Every now and then the business community bandies about the idea of servant leadership as the only effective form of leadership. There is even the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership basing its programs on Robert Greenleaf’s 1970 booklet “The Servant as Leader.” The rise and fall of servant leadership coincides with its periodic popularity leading to overuse of the phrase and only a superficial understanding of what it means. Then it’s back to the old way of doing things until the next time the idea is discovered.
Sadly, the same thing happens in church leadership, and it started early. Jesus periodically called his followers into servant leadership, and demonstrated what that meant by his every word and act. On a quick review, I can count seven distinct moments when Jesus instructed his disciples on the meaning of servant leadership and called them to that way of life. Their most common reaction was to debate among themselves about who would be the greatest among them and closest to the right hand of Jesus in his kingdom.
The basic idea of servant leadership is for the leader to assure that those for whom he or she has responsibility are provided the information, tools, training and support needed for them to do the work to which they have been called.
Clergy who aspire to servant leadership often start off on the right foot, but quickly get seduced by the old “whose back is the monkey on” gambit most vividly reviewed in a 1974 Harvard Business Review article entitled, “Who’s Got the Monkey?” by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass. Capable parishioners come to the clergy in charge with great ideas to seek approval and implementation. Being an enthusiastic servant leader wannabe, that clergy person approves, authorizes and sends them off with blessings and promises of all the support they need. So far so good.
Not many days later, the same persons return with a problem or two that is keeping them from getting their great idea off the ground. Being a good servant leader, our well intentioned clergy person assumes the role of servant and agrees to take on the problem, fix it, and get them on their way of new ministry. The parishioners came in with a monkey on their back, put it on the back of the clergy person, and left free and clear with no responsibility for anything except to complain at a later date about how the pastor let them down when they had such a great idea.
That’s when servant leadership gets turned upside down and falls apart. Paul waffled around trying to get it right when he encouraged the Galatians to each carry their own loads and bear one another’s burdens at the same time. Servant leadership is exemplified by the feeding of the five thousand. The disciples had a great idea; ‘Everybody’s hungry. Let’s send all these people into town for some fish and chips and maybe they’ll come back for more teaching.’ Jesus agreed it was a great idea but the disciples could themselves do the feeding right there. ‘How, they said? We’ve only got a couple of fish and a few chips.’ Jesus said, OK, let’s say a blessing and start with that – go to it. The disciples tried to get rid of the monkey on their back by putting it on Jesus but he wouldn’t fall for it.
Servant leadership is not about avoiding responsibility or hard work. It’s about taking on the responsibility and doing the hard work of assuring that members of the congregation are provided the information, tools, resources and support they need to do their work. It takes time. Some parishioners are content to be experts at monkey transfer. Others have no idea that being a Christian might actually entail their own calls to ministry and the work that goes with it. Others are willing to start but have trouble following through. Although it is a truism that 20% of the members do 80% of the work, it’s not always the same 20%. People come and people go. Some do great work and then need a rest. Some plod along year after year, the work horses of the essential but mundane. Some can only be interested in short term projects or events promising a bit of favorable PR for themselves. The servant leader stands in the middle seeing that each is provided equitable access to needed information, tools, resources and support, but steadfastly refusing to accumulate monkeys on his or her back.