patterson, 2003). While the theory of servant leadership resembles other leadership theories, none of the other theories encompass all the characteristics of a servant leader (Van Dierendonck, 2011). Likewise, the focus on serving, building, and supporting the followers with a heart for their ultimate well-being is a premise unique to the servant leader model. While people may be raised up under transformational leaders, it is not primarily for the person’s own benefit, but usually to meet objectives or for the general good of the organization. A servant leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, helps individuals develop and optimize performance, is willing to learn from others, and may forsake personal advancement and rewards to do so. Servant leaders concentrate on performance planning, day-to-day coaching, and helping people achieve what they might not achieve otherwise (Allen, 2016).

A Proposed Extension for the Model of True Servant Leadership
A leadership theory proposed by Patterson (2003), suggested that servant leadership encompasses seven virtuous constructs (p.2). Soon after this, an extension for the model was proposed by Winston (2003), that included a reciprocal aspect to the servant leader relationships. From a Christian perspective, yet another extension to the theory might be suggested, as neither of these theories include the need of regeneration or spirit-filling.

As Christians we do not consider servanthood as described in the New Testament as learned behavior alone, but as a work of God in a person’s life and by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in them. A proposed extension of the theory might address the limitations of a fallen man and the essential difference between morality and spirituality. While servant leadership is an accepted model in the secular world today, there must be an awareness of the limitations of man’s love, care, trust, and trustworthiness. Though a natural man might have certain noble qualities and characteristics, they are all tainted and tarnished by the fact he has a sinful nature. A Christian might contest the virtues of servant leadership, not due to any deficiency of the model itself, but based on the fact that men are essentially sinful, fallen, selfish and incapable of continually loving and serving through God’s love. It is only through the fruit of The Spirit (Gal 5:22) that a person can love with God’s love. For a Christian leader, this is of utmost importance, as it is only God’s love that will cause him to “look not only on his own things“ but “also on the things of others” and to “bear one another burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (KJV, Phil 2:4, Gal 6:2).

A Proposed Leadership Structure for Servant Leaders
Traditional command and control hierarchies, where top management directs behavior (Quinn, 1999, p.3) are fast becoming obsolete in our modern world (Covey, 2002). It is within this hierarchal leadership structure that the authoritarian leader tends to flourish. In such a structure, the authority would be centralized in the chief pastor who tends to “make decisions alone with little input from others” (Yukl, 2013, p.115). This type of top-down, pyramid structure can weaken communication links, dry up channels of honest reaction and feedback, and create limiting chief-subordinate relationships that may have negative effects on the church (Greenleaf, 2002, P.76). Typically, people are not free to criticize or challenge the leader who becomes protected or seemingly untouchable by the culture that has been created. Those who might speak out can be reduced to fearful, silent, suffering subordinates. This culture is not the type of culture a servant leader looks to create. The servant leader will not merely tolerate, but welcome and encourage questions, criticism, and feedback, knowing it is invaluable to the success of the church. Participative leadership will “allow other people, such as subordinates to have some influence in the decisions” (Yukl, 2002, P.65). Empowering people, an important element of servant leadership, allows people to have a sense of self-determination, meaning, competence, and impact (Quinn, 1999, p.6). Servant leadership makes shared governance feasible and less formidable (Allen, 2016).

A structure better suited for servant leadership would be a non-hierarchical structure. While the New Testament clearly teaches a plurality of elders (KJV, Acts 14:23, 15:2), it also allows for equality of elders, where a board of elders has equal authority in decision making and governance. Unless you use Old Testament verses and concepts out of context, there are no clear Biblical grounds for one chief-elder who has more authority than the other elders. Certainly, an elder may be is identified as “the pastor” of a church as he may lead with his teaching gift and fulfill the duties of a pastor more than the others. However, the pastor serves as “the primus inter pares” or “first among equals” (Greenleaf, 2002, p.74). While there is still a first, he is not considered the ultimate chief or supreme authority. In this way, there are safeguards in place, both for the pastor and for the church family. Elders who are appointed to serve must have the maturity, wisdom, and freedom to hold the pastor accountable and ensure there is no misuse of authority.

The Worst Cocktail: Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Authoritarian Style, and a Hierarchal Structure
Yukl (2013) describes a narcissist as someone who has a “strong need for power, esteem, admiration and, adulation” (p.152). A pastor with narcissistic tendencies will seek high honor, praise, and adulation from their people and are likely to be preoccupied with “establishing their power, status and control” (Yukl, 2013, p.150). They have an exaggerated sense of their own self-importance and talents and will manipulate people to indulge in this self-deception (Yukl, 2013). A narcissist has little empathy or concern for the needs or feelings of others, which may result in people getting used or abused as the leaders desires are pursued. Yukl (2013) suggests that “people are either viewed as loyal supporters or enemies” (p.151) which will likely result in people being labeled, maligned, pushed out of the circle of favour if they do not show loyalty and allegiance. On the other hand, they are likely to keep those who are loyal and uncritical close to them. Narcissists can be very capable, strong, charismatic leaders achieve incredible things, but often at a horrible price for others.
If a narcissist operates in a hierarchical structure as a top-down authoritarian, you have the recipe for an unhealthy church culture. It is most likely that the culture will not allow for people to question or be critical towards the leadership without being marked or pushed out. If spiritual concepts such as “God’s anointed man” are used to elevate and protect his status and standing, then the stage is set for many people to get hurt through manipulation and misuse of authority. Robert Thune (2016), when evaluating and describing church leadership, lists 3 faulty models, namely, (1) the “anointed leader” model, (2) the ecclesiastical hierarchy model and, (3) the CEO/board model (p.25-28). He concludes that Servant leadership is most akin to the New Testament model (p.8-10).

