The strategic direction of the local church has long been a major concern for church leaders. Church administrators who advocate for effective ministry do it in cognizance of the local church’s typical objectives, which serve as indicators for church growth. Regrettably, many church leaders fail to conduct and monitor plans, and because of that, they cannot ascertain programs or projects that do not contribute to the growth of the church.
As a minister who served as a local church pastor for several years, I can attest that the planning of church programs is often poorly executed. Sometimes, church leaders face resistance from church members when programs are being added or modified. Moreover, several pastors do not have a good relationship with their members to sustain development, hence the lack of growth in the church. The key to understanding the success of an organization is studying its leaders. Studying new theories of leadership is also necessary. Ellen White once said that “the church is very precious in God’s sight.” Therefore, church leaders must foster a culture that is conducive to improving the strategic directions of the local church through servant leadership.
Principles of Servant Leadership
There are various principles that define servant leadership. For this article, we shall consider the model suggested by Wong and Davey. The factors included in this model are exemplifying humility, developing others, consulting and involving others, inspiring and influencing others, and modeling integrity and authenticity.
Exemplifying humility. Wong and Devey included humility in their servant leadership model. Webster’s Dictionary defines “humility” as “the state or quality of being humble; freedom from pride and arrogance; lowliness of mind; a modest estimate of one’s own worth, a sense of one’s own unworthiness through imperfection and sinfulness, self-abasement; humbleness.” Sandage and Wiens put it this way: “Humility is defined as keeping one’s own accomplishments and talents in perspective, focusing on others rather than being self-focused” Members will be motivated to work hard to achieve church goals if their leaders will eschew pride and embrace humility, and every member will also grow spiritually. Luke 14:11 stated that “all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The author Greenleaf contextualized the concept of servant leadership in Herman Hesse’s The Journey to the East. In that book, Greenleaf thought about the role of Leo, who was called to lead because he had an extraordinary presence in the group. Everything went well on that journey until Leo vanished. His absence was immediately noticed, and the group felt that Leo exhibited qualities that would influence individuals and groups, opening opportunities for Leo as a leader. People who lead with humility will always have their absence noticed. Moreover, this leadership style is one that resonates the most among subordinates.
Developing others (people first). According to McGee-Cooper and Looper, “a servant-leader is a person who begins with the natural feeling of wanting to serve first—to help, support, encourage, and lift up others. And because of their noble [modeling], others begin to lead by serving.” The main focus of a servant leader is to meet the needs of others in an organization to ensure its growth. Any leader whose interest is in meeting the needs of others sets a good example and will attract collegial support. Many are motivated to work with leaders who identify with their needs and help them to excel in their profession. The Bible describes this character as “not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:4 NIV).
Church leaders who work well with their members help their church grow. I was fortunate to visit a local church where its members talked a great deal of good things about the pastor. Some of them spoke about how the pastor helped them in serving food—a practice that is unusual among leaders. Moreover, the pastor’s interpersonal skills also increased church attendance. Church leaders who identify with the needs of the people in your church are guaranteed to motivate a congregation in performing their respective duties well.
Consulting and involving others. Another principle that is appropriate in servant leadership is consulting and involving others. A good leader should consult with his or her superiors and create an enabling environment to work with subordinates. This approach is what some people call a “participative leadership style.” Good leaders allow their subordinates to take part in decision-making processes.
A servant leader should always recognize the potential of his church members. The Bible says,
“so Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–13 NIV).
Leaders who want to do everything on their own are not servant leaders. Instead, a servant leader should gather ideas from other church members so that the institution can achieve its purpose. Ellen White described Jesus’s approach to choosing His disciples as a call to unity: “In order to carry forward successfully the work to which they were called, these men, differing in natural characteristics and in habits of life, needed to come into the unity of feeling, thought and actions.” Indeed, a servant leader should cultivate the habit of working with other people to make the church grow.
Inspiring and influencing others (motivation). A servant leader has the ability to make people follow him or her. Each person attends a local church with different needs to be satisfied. Therefore, a good leader should always look for ways to care for his or her followers. Church members depend on God to satisfy their needs. Likewise, the church depends on the members to continue its functions. This mechanism of satisfying needs must be in equilibrium. Inspiring others requires you to care for them—visiting them, training them, and acknowledging them for performing their work well. The members who work with you should receive a reward for their work. According to Proverbs 14:23 (NIV), “all hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.”
