Myth Busters. Myth #6: Servant Leadership is Inherently Christian

Christians of various denominations and theological convictions seem to have fallen in love with servant leadership.  Books on the biblical foundations of servant leadership have proliferated, and countless seminars and workshops have been conducted.  This sudden and explosive popularity of servant leadership can be explained in part by the widespread impression that it has been taken directly from the Gospels.  After all, Jesus implored those of his disciples who wanted to be great in His Kingdom to be servants to others.  He gave them an example by washing their feet.  In addition, there is anecdotal evidence that servant leadership is effective in delivering profits, as the often cited example of Southwest airlines supposedly confirms.  And what can be better than leading like Jesus while reaping spiritual and financial benefits and thus bringing a powerful witness to those in the workplace who are not Christian?

Those who hold that servant leadership is inherently biblical may be surprised to learn that it did not originate from the Bible.  As it stands, it has its beginnings in the writings of Robert Greenleaf, a long time AT&T executive and management consultant.  In building his theory in the late sixties and early seventies of the last century, Greenleaf drew his inspiration from various sources, primarily from Journey to the East, a novel by Herman Hesse.  Leo, the main character, exemplifies the servant leader: in leading a group on the journey, he does menial chores and sustains the group spiritually.  Greenleaf defines the servant leader as the one who feels the call to serve first, and then lead.  He does not give the list of servant leader characteristic in a neat bullet point format, but names listening, understanding, imagination (paired with language), withdrawal, acceptance, empathy, intuitive knowledge beyond conscious rationality, foresight, awareness, perception, persuasion, action (phrased as “one action at a time”), conceptualizing, healing and serving.  Imagination, intuition, foresight, awareness, ability to persuade, perception, conceptualizing and ability to take action are important for any kind of leader, not just for servant leader, and the quality of serving is tautological.  We are left with listening, understanding, withdrawal, acceptance, empathy and healing.  These qualities are distinctly therapeutic, and servant leadership as originally conceived basically turns leader into a therapist.

A few years before Greenleaf penned his theory Philip Rieff published his book The Triumph of the Therapeutic.  In this volume, Rieff predicted a seminal shift in Western culture: in a relatively short time it would be permeated with a therapeutic mindset.  No longer would family, church, political party or nation provide spiritual guidance.  That role would be assumed by hospitals and therapists.  The religious person is born to be saved, but the therapeutic person is born to be pleased.  “I believe” would transition into “I feel,” and saints as a cultural ideal would be substituted by Everyman looking to get rid of extraneous institutional shackles in order to achieve the true self-realization by endless self-exploration and catering to his desires.  Rieff’s book turned out prophetic in some important respects and Greenleaf’s theory appears to be a byproduct of that rush to shift into a therapeutic culture.  So, the question of whether servant leadership is inherently Christian hinges on another question, namely, whether the therapeutic mindset of modern Western culture can be integrated into Christian faith without fundamentally altering the latter.  It is exceedingly challenging to see how that could be accomplished.

There is another quality of servant leadership that many Christians find appealing, and that is simplicity.  In this day and age of short attention spans, leadership gurus, including Christian ones, feel the pressure to give simple, almost bumper sticker solutions to complex issues, such as the nature of leadership.  Servant leadership, or at least the way it is often presented, seems to fit the bill, and offering simple solutions to complex problems tends to rake in clients and finances.  But does it deliver real solutions?  The exact stats are hard to come by, so let me offer the following three considerations: an empirical one, a philosophical one and a theological one.

First, I will broach the empirical.  After forty plus years of numerous books and countless workshops on leadership in general, and servant leadership in particular, is there evidence that the quality of leadership in this country has improved?  I have had a chance to ask this question in numerous settings, and almost invariably it has been met with laughter signifying that the negative answer is rather obvious.

Second, I will explore the philosophical.  Life is complex and resistant to humanity’s attempts to fit it into the Procrustean bed of simple schemata. H.L. Menken’s words, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong,” ring true of many efforts at populist oversimplification, including those in leadership theory.  A viable theology of leadership needs to have a sufficient complexity to it enable it to deal with various intricate leadership issues presented by modern culture.