The Goal Orientated Model of Transformational Leadership
Although not mutually exclusive, transformational leadership is often contrasted with transactional leadership, where the followers are motivated by a defined system of rewards, penalties, approval, disapproval, praise, threats, or disciplinary action (Bass, 1999, p.184). Some effective leaders may use utilize both types of leadership at different times. While transactional followers may act in compliance with the leader’s expectations, they may lack the enthusiasm or commitment found under a transformational leader (Yukl, 2013, p.313).
Transforming Leadership bears some of the same traits as servant leadership and is extremely effective. It appeals to the moral values of followers and mobilizes their energy to bring about momentum and reforms in the organizations (Yukl, 2013, p.312). The leader seeks to motivate the followers to “willingly and enthusiastically expend spiritual, emotional, and physical energy in a concerted coordinated effort to achieve the organizational mission and objectives” (Winston, 2006). The followers are likely to feel trust, admiration, loyalty, and respect towards the leader and become highly motivated (Yukl, 2013, p.313). Transformational leaders exhibit charismatic behaviors, arouse admiration, inspire, motivate, and provide intellectual stimulation (Modassir, 2008). Although this leadership values the welfare of others (Bass, 1999, p.186) it is usually in the context of achieving the goals of the organization, rather than for care for the person as an individual. The people are often seen as a means to an end and their value can be based on how they contribute to the organization. The transformational leader has an achievement-orientation that works towards the good of the organization (Winston, 2006, p.11). They will seek to impart values and vision to enable people to experience growth and change as they pursue the defined goals. A motivated follower may even allow goals for the organization to transcend their own self-interests, evidenced by giving time, money, energy and, making sacrifices for the vision of the church. Transformational leadership can be likened to following a soldier into battle. The leader may be more focused on winning the battle, than the survival of the follower. To accomplish the objectives, there are sacrifices he may be willing to make.

Distinguishing Servant Leadership from Transformational Leadership
How the leader views the follower highlights an important distinction between servant and transformational leadership. It could be argued that while a servant leader is primarily concerned with the health of individuals within the organization, a transformational leader is primarily focused on the health of the organization and collective goals (Allen, 2016). Under a servant leader, there will be a clear sense of being cared for, loved, and valued above and beyond the tasks, goals, or objectives. Under transformational leadership, the follower may have a sense of accomplishment as a contributor but could eventually feel a little used, exploited, and uncared for. The defining trait of a servant leader is that they primarily care for the followers, rather than a primary focus on the goals, mission, and health of the church (Patterson, 2003).

Although transformational and servant leadership are similar in some respects and often used loosely to refer to the same style of leadership, there are some fundamental distinctions. These distinctions will become evident in the event of a crisis, controversy or conflict within the church. The transformational leader might be asking how this is going to affect or damage the church, while the servant leader expresses care for the people involved. The tendency of the transformational style may be to protect the reputation, name, or brand at the expense of people. We might loosely say that an authoritarian leader is likely to do what is best for him, a transformational leader is likely to do what is best for the church and the servant leader will act to do what’s best for the people. For the servant leader, the people are not “the means to an end”, and they are not valued based on how much they contribute. The people are “the end”. They define the purpose and command the focus for a servant leader. The servant leader, like the Good Shepherd, will lay down his life for the sheep (John 10:14). The spiritual health, happiness, and blessing of the people in the church, and those reached by the church, is paramount. The servant-leader influences people by serving and the transformational leader influences people through modeling. The servant-leader motivates by providing autonomy, resources and support and the transformational leader motivates through vision and charisma to achieve common goals (Allen, 2016, p.3). Servant leadership focuses on supporting and developing the individuals within an institution, while transformational leadership focuses on inspiring followers to work towards a common goal (Allen, 2016, p.1).

The Survival of the Fittest versus Valuing the Weakest Member
The effective servant leader will have a vision for the individual members on his team and seek to assist each person in sensing their worth and reaching their potential (Patterson, 2003). Greenleaf (2002) says that, for the servant leader, “the work exists for the person, as much as the person exists for the work” (p.154). We might equally say that “the church exists for the person, as much as the person exists for the church.

The church culture created under an authoritarian is likely to be quite brutal and unforgiving. You are expected to measure up and perform according to the wishes of the leader and the values of the culture. If you measure up, you are favored. If you don’t measure up, you are out of favor. A transformational culture may be more fluid and flexible, nevertheless, the goals, values, and expectations of the church are something you are expected to comply with. Your value, to some degree, may be associated with how you contribute to fulfilling the church’s vision. The culture of a servant leader values every member, seeking to minister to the lowest, weakest one. This is not a “keep up or leave” type of mindset, but a mindset that values the most-needy member. The apostle Paul says that “those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: and those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honor to that part which lacked” (1 Cor 12:22-24).

The servant leadership model is not without its critics. Many people may claim that servant leadership falls short when business environments are extremely competitive, experience rapid change, requires risk-taking, and involve a careful balance of organizational and individual goals (Allen, 2016, p.4). Whether or not that is the case, it is this author’s conviction, that for the purposes of church leadership, the servant leadership style, preferably with a non-hierarchical leadership structure, is the appropriate and Biblical model. The transformational leadership model includes many positive leadership attributes but can lack the heart for people that is essential for church life and ministry. It has become evident through the growing body of research and writing on true servant leadership, along with the all too common reports of people getting hurt through the misuse of authority in churches, that churches are in desperate need of servant leaders being raised up for the days we live in and future generations.

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