The absolute, unequivocal, best example of servant-leadership in the Bible is modeled by the Lord Jesus Himself—“the greatest Servant of all time” (Maxwell 2002, 1299). The number of authors who use Jesus as the perfect model of such leadership is simply overwhelming. Defining servant-leadership is relatively simple. Based on the idea that leadership is influence, servant leaders use their influence to serve people. Servant leaders understand that the position of influence they have been granted, ultimately by God, is not for their own exaltation. The Robert Greenleaf organization takes credit for coining what is often described as servant-leadership at www.greenleaf.org. Dr. Elmer Towns presents Jesus as the explicit example of servant leadership in Biblical Models for Leadership. Leaders who desire to do it God’s way would be exceptionally well-served to study how Christ led others as the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4).
Towns begins with a heavy concentration on the idea that servant leaders identify the needs of others and minister to those needs (Towns 2007, 137). This certainly is a component of what Christ did, but the Son’s primary focus was not on meeting the needs of the people exclusively. Towns writes, “servant leaders are the pastors who define their life as an opportunity to meet the need of others” (Ibid.). There is an element of truth to this statement, but Christ did not “define his life” by His function of meeting the needs of others. In Luke 2, Jesus defined His life as being about His Father’s business. Meeting the needs of others without an overarching goal of doing the will of the Father could easily become pragmatic to the point of compromise. The servant leader must serve his people by doing what he knows is best even when the people do not perceive his actions as in their best interest. Jesus did this with the disciples. In John 14, they believed their need was to overthrow the Roman government and lead a revolt. However, Jesus came to, first and foremost, do the will of the Father; therefore, He served the people as their leader through His death—something His followers did not perceive would fulfill a need in their life (Lk. 22.42) until after His resurrection. Jesus said it was “expedient” that He die in John 16.7 (KJV).
Towns writes, “Jesus modeled servant leadership through a shepherding ministry” (Towns 2007, 139). Perhaps Jesus modeled servant leadership even before he began his adult ministry when he took on the form of a servant as a human being (Phil 2:7). For the servant leader there is not anything that he is too good to do. He is willing to get his hands dirty and lead by example. People are not his servants, but are helpers who can extend and enhance his influence to the betterment of others to accomplish God’s will. Jesus modeled this well when as the leader H e was willing to wash the feet of the disciples who were not willing to wash each other’s feet. The servant leader may have someone drive for him, but this is not for the prestige of having a driver, or because the servant leader cannot drive; but because the best use of the leader’s time is not driving. Jesus models this well when He sends the disciples to get lunch while He encounters the woman at the well with the gospel in John 4. Jesus asks the woman to get Him a drink, but this is not because He is too good to get His own water. Instead, He uses this as a means of engaging the woman in a conversation to get to a need she does not even realize she has. Although He could have gotten His own lunch in this case, the best use of this leader’s time was communicating with a woman in Samaria.
Yet when there is not a servant available and a disciple does not step up to the need, Jesus the servant steps up to the need and washes the feet of his students prior to the Passover meal in John 13. In The Leadership Wisdom of Jesus, Charles C. Manz calls this the most “concrete example of servant leadership” in the Bible (Manz 2005, 123). This is a very instructional period of time in the life of the disciplesas the future shepherd leaders are told by the King, “the servant is not greater than his Lord” and “I have given you an example” (John 13:16, 15). What leader is there today who desires to glorify God with his life and leadership style who cannot be instructed by this passage? Servant leaders shepherd people by modeling the behavior and mindset they wish for their people to have in their organization. The goal of having a larger flock is not the rewards that come with a larger herd but the privilege of influencing more people toward the Father’s will.
Towns needs to clarify a shepherding principle when he states that shepherd leaders “make decisions on the needs of the those you lead, rather than the goals or the organization and/or your personal ambitions” (Towns 2007, 141). Certainly he is correct; personal ambition must not play a role in the way a servant leader shepherds people. However, if the goal of the church is to glorify God in the proclamation of Christ, then those biblical core objectives must be what guide the decision-making- not the needs of the people. Instead of saying the servant leader is “others oriented” in his leadership, it may be more descriptive to say the servant leader emulates Christ first in his leadership style. The shepherd pastor must seek to have a God-glorifying, Christ-exalting, biblically-based, and gospel-centered leadership style.
This will require that the shepherd emulate Christ’s actions and attitudes. At times, Christ is gentle, compassionate, loving and willing to extend mercy (2 Cor. 10:1). However, it would not be fair to characterize Christ’s entire ministry by this one approach. At others times, He is a hard man who is defending the honor of His Father with a whip when His Father’s house was turned into a den of thieves (Mk. 11:17 ). Or He is rebuking hypocrites or telling people that if they do not repent they will perish (Lk. 13:3). He is gentle when gentle is appropriate, but He is capable of a stronger discourse when that is most expedient for the listener. In fact in Pastoral Ministry How to Shepherd Biblically, the author suggests that compassion that lacks “biblical control and left unbridled may overlook serious spiritual needs” (MacArthur 2005, 177). At His baptism, Jesus called the Pharisees and the Sadducees “vipers” (Mt. 3). This is not very “gentle,” but Jesus knew what words had the greatest possibility of awakening these men to their true need of repentance. Jesus was not concerned with an earthly title or position for Himself—He trusted(s) in the Father to exalt Him as the Father sees fit. This servant leader did not have a place to lay His head and He refused to allow the pursuit of earthly things to interfere with doing the will of His Father. Beyond comprehension, He is a remarkable role model of a leader.
Jesus was able to influence followers without pay, promotions or immediate rewards. His attitude of true and genuine love and concern for the disciples is modeled in John 17. In this high priestly prayer, the reader sees what it means to assume responsibility for the souls of men as their shepherd in the manner with which Christ reports to the Father about what He has been able to accomplish in the lives of others. This may be where Peter learned this idea and later penned 1 Peter 5 which gives tremendous guidance on the principles of shepherding. The shepherd serves by influencing others in these ways: he feeds, protects, oversees and provides an exemplary life for the flock in the same way His Savior did (MacArthur 2005, 15). The shepherd understands that the purpose in building relationships and caring for the flock is to increase the extension and ministry of the Great Shepherd as an under-shepherd.
The very word minister reminds the pastor who is a shepherd and must model Christ in all he does that he is servant. When one includes the idea that the pastor has a responsibility to influence people toward the recognition of their greatest need—a right relationship with God—then the minister or pastor must be the servant leader Christ was for the world. In Servant Leadership for the Local Church, Paul Chappell writes, “Good spiritual leaders are shepherds, not saviors; leaders, not lords; guides, not gods” (Chappell 2000, 15). The servant is humble, seeking to exalt the King instead of Himself. He recognizes the church is not His; it was not created for Him. He serves the King first by serving others the way the King would.
Chappell, Paul. 2000. Guided by Grace: Servant Leadership in the Local Church. Murfreesboro, TN: Sword of the Lord Publishers.
Maxwell, John. 2002. The Maxwell Leadership Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
MacArthur, John. 2005. Pastoral Ministry: How to Shepherd Biblically. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Manz, Charles C. 2005. The Leadership Wisdom of Jesus. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers.
Towns, Elmer L. 2007. Biblical Models for Leadership. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.