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.


Leadership is a Call to be Prophetic and Reframe

“No future can be stuffed into this presence except by being dead.”1 Resurrection is impossible without prior death. Scriptural imagination is often difficult to perceive until one has the eyes to see and ears to hear and is simultaneously shaped by the cosmic scope of authority, power, and kingdom that Jesus claims is to be made on real on earth as in heaven (Matt 6:10). Leadership, inspired by scriptural imagination is helping to provide an alternative view on reality, that is, creating the particular space for change and the in-breaking of God. Leadership is submitting to the radically subversive lordship of Jesus that challenges every presupposition, the tendency to see through the lens of binary options of how to participate in the world (choices between naive hope and despair), and ultimately to take on the task of becoming a reframer. This kind of leadership, that both attests to the in-breaking of the future into the present and is capable of providing an alternative view of reality, is only made possible through the path of suffering and cross; because, without the cross there is no resurrection.

Situating Matthew’s Gospel as a prophetic text, and Jesus as a prophet in Matthew’s narrative, reframed the scope and function of the text for me and helped me to have new eyes to see. It also helps to explore Walter Brueggemann’s description of prophetic imagination as:

The task of prophetic ministry is to bring the claims of the tradition and situation of enculturation into an effective interface. That is, the prophet is called to be a child of the tradition, one who has taken it seriously in the shaping of his or her own field of perception and system of language, who is so at home in that memory that the points of contact and incongruity with the situation of the church in culture can be discerned and articulated with proper urgency.2

The prophets are not loose canons looking to dismantle the tradition and break down boundary markers of identity unless those boundary markers and traditions have become inconsistent and divergent from the memory that birthed the contemporary incarnation of the community and shared story. In this sense, Jesus is not only a prophet, but also a reframer, whose memory of the tradition and story of God is reoriented to new possibilities, and is a fulfillment of the spirit of the memories of the past. Jesus did not come to abolish the law or prophets; no, Jesus came to fulfill them (Matt 5:17). Fulfillment is only possible with knowledge of what came before so that it may be actualized in the present. Peter Rollins describes this process of reframing in order to fulfill as learning how to ask “circumcision questions”, i.e. questions which ask us to “remove something previously thought of as vital in order to help unveil, in an apocalyptic way, the central scandal of Christianity.”3 Reframers must be willing to help find out what must die so that new life might be able to emerge.

However, reframing is not simply an ideological endeavor that is meant only to shape imagination. The telos of reframing through the development of scriptural imagination is for transformation of the community where “the glory of God in Jesus Christ that makes itself visible in fleshly communities conformed to Christ’s image.”4 Leadership then is the ability to attest to the in-breaking of God who writes on our hearts and bears witness to the covenanted community “whose lives, transformed by the Holy Spirit, bear undeniable witness to the truth of God’s work in their midst.”5 Reframing is all-encompassing and cosmic in scope as all of creation is groaning towards the making right of all things. Leaders reframe perspectives by attesting to an alternative reality and way of participating in the world that is a signpost of the manifestation of God in our midst.

Leadership and the art of reframing is truly a gift, but a gift that is not to be enjoyed by oneself, but is instead a gift leading us back out into the larger context, a gift given to us so that we might be a blessing to the entire world. We are invited to reframe the larger cultural story, with a new story rooted in the faithfulness of God. Dr. Hays writes in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, “What we have to offer instead is the story of Jesus. To believe that story is to find one’s whole life reframed, one’s questions radically reformulated. Therefore, much of the work of Christian apologetics will be to say to people, ‘No, you are asking the wrong questions, looking for the wrong thing.’”6 Leaders help us work together to ask the right questions and be open to how God might reframe us and reorient us to become the transformational communities God has called us to be. And let us pray for the courage to ask the right questions to help each one of us to reframe the story in the luminous darkness of the mystery of God, who is the author of the words on our heart, lest we mistake ourselves to be the Word ourselves.

Strangely enough, leadership and the invitation to become a reframer is a calling that I sought to avoid, because while the truth may set me free, it does so by turning my life completely upside down.7 It seems to me that one of the most pressing tasks for Christian leaders today is to “sketch a portrait of an alternative Christianity, one that is as ancient as it is new…a work of memory and imagination, of dangerous memories as well as daring ways to imagine the future.”8 But this task will inevitably lead to suffering, or if Wendell Berry is right as quoted above, the future cannot become the present without death. And while the good news of Jesus is that through the resurrection the kingdom has come, as leaders we must learn how to help cultivate and proclaim scriptural imagination so that our churches can bear witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit that is seeking to “create communities that prefigure and embody the reconciliation and healing of the world.”9 And it seems to me that the battle over our imaginations whether through national identity, consumerism, war, corporations, rampant individualism, and ceaseless connection via technology is a perpetual struggle for leaders today in the church. For me, to accept the call to lead in the church today is in essence an acceptance of the call to weakness and seeming foolishness: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:25)”

If you are looking for a way to dream of an alternative reality that seeks to imagine how the power of Jesus can change systemic injustice you won’t want to miss the event hosted by The Leland Center this weekend:

Journey to Justice is a daylong spiritual formation event focusing on the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other great people of faith during the civil rights movement. This inaugural seminar will be held on Saturday, April 27 from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Arlington, VA. Dr. Jim Melson, Leland’s Director of Spiritual Formation, will moderate Journey to Justice in 3 formative sessions. For more information about event registration click here.


