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In Search Of Servant Leadership
Church leadership is in crisis. George Barna believes that many people God has gifted and called have not been given the opportunity and platform to answer that call.

In the musical based on Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables, Paris is caught up in the aftermath of the French Revolution in 1789. Beggars in the gutter call up to the balconies of the wealthy and powerful: "Look down and show some mercy if you can. Look down, look down, upon your fellow man." A voice cries out, "Where are the leaders of the land? Where are the swells who run this show?"

Pastors, Barna says, are not usually leaders and don't want to be: their calling is to preach or teach.

Now the revolution is finally complete.

It's taken 200 years, but the distance between leaders and followers has been obliterated. Monarchies are little more than high-ticket entertainment. The heirs of Marx and Mao may still rule billions of people, but they know they are propping up facades. Tyranny thrives but sows the seeds of its own demise. The rich still dominate, but only they believe it's by God's design.

In the West, easy access to information has flattened organizational structures: hierarchies have been chopped in preference for work groups; decisions arise from consensus. Authority is earned, communication is king, and followers are likely to ask "why?" before "how?"

Yet, through some law of nature, two natural phenomena endure: cream rises to the top; and people still ask, "Where are the leaders of the land?"

Leadership crisis

Few are as blunt as researcher George Barna. In The Second Coming of the Church he draws a parallel between the crowds in Matthew 9:36 who were "harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" and today's church, which he says is "paralyzed by the absence of godly leadership."

In an interview with Faith Today from his California home Barna asserted that leadership is in a "major crisis."

"This is not because there are no leaders," he commented, "but many people God has gifted and called have not been given the opportunity and platform to answer that call."

Pastors, Barna says, are not usually leaders and don't want to be: their calling is to preach or teach.

"We really need that," said Barna, "but it's very different to be a leader."

Teachers, Barna adds, inform and challenge but generally don't cast vision, develop plans, think strategically, mobilize people or resolve conflict. And that, he says, is the challenge for today's church - to identify the people in the pew with leadership aptitude and use the church's resources and contacts to make sure those people get the training and development they need to function as leaders.

"There's a growing awareness of the breakdown of leadership worldwide," commented Robert Bernardo of Mississauga, Ont., now retired from the securities firm he co-founded and a veteran member of church and parachurch boards and committees.

"People have been disappointed time after time … and there is a desperate need for leadership." The needs are more pressing, he says, in an era of consolidation, as businesses, ministries and churches become more complex.

High moral character, personal integrity, the ability to inspire confidence, and the ability to think strategically are all essential qualities in a leader, says Bernardo. "A leader is usually a visionary," he added, but not all visionaries can lead.

Those who want to lead, he said, "should pay close attention to moral characteristics. … Strength lies in consistency; consistency leads to respect, and respect allows you to lead."

When people in the church call for leadership, "it's almost always in terms of direction … addressing the feeling that 'we're not going anywhere,' " commented Henry Wildeboer of Oshawa, Ont. "If they are looking for leaders, it's because they're tired of maintenance."

Wildeboer spent 33 years as a pastor in Christian Reformed churches and is now a consultant to the denomination. He also directs the doctor of ministry program at Tyndale College and Seminary in Toronto and teaches a course in leadership.

A leader has a strong sense of purpose and knows the answer to the question, "What are we here for?" says Wildeboer. A leader sees a preferred future and can inspire and motivate others. And, he says, a leader shows "a kind of dogged determination" to accomplish the vision.

People tend to follow leaders whose vision allows them to say, "Yes, this is who we are … this is what we are about!" adds Wildeboer.

Keith Churchill, area minister in Edmonton, Alta. for the Baptist Union of Western Canada, isn't sure there is a crisis of leadership, but he does acknowledge that leadership "is a critical issue in the church."

A lot of pastors he encounters every day are faithfully teaching, preaching and giving pastoral care, he says, but as a church grows and reaches a transition point leadership becomes more critical.

"Many of us were not initially called to ministry to transform the church: the basic call was to touch people's lives with the Gospel," said Churchill. When a church feels a need to move forward or to be transformed, however, people look to the pastor for that kind of leadership and that can be a problem.

"Some pastors have innate skills, but many are not prepared. The challenge is, 'How do I lead transformation on top of everything else?' It changes the sense of what it means to be a pastor," commented Churchill.

For his part, George Durance, president of Canadian Bible College and Seminary in Regina, argues that the leadership crisis has more to do with pace of change than leadership as such.

