Servant leadership – the abuse of key idea

By Peter Corney

A worrying trend is at large in the Australian church today. The servant leadership model of Jesus is being misused and distorted to justify an inadequate style of leadership that is exercised by some pastors and ministers of local congregations. A leadership style that avoids creative initiative, is reactive and passive rather than proactive, that emphasises pastoral maintenance over growth, that downplays organisation, structure, leadership development and strategic planning and criticises those who exercise these skills as adopting a corporate model.

There is no question that Jesus modelled and taught servant leadership for the church. He identified himself with the suffering servant of Isaiah in Luke 4:17-21. In Luke 22:26 He clearly taught the principle and in John 13 :1-17 he modelled the servant/slave by washing the disciples feet. The NT church followed his example. Paul describes himself as a servant/slave of Christ (Rom1:1). Peter exhorts Christian leaders to be eager to serve (1Peter 5:2-3).

The basin and the towel is a powerful metaphor for Christian ministry but what exactly does it mean or describe? First century household servant/slaves did not preach, teach, evangelise, exhort, discipline, counsel, chair meetings, organise events, recruit and train leaders, develop peoples gifts, inspire and motivate volunteers, develop vision, encourage generous giving, resolve conflict and manage constructive change in a community!

The model and metaphor are given to reinforce in the Christian leaders mind and heart the right attitude to their task and the right relationship with those the lead and to whom they minister. It describes the motive, the spirit, the attitude in which ministry is to be exercised. The Christian leader ministers to serve those they lead, they do not minister be served. They are not to exercise the role for power, recognition, status, control or self aggrandisement. The welfare of those they lead is their primary purpose. The motivation is to be love and the spirit humility. The leaders behaviour to others must reflect these things. They are also to understand that they serve under orders from the head of the household of God – Jesus Christ, and that they will be held accountable by him for every action and attitude that is contrary to this motivation and spirit.

The model and the metaphor are crystal clear about attitude and spirit but they do not tell us much at all about the skills and competencies of Christian leadership and ministry.

(The only use of the metaphor that is of any application in this regard is the manager/steward/servant in the parables e.g.: Luke 12:42-46 and 16:1-12. Such a person would have been required to take significant initiative and have a range of management skills in running the large extended household of the first century and its complex affairs including finances.)

If we look at the leadership of Jesus and Paul it can hardly be described as passive, reactive and lacking in creative initiative or strategic action! Paul would not have used these words but his practice of establishing churches in the great urban centers of influence was a brilliant strategy for evangelising the regions those centers serviced. Jesus’ concentration on selecting and developing and mentoring the twelve as the future leadership was also strategic. The leadership of Jesus and Paul is not weak indecisive or bland.It does not shrink from conflict either interpersonal or at the level of ideas. It is frequently deeply challenging, particularly in relation to personal and institutional change.

At the same time both lay down their lives for the people of God, both are entirely indifferent to any personal ambition. They are not ego driven people. Their ambition is singular and selfless – the establishment and extension of the Kingdom of God. Their focus is beyond themselves on the evangelisation of those outside the Kingdom of God and the care of the church.

Inspite of all this there is this really unhelpful and incorrect idea floating around the Australian church that misuses and distorts the servant leader model .The reality is that the pastoral leader who fails to exercise positive leadership and effective leadership skills will fail to serve their people at a most important and fundamental level of responsibility. If , for example, they fail to take the initiative to create the structures and organisation that releases and mobilises peoples ministry gifts then they fail to empower people and so to multiply ministry. They have failed to serve them with a key responsibility of leadership. Indeed they can inadvertently hold back the growth of the congregation both in maturity and numerically.

In growing congregations it is imperative that pastoral leaders gradually shift the weight of their time to working ON ministry rather than IN ministry. Working ON ministry is focussing on strategy, vision, staff and leadership development, multiplying ministry through releasing others into ministry, infrastructure, organisation, resources, constructive change and adaptation to the changing culture and creative new ways to reach out and connect with the community.

There are a number of reasons why this misuse and distortion of the servant leader model has arisen:

  1. The abuse of the proactive leader model by a few authoritarian, controlling or ego driven pastors who have hurt people and churches.
  2. The overuse of some corporate business models in churches, particularly in the vision and planning area. (Although it should be said that in my experience the biggest problem in most of our churches is the absence of planning!)
  3. An overly egalitarian model of leadership that infects some traditions.
  4. A way for some pastoral leaders to cope with the decline and stagnation of small churches.
  5. In some cases a rationalisation of the pastoral leaders own lack of skills or ability or unwillingness to embrace a different model of ministry and leadership, or simply a failure in leadership.

Many churches are hurt more by a failure of pastoral leadership than by pastoral domination.


  • Ken M

    Good article, useful for our times, speaks well into the current day traditional church