Despite some similarities, Christian servant leadership is only superficially related to a secular understanding of servant leadership.
Robert Greenleaf, a Quaker who had a 38-year career at AT&T, first coined “servant leadership” to refer to leaders who put other people’s needs, aspirations and interests above their own. They serve others first and transform their lives to grow “healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous,” he says. However, “Greenleaf is not the individual who first introduced the notion of servant leadership to everyday human endeavor,” according to Sen Sendjaya and James Sarros in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies. “It was Christianity’s founder, Jesus Christ, who first taught the concept of servant leadership.”
Servant leadership is defined through Jesus’ life and work. It starts with God, not people. “Servant leadership is a concrete expression of a daily commitment to live out the Word of God and the will of God and thereby advance the kingdom of God,” Christian writers Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges say in their book Lead Like Jesus. Only out of this foundation and purpose may leaders truly serve others.
Foundations of Biblical Servant Leadership
Greatness Is Serving
At one point in Jesus’ ministry, He taught the disciples about His coming betrayal and death, but they did not understand the meaning of the lesson. Instead, they argued about who would be the greatest leader in the absence of Jesus. “Their arguments must have been intense since they are outlined in all four Gospels (only a few events in Jesus’ ministry are cited by all four Gospel writers),” Sendjaya and Sarros note.
But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” -Mark 10:42-45, NKJV
Jesus emphasizes how the Gentiles oppressed and overpowered others with their authority. The disciples knew this. Jesus said the disciples must be servants to others instead of following the Gentiles’ example.
Greatness is serving, according to Jesus. This is demonstrated through Jesus’ example. After all, He “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).
Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet
One way Jesus demonstrated what it means to serve others was by washing the feet of His disciples. This was a degrading and lowly task. It was one of the most demeaning tasks anyone could perform in that time. “Even Jewish slaves were above it,” Craig Evans writes in The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary. When Jesus “laid aside His garments” and wrapped a towel around Himself (John 13:4), He adopted the posture of a slave.
So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” -John 13:12-17
Jesus knew that He had all things under His power (John 13:3) and that He was equal to God the Father (John 5:18). Yet, He proclaimed that the Father is greater (John 14:28), and He chose to be subservient to the Father. “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God” (John 13:3) washed His disciples’ feet. Jesus was aware of His power but chose to humble Himself and serve others.
This is not a contradiction. Jesus was fully divine and fully human. The incarnate God “made Himself nothing” (Philippians 2:7), as many translations say, accepting the subservient relationship. In other words, Jesus and the Father are equal in essence, but Jesus is subservient to the Father as they have certain roles in the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).
This is a powerful illustration for Christians following Jesus’ example.
Christian Servant Leadership Characteristics
Nonprofit managers can have considerable power and authority. But like Jesus demonstrated, Christian servant leaders can relinquish this power to serve God and impact people.
Serving others when leaders have authority has three effects, according to Austin Burkhart at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics.
- It reminds leaders that their authority is not something they are entitled to or that they have earned.
- It shows others that leaders are accountable to God, who has given them this authority.
- It allows leaders to empower others so they can accomplish great things.
“We have a tendency to over-strategize leadership,” Burkhart says, cautioning Christian leaders. “We see the strategic benefits of servant leadership and allow that to become our reason to serve. That’s an extremely dangerous mistake because ultimately that turns serving into manipulation.”
There is a “disconnect” in strategic leadership and a “significant ‘disconnect’ in the business community among Christian business people regarding how their Christian faith and actions apply to business,” according to Daniel Haskins and Yvonne Smith. Other worldviews dominate leaders’ lives and business practices. “A Christian biblical worldview requires a strategic leader to think differently ‘about everything’ including how he or she leads the overall organization,” they add.
Out of a Christian biblical worldview, leaders can glorify God. This is a basic scriptural principle of glorifying God in everything Christians do, as Paul wrote: “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Haskins and Smith offer three ways Christian leaders can glorify God.
- Glorify God with the organization’s mission, vision and strategic direction. Profits can help support charity and community organizations. A company can have an evangelistic focus or aspect by reaching out to employees, customers and the community in ways that are passive (verses printed on materials) or active (Bible studies).
- Glorify God by maintaining biblical ethics within the organization. “Good or bad ethics in an organization tends to start at the top,” Haskins and Smith say. An organizational culture can promote and implement biblical standards through policies that help staff members, such as day care centers, a fund to help workers in short-term financial trouble or letting employees take the day off to resettle elderly parents.
- Glorify God by modeling godly behavior in leading the organization and its resources. Personally applying wisdom, kindness, love, peace, patience, longsuffering, meekness, humility and other Christ-like qualities in interactions with others glorifies God. Leaders should seek God daily through the power of prayer.
Developing Christian Servant Leaders
Grace College’s online Master of Science in Nonprofit Management prepares students to glorify God through service and leadership. This faith-based program provides graduates with the knowledge and skills needed to pursue management opportunities with nonprofit organizations. It takes place in a fully online learning environment, allowing students the flexibility to complete coursework alongside personal and work responsibilities.