Jesus taught that the greatest leaders have the mind-set of a servant. Probably the most difficult part of servant-leadership is when people treat you like a servant. One football coach bemoaned the way people treated him by saying, “It’s like the fans either put you in the penthouse or the outhouse.” A servant leader must know how to deal with both treatments. It’s Jesus’ “new way” of leading in His kingdom and as Sunday School/small group leaders, it goes with the territory.
A servant-leader is open to scrutiny and criticism. I can remember serving in a West Texas church while I was in college. The youngest active members were a couple in their forties and most of the members were well into their retirement years. I became a part-time staff member with my wife and two boys of four and two-years-old. Suffice it to say, they hadn't had preschoolers in their church for many decades. Our boys were pretty well behaved, but sometimes the two-year-old acted like he was, well, two! One of the members determined that I needed to be aware of what people were saying about our parenting. Apparently, it even came up in a Wednesday night business meeting! It never occurred to any of them that most churches have nurseries for preschoolers that age. As the lady brought her critique, I thanked her and let her know we would try to do better. In a different church, I was once soundly rebuked for holding out a note too long while I was leading the song service. Good times!
I have discovered along the way, that thin-skinned leaders don’t last very long in ministry. That’s true for pastors, but it is also true of volunteers in ministry. For some reason, people who would never criticize a co-worker in the workplace, don’t hesitate to let a Sunday School worker know that her services are not up to standard. There are those who know better than to rant on Facebook about the boss at work, yet, they won’t hesitate to blast a leader in the church. It’s just a “gift” that some folks seem to have! We know it shouldn't be that way. We know that we are serving Jesus by serving the people. But, when it happens to you, it is really easy to want to bail out altogether. It will certainly test your resolve to be a servant-leader in His kingdom.
Surprisingly, praise can also be a snare to a servant-leader. A servant doesn't want to take credit for what the master provided and enabled him to do. In ministry, we want all the glory to go to the Lord. A great church, however, is filled with people who will encourage you. People need to be built up. After all, the Bible does tell us to encourage one another daily! But, how do we handle praise without letting it metastasize into destructive pride? Servant-leaders learn to express gratitude, but also, to deflect praise to God and others.
Our successes in life can easily be traced to what God and others have done for us. A smart football coach takes the blame for the failures of the team and gives his players the credit for every win. Such a servant’s attitude builds the morale of the team and makes way for even more victories. If our small group grows and reaches new people, it is because God used our efforts and others helped to make it happen. The same can be seen in ministry. If the pastor takes credit for growing attendance and increases in baptisms, the congregation will quickly react to his pride and the Holy Spirit will be quenched. The same happens in other areas of ministry.
The best leaders are great servants. The world will never understand such a concept, but it is nevertheless true. Servant-leaders serve without concern over who gets credit as long as God gets the glory.
Dave Frasure is CABA's Disciple-making Catalyst and pastors First Baptist, So. Lebanon, Oh.