On the other hand, insulting members when they make a mistake is unbecoming for a servant leader. Always correct them with love. Ministry Magazine puts it this way:
“Learn to accommodate people’s weaknesses. Aquila and Priscilla demonstrated this pedagogical skill when they saw Apollos. This couple had observed Paul and the way he taught. Therefore, when they heard the doctrinal mistake Apollos made in the congregation, they did not scold him publicly. They invited him home and taught him the right way of the Lord (Acts 18:26). A few years later, Apollos became a staunch man in the Christian fold.”
A servant leader should inspire people to grow.
Modeling integrity and authenticity (character). Character is another principle of servant leadership. The Bible says, “Better the poor whose walk is blameless than the rich whose ways are perverse.” (Proverbs 28:6 NIV). A servant leader is a pacesetter. He or she cannot do well without exemplifying good character, as people are drawn to leaders who show character. Intelligence can help you secure employment, but character is what will make you stay. We need leaders who are willing to accept change. Ellen White stated,
“the Corinthian believers, once so prone to lose sight of their high calling in Christ, had developed [the] strength of Christian character. Their words and acts revealed the transforming grace of God, and they were now a strong force for good in that center of heathenism and superstition.”
Impact of Servant Leadership on the Local Church
Jesus clearly defined “servant leadership” during His ministry on Earth. According to Him, “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 20:26–28 ESV). This verse speaks volumes as to what servant leadership is all about. The concept of servant leadership was later expounded by the author Robert Greenleaf in the 1990s. According to Greenleaf, “servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.” He went on to say that a servant leader “focuses primarily on the growth and wellbeing of people and the communities to which they belong.” Greenleaf’s explanation agrees with the explanation given by Jesus on servant leadership. In a nutshell, a leader must first be a servant.
Today, local churches are facing problems because of the lack of good leadership techniques. In recent times, I observed some issues that prevented the growth of a local church. A committee was inaugurated to spearhead the nomination of a new set of church officers. Soon after the head elder was elected, other officers were appointed by the elder elect. The members did not care whether those appointed were qualified to lead or not. Questions were asked, but nothing good came out of it. This practice is against the theory of servant leadership, which is best displayed when a leader chooses to adopt a servant-like attitude.
In the previous example, committee members should have first looked for the traits of a servant leader in the list of nominees before electing the church elder. Unfortunately, this significant leadership gap is prevalent among local churches.
Jesus: A Servant Leader
“Jesus modeled the true servant leader by investing most of His time training and equipping the disciples for leadership when His earthly ministry was over.” Jesus said to the disciples, “very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12 NIV). Leadership is deeply rooted in the Bible. Before Jesus came to Earth, Moses and other patriarchs served as leaders at various times. However, Jesus came to define what servant leadership is all about.
Jesus’s definition of servant leadership is based on selfless love. According to Matthew 20:26–28 (ESV), “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.” In the context of this text, the mother of James and John wanted special privilege from Jesus, as she wanted Jesus to place her children in good positions in Heaven. When Jesus heard her request, he responded with the statement in verses 26–28. According to Ellen White,
“in the Kingdom of God, position is not gained through favouritism. It is not earned, nor is it received through an arbitrary bestowal. It is the result of character. The crown and the throne are the tokens of a condition attained; they are the tokens of self-conquest through our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who stands nearest to Christ will be he who on earth has drunk most deeply of the spirit of His self-sacrificing love.”
A servant leader is a leader who does not give favor based on relationships. Rather, he shows kindness based on merit. Servant leadership is not just a matter of knowledge and cognition or of skills, traits, and theories, but of practice and action.
In summary, church leaders can effectively direct and fulfill their strategic plans if they follow the model of servant leadership. Therefore, churches should raise leaders who embody the principles of servant leadership, which include the following qualities: exemplifying humility, developing others, consulting and involving others, inspiring and influencing others, and modeling integrity and authenticity.
Pastors and church leaders across all levels must continuously depend on Jesus to practice selfless love and further realize a growing and thriving local church.
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