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

The Forging of a Servant’s Heart

Written by: on March 15, 2021

We like to gloss over the hard parts of life, move quickly through them, or avoid them at all cost. We focus on the successes, forgetting failures, disappointments, and deaths mold and shape us just as much as the successes.

This reality is evident when high school students apply for college, as applicants are encouraged to list all their awards, accolades, and leadership positions. These accomplishments are held in tandem with their rigorous course work, GPA, and standardized test scores. Outside of an essay, there is little room to share ways that the hard seasons of life shaped and formed their being.

I see this tendency mirrored in ministry contexts. When applying for pastoral positions, I was not asked about the ways God shaped me through suffering and grief, nor how I navigated failure or rejection. I was asked about ministry successes as evidenced through metrics from serving others.

Personal bios and resumes are the stuff of success, not suffering.

If we are truly interested in having solid leaders step in and influence our communities, then we’d do well to start asking different questions in our admissions and hiring practices.

In the Undefended Leader: Leading out of Who You Are, Simon P. Walker notes the importance of struggle in the shaping of a leader. Struggles come in different forms, including physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. Walker references Victor Frankl, a Jew who survived incarceration in Auschwitz during WWII. Frankl noticed how quickly his fellow prisoners would die once they lost their sense of personal meaning and purpose. He resolved, regardless of all he was stripped of, never to lose sight of his purpose and meaning for living, for “meaning was the irreducible core of our human being, which could never be taken away.”[1] It is clear not all individuals endure struggle and suffering the same. Some are molded in positive, life-giving ways, while others become bitter, angry, and destructive. Indeed, “struggle offers us choices…and often the path we take determines our destiny.”[2]

For millennia, Christians have understood the sanctifying importance of struggle in the lives of God’s people. From enslaved Israelites to Jesus on the cross, we are keenly aware of how struggle has shaped the great cloud of witnesses that surround us.[3] Our ancestors of faith learned when all is stripped away, God is there.

For example, a few hundred years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, men and women of the faith moved to the desert. They did this not to flee the external world, but rather flee the “world they carried inside themselves: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior, frantic in its effort to attend to a self-image that always required mending.”[4] By entering the desert, they elected to be stripped of false identities to experience oneness with God. In their suffering and dying to self, new life emerged. It is in places of suffering and isolation, deprived of “comfort, security, and self-esteem…when we find ourselves truly free and capable of loving God.”[5] As one’s ability to love God and be loved by God increases, so does the ability to serve others, for service flows not from “an anxious sense of pity for others or a grandly noble desire to serve, but out of abandonment of the self in God. (Thus producing) a love that works for justice…able to accomplish much because it seeks nothing for itself.”[6]

Jesus exemplified such abiding, justice-filled love through action and word. Three years before he was stripped, beaten, and crucified, he had already died to self during his 40 days in the desert. Desert experiences reveal the “spiritual path has more to do with subtraction than with addition.”[7] It was in the barren wasteland where Jesus discovered who he was in the depths of his being.

It is in the desert where the process of differentiation happens, where we learn about and embrace the limits of our humanity and recognize the humanity of others. It is in the desert where servant leaders are forged through the harshness of suffering so God’s glory can burst forth in redemptive and life-giving ways. True leadership success comes not from countless awards, but from a posture of submission and silence forged through suffering.

If this is true for Jesus and countless saints, why do we expect it to be different for us?

As followers of Jesus, are we willing to roam the desert, pick up our cross daily, or walk the roads of suffering to Golgotha, to die to self? To the degree in which we are able to embrace our humanity through suffering, is the degree in which we are able to lead and love well. The ripple effect of such leadership is profound. Without it we have little to nothing to offer the world. Our testimony is empty. Our efforts futile. Freed leaders lead others to freedom. Bound leaders slap chains of bondage on others. The American Church has endured such bondage for far too long.

The time has some. Spirit is leading us into the desert. Will we follow?


[1] Simon P. Walker. The Undefended Leader: Leading Out of Who You Are. (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions, Ltd., 2010) 139.

[2] Ibid., 140.

[3] Hebrews 12:1.

[4] Belden C. Lane. The Solace of Fierce landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1998) 166.

[5] Ibid., 73.

[6] Ibid., 76.

[7] Ibid., 167.

About the Author

Darcy Hansen

13 responses to “The Forging of a Servant’s Heart”

  1. Dylan Branson says:

    I’m thinking about the Hero’s Journey in this, about how it’s the trials and temptations that forge the Hero into the person they are meant to be. What’s more is that it’s usually a moment of grief or trauma that launches them into their quest. A world without conflict may be ideal, but is it a world where people could actually grow?

