When I was in my 20s, I joined a discipleship program in which we were asked to read a book about servant leadership. The author described the ways Jesus served others: by washing people’s feet, letting the children sit on his lap, and caring for the sick. He exhorted readers to emulate Jesus by becoming servant leaders. I was hooked.
“Servant leadership” remains prevalent and attractive. In the halls of churches and colleges, you’ll hear well-meaning Christians say they want to serve people who follow them. You might hear a student say, “I’ve just returned from helping out at a homeless shelter where I learned to be a servant leader”—as she returns to her cozy dorm room. Or you might witness a pastor invite congregants to offer input on a church matter—before he makes an executive decision.
All things being equal, servant leadership is a good idea. But in a world where all things are not equal—especially in matters of race, class, and gender—servant leadership has its limits. In the two examples above, despite good intentions to serve, the leader retains the power. The inequality that often exists between the servant leader and the people being served remains unchanged.
Most important, it just isn’t what Jesus was talking about. Though the concept of servant leadership has ancient roots, the term wasn’t popularized until 1970. That year, Robert K. Greenleaf used the term in an essay that criticized autocratic leadership. In “The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf suggests that powerful people can ethically lead the less powerful if their first priority is to serve. Many leaders took this to mean that as long as they wanted to serve the people they had power over, they were good leaders.
But many proponents of servant leadership didn’t stop to wonder why some people have power and others don’t—and whether leadership should actually reduce the power gap. Evangelical leaders have incorrectly conflated servant leadership with Jesus’ leadership, hence the discipleship program I was in.
But servant leadership violates the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ leadership. The notion of the servant leader can be found in several world religions and ancient philosophies. But its Christian origins are found in Jesus’ mind-blowing statement that “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43–45).
Unlike servant leadership, Jesus’ leadership challenged the social exclusivism and religious notions of cleanliness that perpetuated inequality in his place and time. He served marginalized people in his midst, but his leadership didn’t stop there. At great cost to himself, Jesus broke down barriers that granted power to some and excluded others.
Though servant leadership attempts to serve across the power gap, it does not actually reduce the power gap. Rather, it reinforces it by encouraging uncritical interactions between people with power and people without power. However, Jesus’ leadership inverted the power structure of his day, declaring that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
Nearly every instance of Jesus’ leadership disrupted an unequal social system. In Mark 10, Jesus commanded the rich young ruler (a person with high social status) to give all his possessions to the poor. But in John 9, Jesus empowered the man born blind (a person with low social status) to preach to the synagogue leaders. In his preaching ministry, his harshest critiques were reserved for the powerful. In his pastoral ministry, he didn’t merely listen to his “congregants,” then shut them out of his plans. Rather, Jesus shared his power by making his followers co-heirs to his throne and recipients of the power that defeats death.
It’s relatively easy to hold on to one’s power while being a servant leader, but Jesus showed what power put to godly ends looks like: death. In Jesus’ life, leadership and death were inextricably linked. What would it look like for Christians to truly be servant leaders? To start, it would involve looking at our society’s inequitable structures and acknowledging the ways we who hold power benefit from and even maintain these structures. For many of us, this journey would be the beginning of a small death.
Christena Cleveland is associate professor of the practice of reconciliation at Duke University’s Divinity School, where she also directs the Center for Reconciliation.
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