Last, but not least, the theological.  Throughout church history, church fathers staunchly resisted attempts to simplify Christian theology by watering down, or even doing away altogether with its complexity.  Efforts to remove tensions between the human and divine natures of Christ, the indivisibility and distinctness of these natures and between singularity and multiplicity of the Trinity by removing one of the poles have been uniformly rebuffed as heretical.  This theological posture should serve as a warning to many Christian leaders today as they are tempted to lift up a given dimension of theology of leadership and make it the whole of leadership theory.  That holds true even in cases when the dimension so lifted up is a crucially important one, such as service.

The above mentioned words of Jesus need to be taken with the utmost seriousness, and an authentic Christian theology of leadership must have a robust service dimension to it.  At the same time, these words must not be used either to baptize a modern therapeutic mindset or circumvent the hard work needed for working out a viable theology of leadership capable of making a difference in the increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Myth Busters. Myth #5: Church Attendance is Declining Because Churches and Seminaries are not Practical Enough

The truth is that church attendance is declining at a time when churches are more practical than they have ever been, at least if we measure the level of practicality by the proliferation of books, workshops and seminars that claim to give ministers practical know-how.  Seminary professors are very familiar with the pressure to give students something that they can put to an immediate use in their ministries.  Professors know that, if the practical side of the course is not obvious, sooner or later students will ask them about the practical value of the course.  One of the worst critiques a professor can receive is that her or his course is “impractical,” or does not contribute to students’ ability to deal with immediate problems in their congregations.

Let me stipulate that the practical side has its important place in ecclesial life.  Churches can disregard it only at their own peril.  Ecclesial communities that neglect the practical side of ministry sooner or later will have to face the consequences.  Moreover, church health and outreach can be greatly enhanced by applying practical methods and techniques, as some contemporary mega churches demonstrate.  Effective church programs tailored to people of different ages and backgrounds have done a lot of good, and many of them should continue.  But why have all these practical strategies and efficient programs not been able to reverse declining church attendance?

Some of the roots of the fundamental, and perhaps excessive, reliance on the practical methods lay in the evangelical mindset.  Many evangelicals consider it of primary importance to convince people to profess Jesus as their personal savior.  This places significant emphasis on finding efficient techniques to do so, hence the relentless search for the best methods to get people to make such a profession and join churches.  This schema of the basic message plus techniques tends to short circuit some of the traditional Christian practices, such as spiritual formation and theological reflection.  In fact, there is the sentiment that the latter two can stand in the way, for they do not have much of a practical value and tend to muddy the water with turning the focus inward and triggering doctrinal disagreements.  Increasing importance is being attached to know-how workshops, and the need for seminary education is becoming less obvious.  But what is the price of such a short circuiting?  Can evangelicals reverse the current declines by focusing almost exclusively on finding more efficient ways of spreading the simple message and running church programs?  And why are we having these declines in the first place at a time when we are more practical and efficient than we have ever been? 

In his seminal book Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz of the Kennedy School of Government (Harvard University) divided problem situations into two types: technical and adaptive.  The main difference between them is that the former have ready-made technical solutions, and the latter do not.  For example, a technical problem would be a patient coming to a dentist with an abscess, and the dentist determining that the patient needs a root canal done.  In this case the solution is clear and will not require major changes in the patient’s lifestyle.  But if a patient is diagnosed with cancer, the challenge becomes adaptive: several treatment strategies can be tried, but the solution is not obvious; major lifestyle adjustments are required of the patient; the doctor’s challenge is that of leading the patient through the complicated treatment process rather than of prescribing a technical remedy.  Because there are no ready-made solutions in adaptive situations, the search for strategies involves all the affected parties working out adequate adaptive strategies.  More often than not it is a complex process that cannot be short circuited.  Even though the craving for technical quick fixes becomes particularly strong in times of significant adaptive challenges, these cravings must be resisted, and appropriate adaptive processes need to be brought into the situation.

