Servant-leadership is bottom-up leadership. It’s the opposite of all the top-down models we are so familiar with (e.g., the royal king, the authoritarian tyrant, the distant guru, the superior academic, the bureaucratic czar, the CEO, etc.). Someone described top-down leadership this way: “The boss barks orders to the employee; the employee goes home and barks orders at his spouse; the spouse barks orders at the children; the children kick the dog; the dog chases the neighborhood cat.” Sound like your church? It shouldn’t.

The top-down model is not only the most common, it is also the one that comes most naturally to sinners (as it reflects the devil’s nature). It is easier to order people around than to engage, motivate, inspire, enthuse, etc. It is also far more predictable and far less risky. I’ve seen so many pastors, elders, etc., decide things on their own rather than consulting with God’s people or putting something to a vote, because they can control the outcome better.

Where are our models?
Old and New Testament saints saw themselves as servants (Gen. 18:3; 19:19; Ex. 4:10; Num. 12:7; Jer. 44:4; Rom. 1:1), as of course did Christ Himself (Mark 10:42-45; John 13:14-17; Phil. 2:5, 7). The last passage shows how Christ gave up His rights, his reputation, his recognition, and his royalty to become a servant. They, and He especially, are our models of servant leadership.

Whom do we serve?
We serve God first (we’re not independent but dependent on God for commission, authority, blessing)
We serve God’s people (we’re not their lord or sovereign)
We serve sinners (we don’t look down on the unsaved but get down on our knees for them)
We serve servants (we don’t compete with other pastors but serve them [Luke 22:26])
We serve the Servant (who said, “I am among you as one who serves.”)

How do we serve?
Someone once asked, “How do I know if I am functioning as a servant?” The answer: “By the way you react when people treat you like one!” But here are some further characteristics of the servant leader in pastoral ministry:

  • You consult before making major decisions.  People you should consider consulting are fellow-elders, other pastors, mature Christians, your wife, and anyone who will be impacted by your decision.
  • You visit people as their pastor. Pastoral visitation and involvement in the messiness of people’s lives keeps our feet (and our knees) on the ground.
  • You socialize with people from all walks of life. Don’t be too proud to lunch with the poor – or with the rich.
  • You encourage the expression of divergent views. Seek out those who you know will usually oppose your plans and decisions and ask them for their opinion and reasons.  Make sure everyone on the elder’s board has opportunity to express their opinion, even if you know they will disagree with you.
  • Your take responsibility. When something goes wrong, the first thing you ask is, “Am I responsible?” Be ready and willing to point the finger at yourself, even if it is not entirely your fault.
  • You resist the default of viewing criticism as personal dislike. However excessive, imbalanced, or “personal” the criticism, try to find the grain of truth in it.
  • You need and use the means of grace. The busier you become the more time you spend in prayer and Bible reading. Cultivate and maintain a close and lively walk with Christ.
  • You welcome the insight of other Christians on texts and doctrines. You recognize that God often reveals things to babes that he hides from the wise and prudent.
  • You seek accountability.  You ask your wife, your fellow-elders, or a mentor to keep you accountable to Scriptural standards. And when choosing accountability elders, don’t choose the ones most like yourself!
    • Accountability requires honesty on the part of both parties.
    • Accountability requires commitment from both parties.
    • Accountability requires clear expectations (see John Piper’s accountability questionnaire)
    • Accountability requires clear procedures
  • You never use the threat of resignation as a lever.  You persevere through difficulties and disagreements  without resorting to worldly methods of manipulation.
  • You continue to evangelize the lost. You recognize that however well-respected you are in church circles, you are still fundamentally a disciple and a witness to the resurrected Christ.
  • You take on the dirty jobs from time to time. Without abandoning the ministry of the Word and prayer, from time to time you show that you are not above the menial jobs in the congregation.
  • You keep learning. Because you realize your own limitations and needs, you make a point of listening to others sermons, reading others books, going to conferences, etc.
  • You put the growth and development of others ahead of your own. Robert Greenleaf was one of the first to advocate for servant leadership in business. His website offers the following test of servant leadership: “The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”
  • You return to the cross of Christ for forgiveness and for the power to serve more faithfully.

How do we lead?
Having said all this about service, it is important to remember that servant-leaders still lead. They do the things that leaders do – direct, organize, delegate, etc., – but they do so as servants. In Effective Pastoring, Bill Lawrence says that “servant” qualifies “leader.”

Servant leaders exercise authority but they do so with motives, focus, values, methods that differ from those of other leaders. The servant leader exercises authority motivated by a love for Christ, a focus on his interests, the values of the cross, and the courage to wash the feet of those who follow Christ with him (p. 100).

But he hastens to say, they still lead.

Servant leaders serve or they don’t lead at all. And servant leaders lead, or they don’t serve at all. Stated another way, servant leaders lead by serving and serve by leading (p. 104).

Greenleaf puts it like this:

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types.

I hope that every pastor, and indeed anyone engaged in Christian service, is a servant-first.

  • Tiago Baia

    Dr. Murray,Thank you so much for your posts, especially this one and the one about family. Excellent!! I have been really blessed and served.Hope to see you next year.In Christ!!TCB

  • se7en

    What a great post – there is so much packed in here. We are all about trying to raise our kids with servant hearts and there will be a lot to talk about with them after reading this!!! Thank-you.