Be the Lead Servant
By Eddie Lowen
A question for church leaders: Do you make time to worry about whether or not people think you’re inclined to serve?
I met the world’s best restaurant server. From the moment he approached our table, he was the personification of service. He flawlessly memorized orders. He was fast without seeming hurried, informative without being verbose. He was genuinely friendly. He succinctly offered great recommendations, anticipated all we needed, and even kept the table from becoming cluttered.
But what registered with me strongest was that he enjoyed taking care of us. His final words were, “I’m glad I could serve you today.” I believed him.
The experience made me wonder: How many people see me as a servant? Perhaps a true servant would not even wonder such a thing. But for the possibility of some growth and reflection, let’s ask: Has anyone walked out of a recent meeting, conversation, or encounter with me feeling well-served by me, or sensing that I was glad to serve him or her?
This question is important for church leaders because it can seem to present a contradiction. After all, how can you develop a ministry for greater effectiveness without showing strength? Do you even have time to worry about whether or not people think you’re inclined to serve?
Behind the Scenes
A celebrity’s former employee recently wrote a book detailing the person’s behind the scenes conduct. It wasn’t flattering. The celebrity was portrayed as unkind and dishonest, especially under pressure. (To be fair, former confidants who write such things deserve little respect themselves.) I wonder: if a longtime coworker of mine penned an exposé about me, how would it read?
One thing that makes Jesus’ behavior during the Last Supper so inspiring is the way he behaved in familiar company under the greatest possible pressure. He was about to die for sins he didn’t commit. He who most deserved worship would be openly ridiculed.
Jesus had already revealed his foreknowledge of this agony. Before traveling to Jerusalem, he detailed exactly what would happen after he arrived. However, rather than being understandably self-absorbed, he wrapped a towel around his waist and washed the feet of his followers.
Every Bible student knows this was a lesson in humble servanthood. But those of us who help lead the church should realize it was directed primarily at leaders. Just as Jesus knew of his own impending death, he knew the fate of his friends. He understood most of them would die for him. But that wasn’t enough. He called them to live as servants, too.
Jesus made servanthood a requirement, not only for believers, but for those who lead believers in the church. The people who make bold decisions . . . who cast vision and mobilize others . . . who discipline the sinful and stubborn with biblical authority . . . are to be known as servants.
Jesus used the concept of slavery to communicate what he wanted servanthood to look like. You’ve probably heard that one of the words Jesus used for servanthood translates as bondservant. That was a specific kind of slavery in which a free person sacrificially offered himself as collateral for someone else’s debt. A bondservant was a substitute slave. When you willingly become a slave to pay someone else’s debt—that’s real servanthood.
I’ve never been very handy around the house. I don’t know how to install a new thermostat, which I’ve been told is easy. I’ve even been shown how to do it, but I still don’t know how to do it. I once famously cut the Freon lines for my air conditioner while trying to install a humidifier on my furnace. When I heard the Freon gas escaping from the tiny copper pipes that carry it, I thought it was natural gas and shouted to my wife, “Get the kids and get out of the house!” I then called a neighbor who did such things for a living, who was a big help after he stopped laughing.
However, I had another friend who realized how nonhandy I was, but who never laughed. He just took up my slack. He helped me repair things around the house and spent an entire day helping me stain my deck. He had his own house and his own projects, but wanted to help with mine. He’s the same guy who discovered the very nasty remnants of a basement bathroom in a house we converted to a church office. While everyone else wondered who would extract the nastiness, he did it.
Paul wrote, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13). Did you catch that? You’re free in Christ. So, use your freedom to live as a slave to others.
The best way I can illustrate this is with a strange marriage. A man recently told me he has been separated from his wife for several months. However, since they separated, they get along great and treat each other better than ever. They had been on a date the previous evening. In fact, while we were talking, his wife called. When he hung up, he shrugged and said, “She never called to check on me before we separated. She just wanted to ask how my day is going.” Although it was more info than I needed, he told me they were sleeping together after many months of zero intimacy. The crazy reality? Since they separated, they are happily married.
How does that happen? A counselor told me it’s common, actually. You see, what people will not do out of obligation, they will do voluntarily. Love is more powerful than law. Servanthood is mostly about attitude and posture, not position.
God knew what he was doing when he replaced the old covenant with the new. The crazy reality is that what you would never find the strength to do out of obligation, God will empower you to do as a servant of Jesus Christ.
Here are two ways to employ your identity as a servant.
Begin at home. If you’re a giver in the community, a giver at church, a giver at work, and a giver to strangers—but you’re a taker at home, something is wrong in your heart. There is no question that my wife is the bigger giver in our marriage. She tells me I’m a great husband, but she is the greatest servant in our family. I want to catch up.
Serve your church before you lead it. First Peter 4:10 paints a beautiful picture of how the church should work: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” I’m not a superior Christian. I’m just learning how to follow Jesus. I didn’t dig my gifts out of the dirt. They were loaned to me.
Andy Stanley is widely recognized for the communication skill and leadership wisdom he has used to build a great church. But Stanley says, “I’m not the most gifted leader at North Point. I just happened to get here first. Someday I’ll be done and someone else will take it to the next level.” That’s the attitude of a leader who is a servant first.
“Whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:44).
Eddie Lowen, lead minister of West Side Christian Church, Springfield, Illinois, writes the “Ministry Today” column semimonthly in CHRISTIAN STANDARD.