Is the challenge of declining church attendance technical or adaptive?  By now it seems apparent that it is the latter, if only because, given the relentless search for the practical in the past decades, a technical solution would have been found by now had it existed.  But if the problem is adaptive, renewed emphasis needs to be given to spiritual formation and theological reflection, for it is precisely these disciplines that are best positioned to elucidate the precise nature of the problem.  Unless and until the adaptive nature of the challenge is recognized, churches will be caught up in the grip of ever more relentless cravings for the practical and in declining church attendance.  These two tendencies will reinforce each other forming a deadly loop.  It is my hope that, by the grace of God, churches will break out of it.  


Myth Busters. Myth #4: Declining Church Attendance can be Reversed by Appealing to Hearts, not to Minds.

In his 2011 book titled Religion and Modern Society British sociologist Bryan S. Turner develops the notion of expressive revolution.  This descriptive concept was first introduced by American sociologist Talcott Parsons in 1974.  In the student protests of 1960s that severely disrupted North American society Parsons saw a profound cultural shift from cultural-instrumental to affective-expressive values.  He linked this shift to the Pietist heritage that emphasized the emotional aspect of faith.  Even though the expressive emotionalist values that came to the fore in 1960s were very different from those espoused by earlier Pietism, the continuity between the two is evident in the affective individualism that was germane to both.  Turner points out the negative Evangelical reaction to the erotic aspect of the cultural change but neglects to mention that evangelicals did not feel entirely out of place in the new environment, as evidenced, for example, by the dramatic increase of the proportion of evangelicals among North American Protestants that have taken place since.  It seems that the new cultural values had more affinities with the revivalist spiritual heritage of Evangelicals than meets the eye.  The downside of revivalism was that it tended to inhibit the intellectual dimension of faith.  But in the overall environment of individualistic emotionalism that did not seem to be a significant obstacle for evangelicals in their efforts to win converts.  In fact, evangelicals grew in both numbers and importance, while mainline Protestant denominations went through several decades of decline.   Of course, the cultural shift toward affective individualism was not the only reason for these developments, but it was probably an important contributing factor.

But now the North American culture may be shifting in the opposite direction.  In his New York Times column about a month ago David Brooks discussed a paper by Victoria Buhler, who was a student in his class at Yale this academic year.  Buhler wrote that her age cohort, presumably those who are now in their early twenties, have gone through two formative events.  One was the Iraq invasion, which was justified by President George W. Bush in highly moralistic terms as part of the war against “the axis of evil.”  However, the decision to go to war with Iraq is now viewed by many as poorly conceived.  As a result, younger Americans have become dismissive of a highly moralistic language.  The other formative event was the Great Recession, which created a harsh economic landscape for college graduates. These events produced a deep resistance to idealism and the desire to test and substantiate hypotheses and theories before committing to action.  Brooks concludes: “After the hippie, the yuppie and the hipster, the cool people are now wonksters.”

If Brooks is correct, the changing cultural landscape will present new challenges to evangelicals.   It will become increasingly difficult to win converts, or even to maintain church membership, by appealing primarily to emotions.  By their very nature religious beliefs cannot be tested empirically, at least not in the same sense that scientific theories can.  So, believers from various traditions may find the new cultural climate more difficult.  But evangelicals will face additional challenges: intellectual endeavors have not been their strongest suit.  There is a substantial body of literature on this subject, of which The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Knoll pergaps remains the best known.  But there may be a silver lining in that the cultural shift will force evangelicals to pay greater attention to life of the mind.  Consequently, those who make commitments to Christ in evangelical settings will have thought their commitments through in greater depth.  Hopefully, that will result in larger proportion of evangelicals whose commitment to their faith is not superficial.

But even if Brooks is wrong, evangelicals are not off the hook.  Church history knows of no precedent of an enduring Christian movement that neglected the intellectual dimension of faith.  Unless supported by the state, such movements have either disappeared or been obliterated into insignificance.  If modern evangelicals do not want to share the fate of Albigensians and Waldensians, sooner or later they well need to present their faith in ways that are not only appealing emotionally but also coherent and stimulating intellectually.  The solution is not in emphasizing one dimension of faith at the expense of the other but in finding ways of overcoming the chasm between the two that has bedeviled North American Protestants for at least the past hundred years.

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