Josh is the Pastor to Students and Director of Creative Technologies at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Warrenton, VA. He’s also the author of Sacred Hope a book designed to foster conversation around the role of hope in our lives. Josh is currently pursuing his Doctor of Ministry degree at Duke Divinity School while raising two boys and loving his entrpreneurial wife, Shey. Josh blogs at


1 Wendell Berry, Given: New Poems (Emeryville: Shoemaker Hoard, 2005), 27. 

2 Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 2.

3 Peter Rollins, Insurrection (New York: Howard Books, 2011), xii.

4 Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in The Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 146. 

5 Ibid., 150.

6 Richard Hays, First Corinthians; Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2011), 38. 

7 John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 30.

8 Ibid., 35. 

9 Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation; A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1996), 32.

The Language of Leadership: Adopting a New Language Posture

Originally uploaded by Dave Gray

Originally uploaded by Dave Gray

A postmodern geographic culture shift has occurred. Many philosophers, theologians, and churches try to communicate with people, especially young people, in modern terms located in outdated cultural understandings and geography. Speaking broadly, Church wants to tell people what to believe and the way to believe because that is the way it is according to the Bible or name your authority.

Words, even from scripture, are greeted with suspicion by post-moderns and often proved false because they are often times culturally and geographically framed. Therefore our language makes no sense and is irrelevant.

Take my friend *Jane for instance. Jane was at every church event, leading Vacation Bible School, her family was plugged into church stuff and she gave generously from her resources. Her Dad was an Episcopal priest and she was baptized Episcopalian as an infant. She was not a member of the church I attended. She was not allowed to be a member because by our church’s belief in what the Bible said she had to be baptized by immersion. She was not allowed to vote on church issues.

In the same church, a person who was baptized as a 10-year-old that never came to worship, never helped with anything, and never gave of their resources for our common mission was considered a member who could make official decisions about the church. That person could vote. Something about this belief made no sense to me and still doesn’t when I encounter it in various Baptist churches. Jane was a great church “member!” I’ll take her any day over the lukewarm bench warmer that was baptized when they were 10 years old.


The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way. Any nonverbal method of expression or communication

The days when the people in the neighborhood walked to the nearest local church left the Washington, D.C. region long ago. People moved into the neighborhood and they believed all sorts ology’s and isms. They had all sorts of different life experiences. They could not belong to the local church though and therefore it became irrelevant to their life. They spoke a different language.

To share the love of Christ with people surrounding us we must learn a new language from which to lead. We must learn a language that helps restore and reconcile and give hope. We must provide postmodern geographic mutts an opportunity to belong before they believe. To do so we must adopt a particular language posture.


Posture: A particular way of dealing with or considering something; an approach or attitude

Example – How does the word “justice” posture us? Let’s look at Isa. 1:17: Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.What does adopting a specific “language posture” mean? It means we work to adopt the values of biblical narratives through the language of words, images, and actions.

What does “justice” mean to you having read this verse? Why does it mean that? This verse invites us into a certain way of living. Based on how we understand the language we can learn what our trajectory is and invite people to belong to that posture with us. It becomes a way of being. Who will you be because of how you understand this Bible story and how will you lead others?

Why the language of leadership? I do believe that unless our churches adopt a corporate narrative we will struggle to locate ourselves in each other’s stories and in God’s story. Put simply, unless we identify a common language we will find it hard to collaborate with a group of people towards a unifying principle.

Think about it. Language is the starting point for significant participation in any particular field like law, engineering, or theology. For a church immersed in a postmodern context that is often times geographically diverse that language needs to be a particular “way” in order for people to belong. It cannot be particular words. Words are relative until we agree on the common story. The truth in the language we use is found in the way we live those words out not in the definitions give them. In our case, I suggest the way of Jesus to get at the truth of the matter so that we can join with God in co-creating his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Tom Lynch lives in Arlington, VA with his wife Lore, son Joe, and daughter Evelyn. He serves as associate pastor for youth and children at McLean Baptist Church and as the Director of Ministry Rotations for the John Leland Center for Theological Studies. He holds a master of divinity from the Leland Center and a bachelor’s in communication from Michigan State University. He volunteers as a justice advocate for International Justice Mission and serves on the board of trustees for The Network for Theological Education.


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