Every generation needs new leaders, he explains, but a "generation," in terms of leadership styles and methods, currently lasts about five years.

Durance, a former Christian & Missionary Alliance missionary in Germany, says the perception of a crisis exists because of problems in adapting training models to rapid change. Added to that are the spiritual challenges of materialism and other issues, and the "cultural expectations" created by the emphasis on leadership in business and private-enterprise capitalism. Complicating the situation is the priority given to personal growth and self-fulfilment: "Leadership doesn't have the same sales appeal."

Furthermore, he adds, leadership is not what it was. "There is the fading away of one model [hierarchical, highly directive] for a model which is consensual and democratic."

Servant leadership

The model of leadership currently favoured in business, public life and the church is the servant leader.

Don Page and Paul Wong of Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C. write in a forthcoming book that "servant leadership incorporates the ideals of empowerment, total quality, team building, participatory management and the service ethic into a leadership philosophy."

The authors point out that The Indianapolis Business Journal recently announced: "Servant leadership has emerged as one of the dominant philosophies being discussed in the world today." Much of the media attention given to servant leadership, state Page and Wong, is due largely to the endorsement of this model by such well-known writers on leadership as Ken Blanchard, Peter Block, Stephen Covey and Peter Drucker.

Page and Wong define a servant leader as "a leader whose primary purpose for leading is to serve others by investing in their development and well-being, for the benefit of accomplishing tasks and goals for the common good."

The quintessential model of servant leadership for Christians is Jesus; the key symbol is Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Yet living the model can be difficult.

"Where we have gone wrong," Page commented in an interview, "is in our notion that servant leadership is an oxymoron." Yet the Bible portrays Jesus communicating by His actions that "I am your teacher and your Lord and I still have washed your feet," says Page.

Servant leadership draws not only on Jesus' humility, but also on His vision, His strength and His love, adds Page.

The servant leader role is not an invitation to perform menial chores, as if that were virtuous or effective by themselves, explains Page, nor does it excuse the failure to make difficult decisions which inevitably arise. At the same time, the true servant leader does not seek approval for its own sake, nor serve merely to advance his or her personal interests.

"At the very heart of servant leadership is the genuine desire to serve others for the common good," write Page and Wong.

"In servant leadership, self-interest gives way to collective human development."

Servant leadership does not rule out the rise of a charismatic leader with special leadership gifts. However, what Page describes as a "command and control" style of leadership runs counter to Jesus' example. What makes servant leadership possible is a mutual commitment to a common vision, says Page, even though at first that vision may not be fully grasped by the followers.

The servant leader model has taken deep root among Christians.

"For 25 years I've measured myself as a leader by a biblical blueprint," with Jesus as the ultimate example, said Archie McLean, CEO and vice-chairman of Maple Leaf Foods Inc. and chair of the board of Tyndale College and Seminary in Toronto.

McLean's modus operandi comes from Philippians 2 which commands believers to imitate Christ's humility, not act out of self-interest or selfish ambition, but to act in the best interests of others and to be obedient to God.

"These four guidelines are imprinted on the top of my skull," said McLean.

Political leaders are also adopting the servant leadership model.

"The central role is to be a servant … to represent the people's best interest, not my own."

"People are looking for moral leadership. They're saying, 'We need someone we can trust, someone with integrity, who's honest,'" commented Reform MP Reed Elley, elected in 1997 in the federal riding of Nanaimo-Cowichan in British Columbia after 29 years in the pastorate.

"The central role is to be a servant … to represent the people's best interest, not my own."

Ontario Conservative MPP Frank Klees said that what constituents value most is someone in leadership who "takes the time to understand their needs, someone with the ability to objectively assess how their circumstances fit into the bigger picture and who then helps them develop a plan of action to deal with that issue.

"Klees, who attends Newmarket Alliance Church north of Toronto, says a key role of leaders is also "helping the individual understand why their need will not be fully met."

The servant leader model helps to stem the cynicism and suspicion with which leadership in Canada is viewed, whether the arena is politics, business or ministry, argues Ross Rains, president of The Navigators of Canada, based in London, Ont.

"Our American friends can over-celebrate leadership, and even overlook some things they perhaps shouldn't due to the person's position," said Rains, "but there's something in the Canadian psyche that undervalues leadership."

Here, authority and influence must be earned. "Being [in] a role is just the key to walk in the door," said Rains. "Character is the foundation of ministry; Jesus modeled character; He lived out the norms of the Kingdom."

Leadership, adds Rains, means coming into alignment with God's reality. "But we come among others as those who serve."

