The Three Tests of a Servant Leader

By Joe McKeever

“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)

The pastor who is a servant to his flock has an authority and influence unmatched by those who have taken all the leadership courses and read all the  books and are able to display all the certificates on their walls.

The leader who will serve his people demonstrates Jesus Christ to them, proves his concern for their needs, models effective leadership for those coming after him, and builds a solid structure on a firm foundation.

Not all pastors want to serve. Some wish to be known as strategists and pulpiteers, managerial experts and motivational geniuses. But only those who serve are building a church that will last upon a solid biblical foundation. The others are playing their control games.

Here are 3 areas by which anyone considering becoming a leader of God’s people can check himself.

What servant leadership looks like

In John 13, Jesus girds Himself with a towel, gets down on his knees, and does the lowliest work imaginable to the disciples: He washes their feet.

A servant leader can frequently be found working behind the scenes, taking the work no one else wished to tackle, seeing that others get the credit, and rejoicing when someone else succeeds and prospers.

At a church dinner, a servant leader will only rarely be seen at the head table being waited upon. Look for him among the tables, pouring drinks and greeting guests and ministering in small ways. Don’t be surprised to find him washing dishes or taking out the garbage.

You measure his effectiveness not by the numbers of people he controls, but the number he serves.

What a servant leader says to others

To the blind beggar of Jericho, the Lord Jesus asked a question the poor man had never heard in all his years. He had lived off cast-offs, throwaways, spare change, and scraps for all his life. Now, standing before the Lord Jesus Christ, he hears a question never asked him before: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51)

That’s the question of a servant. “What can I do for you?”

Interestingly, the Lord asked the identical question earlier in Mark 10:36, when James and John brought their little self-advancement scheme to Him. He refused their request. In the case of the blind beggar who asked for his sight, Jesus granted it. So, we conclude that asking the question “What can I do for you?” is not to obligate oneself to do whatever we are asked. The Lord does not send out His people to mindlessly obey every needy individual they meet.

A group of people gather to do a job. You are there to get a job done. Some wish to be leaders, some have preconceived notions on how to do it best, and some just want to watch. But when someone arrives asking “How can I help?” your heart skips a beat. This is the most welcome person in the room.

It’s what servants ask. They just want to bless the others. A servant, it is said, works to make others successful.

A servant submits to others. (See Ephesians 5:21 where all believers are instructed to submit to one another.) And this may be the reason there is so little real service going on today; people prefer to take the power position, not the inferior, lowly spot.

And yet, this is what our Lord did. In fact, He taught that true greatness comes just in this way. Only the truly wise among us will believe that, however. The rest will spend their lives building fancy resumes by heading up organizations and receiving impressive awards.

What a servant leader says to himself

Our Lord said, “When you have done everything commanded you, say (to yourself), ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have only done our duty.’ (Luke 17:10)”

The secret of effective servant leadership is driving a stake through the heart of the ego. The way to do that is to give yourself a strong talking-to on the matter of duty and expectations. Rebuke your pride, restrain your lust for recognition, and release your love.

The immature person is often willing to work on a project, even sacrificially. But when the work is over, he/she will be expecting some kind of recognition and appreciation. Most of us have known of people who dropped out of church because they worked hard and no one appreciated them. Ask them about their church membership and you will hear their story. The sad tale of the church’s failure to properly appreciate them has eaten at them ever since, so the story is always ready to be told.

They were trapped by their ego with its insatiable craving for recognition.

It helps to bear in mind that Jesus did not say we should feel this way to other people–try telling someone “You are an unprofitable servant” and it will be received as a rebuke to them. Nor did He say that others should say this to us. He said this is what we are to tell ourselves.

It’s all about controlling our self-centeredness to free ourselves to bless others in whatever ways present themselves.

If you want to be a leader, you will have a problem: no one wants to follow.

But if you want to be a servant, you’re in luck: everyone likes to be served.