Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, 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.” (New International Version)
Leadership as Service
I remember a time when all politicians, government officials, and police were known as “public servants.” It was routinely assumed that such persons served the common good of all persons, regardless of who they are. I am also not delusional about the fact that, back in the day, just as today, there are those who served themselves first. However, at least, the ideal and vision of service was continually before the people.
Power is to be wielded for the benefit of the powerless. Authority is to be used to help those who cannot help themselves. Contemporary understandings of authority for many people today often do not have the common good as their guiding principles of leadership.
Misuse of Leadership
Rather, authority becomes the means of convincing others of the leader’s opinion or position. Power is used to influence, even arm-twist people toward the leader’s ideas. What’s more, those who enabled the leader to come to power expect that leader to use authority to benefit a particular agenda and only one slice of the human population. Lost is the vision of meeting needs for everyone, not just a certain constituency.
The ultimate use of power is to share it, even lay it down. Jesus did it in his incarnation, life, and death. He only took it up again after his mission was finished. We are to follow his cues on power and authority. We have opportunities galore to follow Christ in his leadership practice. For example, I once lived in a community with a large single parent family population. After talking with the elders of my church about this situation, they became excited about the prospects of reaching moms and children struggling to make it day to day.
The discussion did a hard turn of direction when I suggested we have some of those moms come in, sit around the table with us, and dictate what would constitute effective ministry which meets their needs. I was intentionally proposing that we, as church authority figures, share our power with the moms. The elders weren’t having it. One of them said outright, “Well, we can’t do that! We know better!” (than the moms do)
Whenever those in power and authority believe it is their mandate to make decisions without even having conversations with those whom those decisions effect, then they have become masters of small worlds, lords of folly, and ideational bullies. It is not the way of Jesus.
Appropriate Use of Leadership
Proper use of authority doesn’t mean we boss people around. It means we do what we need to do to help everyone in our scope of power. Taking charge must always begin with self. The self-control and self-discipline of the leader is the basis of leadership.
The heart of Christianity is loving service to one another as Christians, and humble service to a world which doesn’t believe, or act like us. Christian leaders are to focus on others’ well-being, success, and growth. They are to value character over career.
Christian disciples follow Jesus in the use of power and authority through:
- Taking a humble posture of consulting and collaborating with others. And when decisions are made, they maintain relational connections.
- Including others, and never vilifying or casting blame when stating a case for something.
- Dealing with trouble and working to clear a toxic environment of noxious attitudes.
- Directly confronting those they have an issue with, without creating destructive triangles to diffuse responsibility.
- Encouraging a healthy dynamic of love and service which seeks listening before acting.
Leadership is more about being than about doing. Responsible use of authority comes from the person who understands themselves, is curious about others, and seeks to wisely apply Christ’s compassion to meet human need.
The Leadership of Jesus
Jesus healed people and delivered them from evil, sometimes at great risk to himself. He continually eschewed the perks of power to single-mindedly pursue the Father’s will. Even in his selection of disciples, Jesus purposely overlooked others to choose a rather motley band of men made up of uneducated country bumpkins, the poor, and the overzealous.
The Lord Jesus proclaimed a kingdom that belongs to children, using power to drive out demons and forgive sins. Christ delegated his authority to the disciples to do this same sort of work.
Jesus isn’t offering leadership theories; he is offering himself. Christ is our model of the appropriate use of power. Therefore, humbling ourselves must become our ambition! Our Lord, the ultimate authority above all authorities, humbled himself. Though being powerfully divine, he took the form of a servant, and became obedient to death, even the particularly shameful death on a cross—the ultimate humiliation. Yet God exalted Jesus Christ as Lord of the universe. (Phil 2:5-11)
Will you divest yourself of the pride in believing you know what is best for everyone around you? Will you cease speaking and start listening? Will you follow Jesus to the risky place of sharing power and authority with the powerless?
God, I am far too often influenced by what others think of me. I am always pretending to be either richer or smarter or nicer than I really am. Please prevent me from trying to attract attention. Don’t let me gloat over praise on one hand or be discouraged by criticism on the other. Nor let me waste time weaving imaginary situations in which the most heroic, charming, witty person present is myself. Show me how to be humble of heart, like you. Amen.