(Scripture Reading: Matthew 23:11,12; Suggested Hymn: Make Me a Captive, Lord, Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal #568)

By Frederick A. Russell, Pastor, Miracle Temple Church, Baltimore, Maryland

Summary: Qualities of a true servant-leader.

Introduction. In his book, The Velvet Covered Brick, Howard Butt says that conventional wisdom thinks of power as flowing from the top down. Jesus came to give us a better way to think. He came down to show us that authority is from the bottom up. There’s an old Rotarian slogan that says, ?He profits most who serves best.? Servant-leaders put people above structure. When it comes to organizational effectiveness, leadership must facilitate a culture of cooperation--working together for the common good. Next, leadership must develop a culture of obligations--working effectively for the common good. Last, leadership must develop admiration--working at liking each other for the common good.

In Moses’ organizational structure of leadership he saw God at the top. But he placed himself as leader--under the people--at the very bottom. We might say Moses had low self-worth, so naturally he would put himself at the bottom. But there is a method to his madness. First of all, Moses saw God as the source of his leadership. He realized that the whole reason for his leadership was people. Moses displayed confidence in his subordinates and made room for mavericks. He was open to counsel and allowed leaders to do their jobs.

Moses kept the goal in sight. Servant-leadership is not weak leadership--but demonstrates strength. It is not based on credentials but character. H. Norman Schwarzkopf had it right. He said, ?If I had to choose between two people--a person that had credentials and a person that had character--give me a person with character every single day.? Moses’ leadership is a classic example of strong servant-leadership.

Characteristics of a servant-leader

1. Servant-leaders put others ahead of their own agenda. As a leader I must always ask the question of all I do, "How much of this is about me and how much of this is about the people?" If truth be told, all leaders do some things that have nothing to do with the people. It’s about burnishing our own egos. Unless I’m transparent, I begin to fool myself. When we put others first we will be sensitive to their needs, available to their needs and we will desire to meet their needs.

2. Servant-leaders are confident in their own identity. The most difficult leader to deal with is an insecure leader. An insecure leader will kill you in order to protect himself. When a servant-leader is confident in her or his own identity, he knows how to deal with his own internal baggage.

3. A servant-leader is never judgmental or elitist. A couple of years ago I was traveling with General Conference leaders and had just finished making my presentation to several hundred pastors. One of the leaders of that organization came up to me and said, ?Brother Russell, Are you from the General Conference?? ?No,? I replied. ?I’m just a local pastor.? He said, ?Oh,? and walked away. One of the things that will kill your leadership more than anything else is if you are judgmental or elitist. Because as they say, none of us are all that.

4. A servant-leader is a loving listener. The one who listens communicates care and concern. Listening communicates that you value the person. And listening communicates the love of God. A servant-leader has a generous spirit because joyful giving is at the true heart of a servant. And giving is ultimately following the example of Jesus.

5. A servant-leader is willing to give up his or her rights. What rights?

  1. A servant-leader is willing to give up the right to put himself first.
  2. A servant-leader is willing to give up the right to complain. Can you imagine what would happen in this room if all of us gave up the right to complain? God says, ?Listen Russell, I am not talking about any kind of leader. I’m talking about servant-leaders.? When God confronted me with that it took me to the mat because the spiritual gift of religious leaders is to complain. We yell at the brethren until we discover that we are the brethren. We say, ?But you don’t understand, in my part of the field . . .? You give up the right to complain. Well, you guys who are pastoring really don’t know what you’re talking about. You give up the right to complain. And all of a sudden servant-leadership follows on a whole different plane.
  3. A servant-leader gives up the right to do whatever feels good.
  4. As a servant-leader, you give up the right to hold a grudge. Someone says, ?But I’ve been hurt!? If you’ve been in ministry longer than five years, you have been hurt. All of us have had political gains and shenanigans played against us. But God says, ?As a servant-leader, you give up the right to hold a grudge.? You give that right up!
  5. As a servant-leader you give up the right to live by your own rules. If you’ve been in the ministry longer than a couple of years, over time you build up your own little set of rules as to how you’re going to operate in ministry.
  6. As a servant-leader you give up the right to understand God’s plan before you obey. God wants us to trust Him before we have all the answers. Sometimes we need to move forward before we have all the details.
  7. A servant-leader gives up the right to be honored and served. When I was a young boy we had fellowship dinners after church. There was a window in the hall where we got our food. We children would go to the window where a little dab of food was placed on our plates. But when the preacher went to the window they would pile his plate high. We would eat our morsels and go back to get more food and be told, ?There is no more food.? But the preacher would go up to the same window and miraculously food appeared and they would re-pile his plate. So when I became a pastor, I said, ?Let’s not change the rules now!? But as a servant-leader, you give up the right to be honored and served.
  8. As a servant-leader you give up the right to spend money any way you please.
  9. As a servant-leader you give up the right to popularity. You never ask the question, ?What’s the popular thing to do; what’s the best thing to do?? But as a leader you always ask, ?What is the right thing to do?? And I’ve discovered that it’s amazing how the clouds roll away when I finally ask the question, ?What is the right thing to do??
  10. A servant-leader gives up the right to personal revenge. You see, in our church, and we’re all in this together, we have creative ways of getting each other back. ?We’ll get you and we’ll get you in Jesus’ name!? But God says, ?You give up the right. You can’t get them back, even when you have been hurt. You cannot hold a grudge.? You know how Joseph had been treated by his brothers. All of this happened and now his father Jacob died. Catch the emotion! Joseph’s brothers come to him because they know it is retribution time. Because it is the law of the jungle, they believe he is going to get them back. They say, ?Joseph, we know that you’re going to get us back for all we did to you.? Under the moving of God, Joseph says, ?Guys, I’m never going to touch you. You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.? As a leader, when you have been hurt, remember Joseph and the 50:20 Principle (Gen 50:20). It’s the only way to survive. They may have meant it for evil, but God will mean it for good every single time!
  11. A servant-leader is not position conscious. Non-servants go for titles. Servants go for towels.

Conclusion. It was Thursday evening. Jesus sent the disciples ahead to the upper room. Because it was a holiday season, the paid servant had been given the evening off. When the disciples walked into the room there was no one there to wash their feet. The unspoken question was, ?Who is going to wash our feet?? No one said anything. They sat down at the table and there was absolute silence in the room. They looked around studying the architecture of the windowsill. They watched the flight of a bumblebee across the room, but no one said anything. Jesus walked into the room full of leaders. Non-servants go for titles. Servants go for the towels--every single time.

How do we wash another’s feet? I can’t tell you how you should do this. It may be through an apology or through an embrace. It may be through a word of acceptance all over again. Some of you may need to leave this place, get on the phone and call home and talk to a son that you are alienated from or a wife that you were quick with when you left or an elder back at the church or a fellow leader in this room. Whose feet do you need to wash? Non-servants go for fame. Servants go for fruits. Non-servants go for power. Servants go for people--every single time. A servant leader points others toward Jesus, not himself. You will either point people to yourself or to Jesus, but never to both. May God bless you as you take your servant leadership to the next level.

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July–September, 2001

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