Growing leaders

Kirk Bartha is being propelled into leadership. Since 1993 he's been serving as associate pastor at Stanley Park Baptist church in Kitchener, Ont. and is also working on a bachelor's degree at Tyndale College. When he met some older Canadian evangelical leaders, they spotted qualities that led them to arrange for Bartha to enrol in Leighton Ford's Arrow Ministries leadership training program. Many other opportunities have been put before him, since he completed the program.

The effect, he says, is to drive him back to Scripture for guidance. Though he admits to feeling a bit overwhelmed at times, he's also begun to believe he can live out his calling. "Being an evangelist—I thought that was too big for me. Now God is putting me into that situation where I can fire on all cylinders."

There are currently 200 people on a waiting list for the Canadian Arrow Ministries program, which starts a group of 21 people every two years. As described in its web site, Arrow training sees the leader as "adventurer, team builder, relater, worshiper, listener, and communicator." Twice a year, for one week, the group gathers for sessions on topics such as planning, board relations and evangelism. The meetings are complemented by independent study in between.

Though the courses can be incorporated into a doctor of ministry degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., academics are not primary in being admitted to the program.

Elsewhere, Janet Fierbach directs the Women Today program of Campus Crusade for Christ in British Columbia. Asked how she came to be in leadership, Fierbach responded, "I was willing to take responsibility when it was offered to me."

She said she watched others she respected, asked lots of questions, and regularly set goals, a skill Campus Crusade teaches to staff.

Keith Churchill of the Baptist Union of Western Canada says that churches are increasingly looking in the pews to find members for the pastoral staff and other leadership roles.

"These members already identify with the vision, know the style of the church, who they are, and how they fit in," explained Churchill. He challenges congregations to provide ongoing education for these new recruits, particularly in biblical and theological studies. The need, he said, "is not just to manage the organization, but to also be faithful to the church and Scripture."

The drawback of churches recruiting from their own ranks and arranging training is that it can be "too pragmatic," cautions Maxine Ashley, dean of students at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, N.S. "If we were good at seeing our own weaknesses, then we could do it."

For 12 years Ashley has been administering an evaluation program known as Readiness for Ministry, a sort of quality control and guidance program for students that is used in addition to academic grading. The program, combined with a field education program that's been much enhanced in recent years, has greatly enhanced student awareness of leadership issues that await them, she says.

Though sceptical about lists of leadership qualities, she did name some essentials: a person must be trustworthy, flexible and able to listen, work well with people and "have some plain, basic management skills."

Churches often ask for a "strong leader," she said, but not all people who would make strong leaders come across as such during an interview.

"If we could just make a checklist it would be so much easier," Ashley said, "but I don't want in any way to make leadership a formula. Leadership is an art, not a science."

There are some basics, agrees George Durance of Canadian Bible College and Seminary. Congregations, he says, have a right to expect that any church leader will have some management skills and an ability to give direction. "Otherwise they're not really qualified to be a leader in the church," he said.

The seminary is training people to a mind-set that allows them to deal with change, adapt to different settings, be flexible and engage in continuous learning—all crucial to effectiveness as leaders. To anchor training, the seminary depends on a faculty with substantial personal leadership experience, a well-developed field education program, and an emphasis on ongoing consultation with churches and the denomination, Durance said.

"Seminaries are on the move these days," said Durance. "We will be very much a part of the solution."

There is debate, however, about whether leadership skills can be taught. Though gurus such as Peter Drucker write that "leadership must be learned and can be learned," Archie McLean believes that some crucial traits are innate, such as "character, passion, imagination and a basic intellectual capacity." If all aspects of leadership can be learned, asks McLean, "why are countries, companies, charities and churches so desperate for leadership?"

His company, says McLean, looks for "the bright lights" and places those individuals into an intentional process to elevate their leadership abilities.

McLean sees a difference, however, in the type of training needed for people who will also be spiritual leaders. Spiritual leaders have the additional call to handle "the sword of the Spirit," to understand "the preciousness of souls," and have "insight into the eternal needs of the human heart," he says.

"Spiritual leaders also have a triumphant faith in the risen Christ and know the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit and the power of prayer. [They] are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ."

Leadership challenges

What are the pressing challenges for today's Christian, spiritual leaders?

The first is for leaders to "understand God, who He is, what He wants to do," says Janet Fierbach, of Campus Crusade for Christ. "We can do far beyond what we think. We dream small dreams and think small thoughts. We need to enlarge the scope of our vision."

