Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Servant Leadership

Written by: on November 15, 2018

As our cohort continues to learn, read, and share, we have been able to also learn quite a bit about one another.  Many of us are proud of the geographic in which we live.  I know it is very fun for me to share stories with Mary and Nancy about our Michigan histories.  Jenn and Digby clearly enjoy talking about New Zealand and Australia.  So many of our California and Pacific Northwest (is it ok to call the Pacific Northwest area Cascadia on the blog?) members discuss similar areas and locations together.  Many of us have strong affiliations with our communities of faith and denominations.  It has been great to get to know one another on a deeper level as the semester has gone on.

However, we have also learned things that many of us aren’t so fond of.  The ordination process.   The speed with which many denominations are willing to make change. The wine selection at the Panda Hotel Sports Bar.

One thing that I am not a big fan of is the phrase “Servant Leader” even though it has gained much traction in the Presbyterian world in the last few decades.  Originally created by Robert Greenleaf in a 1970 essay[i], the idea is that “the servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”[ii]  I will be the first to say how much I actually love this idea, however when a congregation I served attempted to use this language, by encouraging all our members to become “Servant Leaders” it became incredibly problematic.


We were in the middle of trying to create a new Vision Statement for the church and the idea arose that we would be a “Relevant Servant Church” full of “Relevant Servant Leaders.”  After a bit of discussion the word “”Relevant” was dropped and we all then became “Servant Leaders.”  All wrapped up in the phrase was a nod to the work of Robert Greenleaf, a tip of the hat to the “Suffering Servant” motif from Second Isaiah,[iii] and the well intentioned hope that service would become a more central focus of the church.  It did not.

Instead what happened was this terminology added more confusion than clarity.  I feel this is because we were failing to connect meaning-making and leadership.  We ended up using terminology that signified that church leadership had been “decoupled from the notion of meaning and inextricably tied to a concern with performance.”[iv]  The messaging, though well intended, suggested we were more invested as a community of faith in an individual, if that individual was more of a “server,” and completely took any sort of meaning, or dare I say ‘relevance’, away from the individual who couldn’t serve, didn’t feel called to serve, or may experience the divine in a fashion other than the models of service the congregation could help facilitate.

Our season of Relevant Servant Leadership didn’t last very long.  We needed to re-imagine who and what we were for a handful of reasons at that point in the church’s history.   Clearly a significant one was because we removed any sort of meaning-making from the role of merely being a member of the church.  The church I currently serve has just finished the process of creating a new Vision Statement.  I look forward to blogging about that, what I learned from the mistakes of my past, and what I applied to that process from just this first semester, in a future post.

[i] Greenleaf. “What is Servant Leadership? Accessed, November 14, 2018. https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/

[ii] Greenleaf.  Homepage. Accessed, November 14, 2018. https://www.greenleaf.org/

[iii] Wikipedia.  Second Isaiah.  Accessed, November 15, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaiah_53

[iv] Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, eds., Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice: an Hbs Centennial Colloquium On Advancing Leadership, ed. Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana (Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Review Press, 2010) 100.

About the Author

Rev Jacob Bolton

7 responses to “Servant Leadership”

  1. Karen Rouggly says:

    Isn’t it so interesting how charged language can be? I find that to be so true in Christian circles especially. I think we all have our own understanding of “christian-ese” that just rubs us the wrong way. Trust me, I cannot stand when people talk about going to “love on” one another. What you mentioned in this blog I think connects to Andrea’s and her articulation of human “beings” not just human doings. It’s interesting that when you named “servant” as the type of leader, it became about a “doing” rather than a “being”. I wonder if everyone became more concerned with loving on someone or something, rather than just loving.

  2. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Jacob, thank you so much for sharing a very contextual problematic experience. Isn’t it amazing how well intentioned phrases can become “tainted”? I am always amazed how people can become so impassioned with verbiage (like vision statements) and concepts while concurrently totally disconnected from the spirit of their actions. To borrow from Andrea’s post, I pray we can learn to keep our being and doing emulsified in ourselves and the others we influence. Blessings, Buddy!

  3. Jenn Burnett says:

    Jacob, I love how you started by affirming our cohort connection points and connectedness…because I have always loved the idea of servanthood leadership, but as Karen pointed out it is obviously because I have a very different experience of it in action. The image we started with was always Jesus washing his disciples feet first and then telling them to go and do likewise. In a camp setting (where it was part of my first ministry training experience) the idea was that instead of telling kids how to behave, you would show them. If it was important that dishes got done, you did them and invited them to join you. If you wanted them to encourage each other, you served them by encouraging them and invited others to follow. For me the term ‘servant leader’ has never been about work so much as ensuring our whole life was about reflecting God’s heart and that it should spill over into how we live. A classic example: at my kids’ old school I once walked on campus to see the deputy principal, in his suit, kneeling next to a kid scrubbing out the sink/fountains. The kid had gotten into trouble and this was the consequence, but instead of using just using power to dish out a consequence, the deputy principal both set the consequence and then knealt and fulfilled it with the little offender. I completely get that we have trigger words and feel like I will even tread a bit more cautiously hearing how different your experience has been to mine. What do you think it takes for us to heal from bad leadership experiences like you had? (I have a whole set of my own!) How do we differentiate from when we need to heal from an experience versus when we just need to think critically about what’s happened? Thanks for the post Jacob! Looking forward to hearing about your visioning process!

  4. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Jacob, loving that the Antipodeans’s are having such a positive impact on your life. Hope you’re not so cold as you looked on Monday.
    Ok, how would you connect the words, Servant and tough? Servant and resilient? Servant and focussed? Servant and unpredictable? Jesus told us to be servants because he was. But he wasn’t owned or employed. In the beatitudes we are blessed when we are meek. But it gives the impressing of being some kind of door mat. However the word was often used in Greek literature to describe stallions and war horses who had been meeked. They were tough as, dangerous, but able to give themselves to battle and danger because they had learned to. Servanthood is a choice, but it doesn’t relinquish telling people to “clear off”. Jesus did it with Peter and the Pharisees and sundry others too. So, what about, “Badass Servant Leadership”. That sound better? It’s a stretch, but I think I’m Accurately paraphrasing Nohria’s book.

    • Jenn Burnett says:

      So which one of you gets the book title “Badass Servant Leadership”? Because if neither of you, Jacob and Digby, choose to use it, then I’m calling dibs.

      • Digby Wilkinson says:

        Already mine! The only way you could do justice to the topic would be to write my biography. Unfortunately it would be a little light on the servanthood and little heavy on the other. You can have the rights of course, so long as you massage the story 🙂

  5. Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Hey, Pastor Jacob – great post! I, too, enjoy our Michigan stories and keeping updated on current events within the community. But I also found the wine selection disappointing at the Panda Hotel! lol. And you shared interesting input on the term ‘servant leadership.’ I agree that meaning making and leadership must be a combined entity. And I hope your new vision statement brings TRUE VISION for your church. Blessings, my friend!

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