Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Nehemiah 5: 14-19, Matthew 20: 20-28. Focus on Servant Leadership and why it works. Also check out the choir following the sermon.
I selected these two texts today to talk about leadership because I believe the Biblical model of leadership is the one we need to imitate if we are to be faithful and helpful in our time and place.
When you think of a leader what do you think of? I asked this question the other night of some friends and colleagues and got answers I’m sure you would all agree with. Answers like “somebody who has integrity, vision, someone who cares, someone who can work effectively with others, someone who inspires others, someone who is smart, dedicated, honest, someone with a vision.” Not a bad start.
I think we’d all agree that if more of these qualities were present in our corporate and political leaders we might not be in the mess we’re in today. And if these qualities were present in more of us who are the shareholders and voters we might not have allowed leaders to emerge who seemed to be so lacking in these qualities.
In a very real sense we get the leaders we desire rather than the ones we deserve. But there’s another model of leadership that comes out of the Bible and these two texts specifically address the issue that almost no one ever mentions when the subject of leadership comes up. And that’s the adjective of – “servant.”
When was the last time you heard a governor, or a senator, or a President say, “For twelve years, neither I nor my kinsmen, read here administration or corporate management, have eaten the governor’s food allowance…” No state diners, no private dining room, but instead this governor applied himself to the work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. “Neither I nor my servants bought any land and neither did I demand, he says, “the governor’s food allowance, (because the times were heavy on the people).”
And what he expects in return is to be “(remembered by God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.” When was the last time you heard a leader in this or any other society say such a thing as this much less really believe and live out of it? You see in the Bible leadership is about serving others. It’s not about me anymore. So while it is exciting and an honor to be called to lead God’s people the model for doing so is one of service.
Just as Nehemiah and Jesus your purpose as elders and deacons is do one thing: To connect the heart of God with the needs of your fellow human beings. And that means we are in the business of building bridges rather than walls. We are here to serve the needs not just of this congregation but also of this community, which means we need to find out what they are through prayer and discernment.
We are going to move from merely encouraging one another to attend worship services to equipping each other for works of community service in Christ’s name. As Paul says to the Ephesians, “It is God who gave some to be … pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service.” (Ephesians 4: 11, 12) Our goal elders and deacons should be nothing less than see to it that every member is engaged in some meaningful form of growth both for themselves and for the church. Growth should be our motto.
I close with this story on what servant leadership looks like: It comes from a website entitled: Dreams Indeed International – Recognizing Servant Leaders – Not Drum Majors.
It was only after rice ran out that the American Soldier noticed her again. Her tiny face crumpled as it dawned on them that she would get no food that day. Even in the emaciated crowd, she was smaller and thinner than the rest, easily pushed aside as as stronger ones shoved their way to the front.
The soldier had first spotted her under a scrawny tree as his aid convoy approached the refugee camp. But he’d forgotten her, focusing on the chaotic scene at hand. He and his comrades in arms were to protect the convoy from warlords and rioters. But sometimes aid-seekers could become unruly.
Desperation gave the starving strength.
After the crowd disbursed, she remained. Her haunting eyes met his. He remembered the banana he’d tossed in his pack at breakfast. He pulled it out and walked over to offer it to her.
She took it silently. He watched her make her way back to the tree, and only then perceived two little boys lying in its shade, too weak to get up. She peeled the banana, broke it in two, and gave a piece to each of them.
Then she ate the peel.
“It was the most moving illustration of servant leadership I have ever seen,” he told me years later. “She changed the course of my life. I resigned from my career to follow her example, serving with communities in need in Africa.”
What was the power of this little girl to change a battle-hardened fighter’s heart? The soldiers and the humanitarians were ostensibly there “to serve.” They had the aid, the arms, the answers. But she offered something more rare, more vital.
She offered love.
After decades of development work, we’ve only seen real, sustained change when leaders are servants. The marginalized are weary of being led and used by those who lay claim to greater resource, power, or intellect.
Only being served out of love honors their dignity transformatively, affirms their identity and restores hope. This paves the way for them to freely choose to become servant-leaders themselves.
As management sage Robert Greenleaf wrote, “The servant-leader is servant first… The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society?”1
The Achilles’ heel of servant-leadership is what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “drum major instinct” — “a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.”2
Social entrepreneurs, when lauded as modern-day heroes, believe their press at their own peril.
Ego short-circuits servant-leadership.
Jesus, confronted the drum major instinct in his followers. When they vied for the top spot, he re-defined greatness: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)
In one of his last speeches before his assassination, Dr. King affirmed what that starving girl knew to be true under that scrawny tree:
“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve… You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
Servant leaders eat banana peels – and leave changed lives in their wake. Amen
1 Greenleaf, Robert (1977). Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, ISBN 0809125277, pp 13-14.
2 King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1968). The Drum Major Instinct, available online at http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_the_drum_major_instinct.