The second challenge, she adds, is for leaders to believe that God really expects Christians to fulfill the Great Commission, "to pull out all the stops and go for it."

"This is what I weep and pound the table for."

Ross Rains of the Navigators argues that a key challenge for leaders is to be vulnerable to people around them, inviting them into a mutual exchange which "both expresses and encourages one's integrity and creates an environment of trust."

The practical challenge of becoming overworked and overtired is also an issue for leaders, Rains adds. "We need to determine what a normative leadership lifestyle is all about. Leadership is not about a burnout path."

Loneliness is also a challenge, says Ken MacLeod, a Liberal MLA in Moncton, N.B. "There's no question the leader is out on the front edge and it can be lonely. Leaders have to exercise their own judgment and stand up to the scrutiny of those who are following.

"Fending off compromise is also a challenge, says Henry Wildeboer of Oshawa. Leaders will be tempted to "bow out, sell out or quit," he says. The Christian leader "needs to be prepared to sacrifice, because big leaders will be crucified.

"To meet the challenges of leadership, accountability "to a fellowship of God-committed brothers and sisters to whom the leader's life and work are open" is crucial, says Wildeboer. "Anyone by himself eventually goes off the deep end." Such accountability groups meet regularly for prayer and support.

Another way of avoiding a plunge into the "deep end" is to share responsibilities, an idea that is taking root even among traditionally hierarchical groups.

"For a generation the pastor was almost the exclusive leader and did not want to share," said Rev. Brian Baxter, national director for church ministries for the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada. A new generation of emerging leaders in the denomination is demonstrably more interested in consensus and consultation, says Baxter. He terms this trend a "cultural shift that will move us back to a biblical model."

The new leadership slogan is, "We don't have to do it all," adds Baxter. "We just need to see that it's done, to authenticate and encourage those who do those things."

A final challenge in leadership today is the rise of women in key positions.

Multiple staff and paid teams are not an option for many congregations, however, and may not even be ideal. As a result, Fellowship Baptists have launched an intensive focus on developing lay leaders, through the Fellowship Leadership Training Agency.

One way to develop leaders is for pastors to spend a lot of time talking with the church leaders, to forge a common vision, says Keith Churchill. He also suggests that pastors include lay leaders in seminars and conferences that pastors often attend, so that lay leaders can also be challenged and excited by new possibilities.

A final challenge in leadership today is the rise of women in key positions. Women often bring a different style of leadership to the table, comments Linda Tripp, who began working at World Vision Canada in Mississauga, Ont. 22 years ago and today is vice-president for international and government relations.

"I came in as a neophyte and gradually grew into leadership." She says she benefited from being exposed to many different people and styles of leadership within the organization and around the world. "I could pick and choose which I wanted to follow.

Based on her experiences at World Vision, Tripp suggests that female leaders are more willing to share information than are males, are great networkers, and often have a more collaborative approach.

Don Page of Trinity Western University adds that whether it's biology or socialization, women in general grasp servant leadership more easily; it's more natural to them, he says. Women, he adds, are more verbal, feeling-oriented and concerned about people.

Fierbach also sees distinctions between male and female leaders. "To keep it simple, I'll say that women are more relational and men are more task-oriented." Women, she says, will look more at the long-term effects of a course of action and "will be slower to make the hard decisions." Conversely, men focus on short-term action "and suffer the consequences down the road," she says.

The key is not to generalize leadership qualities by sex, she adds, but for leaders to "develop the strength of complementary teams" using a variety of skills, styles and qualities.

Christian advantages

No one disputes that the church faces monumental changes at the beginning of the 21st century. But Christian leaders in all fields have some advantages over other leaders.

Don Page describes that advantage as a "lifelong spiritual purpose which sustains them." Christians can afford to take larger risks, he notes, because of their confidence in Christ's forgiveness and eternal reconciliation. Christian leaders also operate under a "different level of integrity, an ethical standard which is unalterable and available to outward scrutiny."

Christian leaders have a self-understanding that is "rooted in humble service to God, not a self-confidence rooted in their abilities," he adds.

Christian leaders also have a greater awareness of diverse worlds beyond their own community, adds Page, stemming from the knowledge that God is concerned for all people and all of creation, and that God has a missionary purpose in the world.

The key distinction, he says, is "where you draw your inspiration from as a leader during tough conditions, changing times and financial constraints.

"That's why Christians have taken on historically different tasks. Christian leaders have access to inspiration that transcends."

Larry Matthews is president of Yes! Communications in Toronto.

Originally published in Faith Today, September/October 1998




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