A call to servant leadership – by Afrika Mhlophe

When I look at Christian leadership today, I see a situation akin to that of a dog chasing after a car. When the dog catches up with its target, it does not know what to do with the car because its purpose for chasing was not clearly defined. The absurdity of this situation is best explained by a quote from the late Dr Myles Munroe, who said, “when a purpose of a thing is not known, abuse is inevitable.”

Christian leadership today is characterised by much abuse. Values that are true marks of greatness and distinguishing feature of Christianity are increasingly being discarded in favour of worldly values. For instance, instead of aspiring for personal purity more leaders are after positional power. Some are convinced that charisma is more important than character. As a result, many of today’s Christian leaders are now after anything that gives them a whiff of importance. Things like fancy ministry titles, a bevy of attendants, and so forth.

In my book, ‘A Passion for Position’ I point to a different way. I show that Christian leadership is meant to be oriented towards something else. The subtitle is, ‘A Call To Servant Leadership’ because I believe that this is the only form of leadership that is compatible with God’s kingdom. To some people the term ‘servant-leadership’ sounds like an oxymoron. And yet Jesus was a servant who ruled and a ruler who served.

In fact, servanthood and sacrifice is what distinguished Jesus’ leadership to that of the Pharisees and Sadducees. As a result, He never needed to announce Himself as a leader but demonstrated it by serving. But like the rich young ruler, many people who purport to represent Jesus are walking away from the leadership principles He demonstrated. Why is that? The answer lies in not understanding the real purpose of leadership.

Hanz Finzell tells us that the subject of leadership is vast, so much so that “decades of academic analysis have given us more then 350 definitions of leadership.” In other words, there are so many chances of getting it wrong as a Christian leader. However, the chances are drastically reduced when we keep our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus. In fact, you need to know that leadership is not only framed around who follows the leader but also around who the leader follows.

Every leader is also a follower. He follows a leadership philosophy or a certain style of leadership. It goes without saying that if you are a true follower of Jesus you will take your cue from Him. You will lead as He led. Jeremiah said, “As for me, I have not hurried away from being a shepherd who follows You” (17:16).

Self-promotion and obsession with leadership positions is a certain approach or form of leadership. Jesus revealed that this is a form favoured by pagans. According to Him, pagans or the ungodly do not only lead, but want recognition. They like to parade themselves as leaders. Jesus said to His disciples, “Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:26).

Jesus shows that self-aggrandising leadership is wholly incompatible with the values of His kingdom. Therefore, every kingdom citizen should reject this type of leadership. And yet many Christian leaders today are holding on to this type of leadership for dear life, like a drowning person clinging to a log in a raging torrent. Everywhere I go I encounter leaders who insist on introducing themselves with their ecclesiastical “titles”.

It is as if their identity is now interwoven with their ministry function. The position has become the core of their leadership and everything else is peripheral, including people. And yet with Jesus people were at the centre. In fact, when He invited people to follow Him, He promised that they will find rest for their souls (Matthew 11:29). In other words, people who follow Jesus are never exasperated or subjected to tyrannical leadership.

In Jesus, people encounter a shepherd who leads them besides peaceful streams (Psalms 23:2). He lessens the load that His followers carry. Unlike Rehoboam who increased it and lost his position as a result. Rehoboam was Solomon’s son who took over rulership from him (1 Kings 12). He became what John Maxwell refers to as a positional leader. A positional leader is someone who is followed because of the position he/she occupies.

According to Maxwell, positional leadership is the lowest level of leadership. The highest is pinnacle leadership where a person is followed because of who he is. Jesus was a pinnacle leader. He did not need a position or title in order to lead. He never announced Himself as a leader but people discovered Him as one.

As I have mentioned before, Jesus was first and foremost a servant. He declared that He “…did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Servant leaders give so that their followers might gain. They allow themselves to become a ladder so that others might ascend to higher heights. As a result of this self-abnegating attitude, the impact of their leadership and ministry is much longer.

Think about it, Jesus was only in active ministry and leadership for 3 and half years. And yet He is still exerting influence on millions of people around the world. His life epitomises the principle of sowing and reaping. Jesus gave His life and gained many more lives. With His disciples Jesus gave away leadership by empowering them so that they can lead and function without His physical presence.

Therefore, the real focus of leadership is not what a leader stands to gain but what he’s prepared to give. It is through giving that a leader gains. He not only gains followers but others who can lead and function without him. When the new leaders opt to become servant-leaders the whole process is repeated.

Afrika Mhlophe is the author of A Passion for Position. He is the pastor of Good News Community Church in Port Elizabeth. He travels extensively and writes for various publications.. He is married to Lindelwa and they have two children.