There is no doubt about it: servanthood is the thematic biblical description of every follower of Jesus Christ. How much more, then, is it true of those who are called to be leaders? I don’t know about you, but I find the passages about servant leadership in the Bible to be both deeply convicting and profoundly encouraging at the same time. These passages immediately expose what a poor servant I am. I hate when things are in my way. I grow quickly impatient with seemingly needless hassles and delay. I wish I could say that I am okay with being challenged, disagreed with, contradicted, or debated. I love predictable weeks and being surrounded by people who appreciate me. I struggle to love people who critique my love.
So I cry out for the help of my Savior, and I want to be surrounded by leaders who are crying out as well. And I marvel, once again, that the Lord would ever use me, that he never thinks it was a mistake to call me, that he is never disgusted with me, and that he greets my struggle with boundless love, incalculable patience, and mercies that are thankfully new every morning. I know too that he hears my longing and is, by grace, molding my heart into a servant shape.
But there is something else beautiful and encouraging to consider. The call to a life of joyful servitude and willing suffering is itself a grace. In calling me to deny myself, God is freeing me from my bondage to me. Self-focus never leads to happiness, it never produces contentment, and it never results in a satisfied heart. The more a leader has himself in focus, the more he thinks about how ministry inconveniences him, and the less he will experience true joy and lasting contentment. The call to servanthood is the tool that your Lord uses to free you from your discouraging and debilitating bondage to you. The call to servanthood is not just for the glory of your Lord and the benefit of others, but it is God’s grace to you as a leadership community. This is the upside-down world of ministry calling. The pathway to freedom is servanthood, the pathway to greatness is slavery, and the pathway to deep and lasting joy-joy that people and circumstance cannot take away-is denying yourself. It is only the grace of the Redeemer that will make a ministry leader find joy in the upside-down world of leadership to which he has been called. Leader, have you entered into that joy, or has it been robbed by delusions of mastery?
Now I want to be honest with you here. The gospel of Jesus Christ allows us to be honest about things we hesitate to talk about or want to hide because the things we want to minimize, hide, or deny have been fully addressed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As I have traveled around the world, and as I am in almost constant conversations with ministry leaders, it is my estimation that many of us aren’t doing well with our suffering-servant calling.
Hypercritical theological arrogance is not the fruit of a servant’s heart. Looking for people to troll on Twitter is not what occupies the heart of a servant. Pride of accomplishment contradicts servant humility. Disrespect of the vital gifts of women to the health of the body of Christ fails to mirror the servant heart of Jesus. Treating your church or ministry as if it belongs to you denies your servant calling. Resistance in the face of the loving advice, concern, watch- fulness, and rebuke of fellow leaders is resistance against your servant position. Exercising your leadership position in a way that is more political than pastoral does not flow from a servant’s heart. Treating staff members as if they are there for you rather than together with you serving the Lord happens when you forget your servant calling.
Any dismissive, disrespectful, impatient, angry, bullying behavior is a failure to joyfully embrace the lifestyle of a servant. Ministry leadership conversations that are regularly marked by complaint are the fruit of entitlement, not servanthood. To get mad at little ministry inconveniences when we have been called to follow our Savior in his suffering, demonstrates how easy it is to drift away from what our Master has called us to be and do.
Leaders, this has been very difficult to write. I write not to condemn but to encourage. The new identity and potential that are ours in Christ tell us we can do better. Not because we are able, but because the one who is with us, for us, and in us is able. His grace offers us the deeply encouraging welcome to fresh starts and new beginnings. There are many things in ministry leadership that we need to confess, repent of, and forever forsake. Grace frees us from hiding, defending, excusing, or rationalizing away things that have no place in the heart and life of a servant of Jesus.
Why is this so important? It’s important because at the heart of every hope that the gospel offers us now and in the future is a suffering servant. Without his willingness to humble and deny himself, without his willingness to become a servant, without his willingness to suffer even to death, there would be no forgiveness, there would be no church, there would be no leaders raised up to carry on the gospel mission, and there would be no message to carry. Suffering servanthood is at the very heart of the redemptive story and the gospel message. Shouldn’t it also be at the very heart of our gospel mission and functionality as church and ministry leaders? Is it not possible to be on gospel mission yet deny that very mission in the way that we think about and conduct ourselves?
My prayer is that we would be empowered by God’s grace to be joyfully willing as leaders to live the suffering-servant gospel that is our reason for existing, in everything we say and do, in the place where the Savior has positioned us.
Content adapted from Lead by Paul David Tripp, ©2020. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, crossway.org.