Ministry as Servanthood, Not Authority

servanthoodBut Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matt. 20:25-28)

Jesus has some very counter-cultural ideas about leadership. For most of us leadership is about “calling the shots.” It’s about exercising authority, and being “in charge.” It’s about strategizing and maximizing our potential and ministry’s potential. But for Jesus, leadership is most fundamentally about serving others. It looks like washing feet, and giving your life as a ransom for many. This is a model that we do not understand naturally, even in the church.  Many of us need to challenge our current popular thinking about church leadership.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is great on this point. He illustrates for us well what it looks like to view ministry leadership as a service. In his wonderful book Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life, author Stephen Nichols discusses Bonhoeffer’s list of seven ministries of a believer. The list is intriguing, for it emphasizes self-discipline for the good of others as the highest virtue, and the ministries of the pulpit and pastoral authority as the lowest. His list reads:

  • the ministry of holding one’s tongue
  • the ministry of meekness
  • the ministry of listening
  • the ministry of helpfulness
  • the ministry of bearing
  • the ministry of proclaiming
  • the ministry of authority (see Nichols, 70)

The first two “ministries” focus on self-discipline because, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “He who would learn to serve must first learn to think little of himself” (Life Together, 94). This fits well with the ministry of “listening” too, for one who thinks too highly of himself can never truly listen to another. No one else has anything as important to say as they do. The next two ministries focus on brotherly service, oriented towards actionable effort in care of others. These five ministries are crucial and it is only as these are realized and in place in the church that one can turn his attention to the so-called “platform” ministries of leadership. Without the first five ministries the platform ministries will fall on deaf ears. Preaching unaccompanied by genuine love and care will amount to a “noisy gong or a clanging symbol” (1 Cor. 13:1). It’s the truth of the old cliché: people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

For the most part, the models we have adopted for church leadership in the Western church simply don’t mesh well with the Biblical priorities. Current literature of church leadership focuses on things like efficiency and completion of tasks. Such emphases, however, tend to view people as projects (or worse, impediments to success). So, in such models of leadership the plan is to establish a clear goal, create a system to achieve it, delegate responsibility, and then evaluate success. But, discipleship can’t be systematized, and relationship can’t be delegated. This is a focus on ministry as authority, not as servanthood. It’s an emphasis that turns our churches into corporations, our pastors into CEOs, and our congregations into consumers.

Notice that this emphasis doesn’t necessarily have a negative view of authority as “abuse of power.” Sometimes we pit “authority” and “service” against each other by making authority about something more like pride and ego. That can certainly be a part of the equation, and where it is found it is sinful. But even where the emphasis is on strategic planning, the focus is not on dying to self and serving others. It’s not that strategic planning is irrelevant or unimportant. It’s not, and in large churches with lots of volunteers, lots of people, lots of moving pieces, it’s a vital part of taking your pastoral responsibilities seriously. Yet, if the focus and emphasis of ministry is simply on strategy, we will lose sight of people. We will, as Collin Marshall and Tony Payne have written, focus on the trellis more than on the vine itself (see The Trellis and the Vine). First and foremost, however, God has called us to serve people, to care for them. Bonhoeffer’s priorities are right, and challenging.

Focus on structures is necessary, but where it becomes primary we lose sight of God’s value for people. The organized church is a great tool, wonderful blessing, and valuable structure for the support the church (i.e. the people of God). Yet, it can get in the way if the structure consumes all our time, energy, and focus. People matter. Those of us in leadership are often challenged by this because people are not always easy to work with. They don’t conform well to measurable results. If we are evaluating structures we can more readily identify success and weakness. But with people its more complicated and more difficult to evaluate what pastoral success looks like. This can make our tasks more difficult and the possibility for discouragement more real. Yet we know that God cares more about individuals than structures. We need to care more about our people than our systems.

In the contemporary church we need a greater emphasis on pastoral care, on ministry leadership as servanthood. The evangelical celebrity culture we have created and further developed in recent years is not healthy. To some degree it cannot be avoided, but we can do much in the way of challenging it by speaking differently about leadership within the church. Bonhoeffer gives us much to chew on, and his own life is a testimony to this model of ministry. We do well to listen to him. Jesus, of course, is the better model. It was he who told us what leadership was really to look like, and it is He who perfectly lived it. Does my view of leadership look like Jesus’ view? That’s a challenging question for me to have to ask myself. I hope and pray that more of us will ask that question of ourselves and of our churches.

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