In the eyes of God, a leader is a servant. We know that Jesus places a high value on servanthood and teaches His disciples to do the same: "Whoever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:26-28, NKJV).
A servant, by definition, is one who waits on his master. Attentiveness to the master's commands produces an effective, treasured servant who is entrusted with more responsibility and becomes a leader in his own right. It is primarily our listening, not our busyness, that makes us good servants. When we have first understood what our master needs, we will do a better job meeting that need.
Society honors leaders who "step up" to the proverbial plate and take authority. We admire, respect, and follow such people. Our busyness becomes a badge of identity and self-importance.
Yet God demands that His leaders "step down," often into a place of obscurity, where the tasks are menial and the recognition is scarce. I know several mature leaders who began their "ministry" cleaning toilets! They graduated to helping people get "cleaned up" later. God's model of servanthood is designed to help us avoid the idolatry of leadership: the allure of titles as well as the worship of leaders themselves. It is servanthood cradled in humility.
Why does God do this? Doesn't He need good, strong leaders today, who will take charge of things and champion the Kingdom cause in a world filled with corruption?
Yes, He does. He longs for mature leaders - servants - to go and impact the world for Christ, just as your pastor probably longs for someone to lead a small group or set up the chairs on Sundays. God longs for those He can trust with greater things: those who have been faithful over little things and graduated to weightier matters. The catch is that He also longs for us to recognize one simple truth that many of us miss: HE is the leader!
Are You a Slave to Man or a Servant to God?
After years of "service" in the Christian church, God had to adjust my understanding of whom I was actually serving. It's easy to be caught up in the needs and demands of a growing church body: lead a small group, serve coffee and donuts on a Sunday, join the parking team, or minister to people at the altar. The needs never end; they only increase as a church grows. And this is a good thing, because it provides opportunity for believers to exercise their faith and grow in the grace of servanthood.
But somewhere along the line, God calls us to examine our hearts. Have we become a slave to man or a servant to God?
Here's what the Lord spoke to me concerning leadership:
"A leader, in My eyes, is a servant. Yet the focus of servanthood is different (from the world's). Would you rather be a slave to man or a servant to Me? If you serve Me, I will lead you to help others. But if you serve man, you will only burn out - and quickly! I will offend your sense of what should be done in order to show you that what you do is to be done for Me alone. All other types of "servanthood" are nothing more than idolatry - the idolatry of self or others."
In other words, a good leader leads by listening.
Leadership that magnifies itself or its own mission overmuch causes people to stumble. If we are truly serving Christ in the way He intended, we will place His requests above those of man - even those that may come from our leaders. We will recognize Jesus as our Lord, and see that leaders, too, should be working in subjection to Christ's authority, direction, and mission. Christ is the head, not man. Every man - even the pastor - is part of a Body, receiving orders from the Head.
Lest it sound like I am against Christian service, I am not. Yet there is a distinction between doing something because it "needs" to be done and doing something because the Lord has asked you to do it. Many of us blindly accept requests to serve without checking first to see if that is what the Lord wants us to do, and as a result, we have a growing body of Christian workers, missionaries, and pastors who are burnt out and exhausted. They have focused their eyes on something or someone other than Christ.
We must be willing to trust that the Head knows what the Body needs to do, in what order, and by whom. We must also be willing to let things go undone when He does not call us to do them. Either He will raise up someone else to do the task, or the task is not a priority to Him at this point.
The only way to know what we should be doing is to listen to our Master, and sadly, many leaders are not listening. Studies of Christian leaders in the US have found that 80% of pastors spend fewer than 15 minutes a day in prayer.* A true servant is one who waits on his Master first, not as an afterthought.
The God Who Sees
Besides the idolatry of leadership and the constant needs presented by the church, there is another reason why we are so quick to jump onto the "service" bandwagon: pride. Jesus cautions us in Matthew 6: "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven." (Matthew 6:1, NKJV).
Joining the prayer group seems like a good thing until it becomes evident that someone is hoping to be "heard for their many words." (Matthew 6:7; notice Christ's emphasis on "being heard" as opposed to "seeking" or "listening"). Serving with the goal of being recognized by man is never a good idea.
In fact, the entire chapter of Matthew 6 addresses the issue of being seen by men, a form of pride. If men are the ones we are pleasing, we have missed the essence of Jesus' lesson on service. Service should flow out of our quiet times with God, with a clear sense of purpose and mission, and a balance to how much we are taking on - balance that can be provided only by God Himself.
If I had my way, I would serve relentlessly. I thrive on service, and I love to accomplish things - especially when I know those things benefit God's Kingdom. Many of us are wired this way. We get excited about "doing" things for God instead of finding out what God needs to be done! It is all the more important, then, for us to be sure that we stay in contact with the Head of our Body, who will keep us from doing too much and burning out.
In God's eyes, tasks are never as important as people. He sees whether we are responding to our pride, to man's expectations, or to Him alone. When our priorities are not in order, He will hold us back from the task in order to preserve His people. No matter how pressing the need, our reward only comes from serving His way. A secure leader can serve without need of recognition because he knows that God sees what is done for Him, even in secret.
Leading by listening is the most effective way we can become a servant. Serving man will cause us to burn out quickly. We need to stay in the flow of the Holy Spirit. When we listen first, we allow God to place us exactly where He wants us, doing what He wants done. This is not an easy lesson, since it requires that ministers and laymen alike make listening to God a priority. But leaders who listen will have the greatest impact on their generation.
c. Deborah Perkins/HisInscriptions.com. *Source: US National Prayer Council.
Deborah Perkins is passionate about connecting people with God. She writes about knowing God and hearing His voice at HisInscriptions.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook, or contact her directly here.
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A severe hearing loss from childhood caused Deborah Perkins to develop what she now calls her secret weapon: tuning in to God's voice. A Wellesley College graduate and an award-winning writer, Deborah is now a wife and mother of 3 boys. Deborah has devoted over 25 years to professional and lay Christian ministry in New England and beyond. Her passion is inspiring people to cultivate greater intimacy with God.