Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock.
I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a “lead servant” in my last series of reflections. I prefer the phrase “lead servant” to “servant leadership” because the former puts primary emphasis back on servanthood rather than on leadership. I find that the wording matters. For me, it is a helpful corrective to our cultural obsession – and if I am honest, my own personal obsession – with learning how to “take charge” as a leader rather than with learning what it means to be a servant.
There are helpful, even important, leadership skills to be learned. But, at the core of our learning are things that are more about the formation of our character than about the development of leadership competencies. That’s why Peter’s instructions are so helpful. His instructions to leaders in the early Church concern the inner dynamics of our leadership.
Peter’s first instruction was that all leadership needs to be entered into and be sustained by a freely chosen response to God’s call to leadership. In that sense, leadership in the way of Jesus is never self-initiated. God’s call to leadership is always prior to our response to that call, whether we are conscious of it or not. And, God’s call to leadership is always a gift. So too must our response be to that call – a freely and continuously chosen gift to those we serve by leading. Obligation cannot provide an adequate, much less a healthy motivation for our leadership. We are called to serve not under compulsion but willingly.
His second instruction was that all leadership needs to be exercised for the common good and with a healthy sense of detachment. In that sense, leadership is to be characterized by a sense of lightness, both with respect to our own self-interest and with respect to the results of our work. In an age obsessed with self-promotion through the achievement of results, this goes deeply against the grain. Holding these things lightly in leadership is perhaps one of the most difficult of our challenges. Nevertheless, we are called to serve not for sordid gain, but eagerly.
His final instruction is the text for today. Jesus’ way of leadership is a matter of persuasion by example not coercion by force. In Peter’s own experience and memory, this was Jesus teaching on the subject of leadership. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them… But you are not to be like that.” (Luke 22:25-26) Peter learned deeply and well that Jesus was an entirely new kind of lord/leader than the world had ever seen before. Ironically, “being lord” and “lording it over” were mutually inconsistent for Jesus, Caesar and Alexander notwithstanding. In this alone, Jesus turned the world upside down.
In Jesus’ restoration of Peter after Peter’s tragic three-fold denial, Jesus foretells that Peter will follow in his Master’s footsteps and become the ultimate example of what Peter himself advocates in today’s text. The modern promise of leadership is fame and fortune. The gospel promise is quite different. We are called to model a different way of life that works for the flourishing of the other even at the expense of our own. And, the characteristic pinnacle of that way of life is demonstrated in Jesus’ and Peter’s deaths.
Jesus is brutally honest. Suffering and sacrifice are inescapable realities of leadership in the way of Jesus. Sometimes these are small and hidden experiences. Other times they are painfully large and visible. Becoming an example for those we lead means not only leading with integrity and competence, but it also means “bearing the pain”, to use Max De Pree’s language, of the organization and people we serve.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Do you find the distinction between being a lead servant and being a servant leader helpful? Why or why not?
Which of Peter’s instructions to leaders do you find most useful in your leadership context? Which do you find most challenging? Why do you think that is?
In what ways does leading by example work in your leadership experience? What issues or limits have you found with leading by example?
Do you agree with Max De Pree’s comment that leaders should “bear the pain” of the organization or people they lead? Why or why not?
We are grateful, Lord Jesus, for the teaching of the Apostle Peter on leadership. We pray that in the middle of our failures, you would be at work shaping in us the capacity to serve the people we lead out of a sense of freedom, with a sense of lightness, and for the sake of love.
Thank you for the singular example that you have set for us to follow.
By your Spirit, help us to live worthy of the calling with which you have called us. Amen.
Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online Bible commentary: Country Supply Study Guide, Part 5
Image Credit: By Caravaggio, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44143232