    (Also, I like the point about asking pastors about how grief has formed them into who they are; I think that’s definitely a point where one could see a person’s true character come to the surface).

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      I was walking on the OR coast (Neskowin Beach) this morning thinking about how small I am as the vast Pacific Ocean was on my right and a huge stack of rock (Proposal Rock) was before me. I pondered how few, if any, will remember me after I am dead. Especially once dead a few generations. Would anyone want to read my story of life? Are there enough highs and lows in there to make it a transformative story, maybe even a Hero’s type journey? Collectively, we love a good story filled with suspense, great joy, and even great suffering. That’s what makes the story fly. We have to have all parts, yet still on a personal level, we avoid those harder parts at all cost. How do we begin to reframe those shitty seasons of life and discover the sacred in them?

  2. Jer Swigart says:

    I’m struck by how so many have been groomed to believe that suffering is an indication that something wrong is happening or has happened. Thus, we avoid it. At all costs. Rather than embrace it and receive the gifts that it brings.

    I know…so much easier said than done.

    And so, I wonder who is out there teaching people how to endure suffering, embrace it, and receive the gifts that it offers without being consumed by it.

    In my post for this week re: pilgrimage, I mention a mentor’s experience of pilgrimage. The first thing that he said to us is that, along the way, we can expect pain. Because pilgrimage is a transformational journey and all transformation is painful.

    If we learn to expect it as a natural experience of transformation, perhaps we’d become keener to embrace it?

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      During my first session with a directee, I always tell them the road ahead will be hard. It will likely suck. It will be painful. They will suffer. But they will also survive. They will transform. They will walk in the steps of Jesus and become more human and experience the Divine more fully along the way. I never sugar coat the relationship we are entering into. But I always remind them they don’t have to walk that road of transformation alone. I’ll be there, as will others. Maybe it’s less who is teaching people how to endure suffering, but more having people who are willing to speak truth about suffering and walking alongside others in that space? I agree we must reclaim the language and the spiritual practices surrounding suffering and transformation. Then we can begin to speak it and live it with one another in an honest and holy way.

  3. John McLarty says:

    I’m not sure why people are like this, but sometimes we have this idea that leaders shouldn’t struggle or suffer or be too much like the rest of us. Even though the struggles and suffering are what often shape us, we don’t usually want to hear about that. We look to leaders as models of togetherness, something to which we can aspire. Leaders who share their struggles sometimes do so only to manipulate people’s emotions so as to lower the bar of expectation and pre-emptively set the stage for sympathetic responses when the leader fails. That’s probably a cynical oversimplification. I appreciate your point here that we don’t often ask the questions about hardships, even though these questions would be most revealing with regard to character and true leadership style. So imagine you’re on the committee to hire a key leader- what’s your question?

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      Not being a skilled interviewer here’s my shot at a few questions: When was a time you experienced deep suffering or struggle? How did that experience transform you and influence the way you see yourself, God, and others? In what ways did it transform the way you serve others? How is that reflected in your leadership in ways that others see and in ways other don’t see?

      I remember once being asked what my weaknesses are. Basically I said I worked too hard and was too focused sometimes. I think such answers are pretty self righteous in a way- because even though those are weaknesses, they can also be strengths. Most places would receive them as a strength and use them to their advantage. When asking about suffering, we’d do well to have our bullshit meter on hand to discern if the sharing is honest and vulnerable or manipulative. Do you ask questions about suffering or struggle when interviewing individuals for your staff positions? If so, what do you ask specifically and has that been helpful in finding quality leaders for your team?

      • John McLarty says:

        I often ask a job candidate to talk about a time when they failed and what they learned from it. Even though most applicants will still be somewhat guarded and wanting to show their best side, a good answer for me will reveal some level of vulnerability and self-reflection. The other side of that is being intentional about making sure the people on my team know that it’s ok to struggle and/or fail and giving support as opportunities to learn and grow.

  4. Greg Reich says:

    Darcy as we have navigated this past two years I have been awakened to the fragility we have created within the church because we have failed to embrace the call into the desert. We equate success and peace with Gods blessing and suffering with punishment. We live under the law when we are called to freedom. Suffering and pain are aspects of life we fail to equip people for when it is apart of a normal life. How do we draw a balance between assisting others through the hardship while teaching others how to avoid hardship? In some cases hardship is thrust upon us and in others it is a result of our choices. Yet there are times in order to minster to others we are called into hardship. How can we inform people that in some cases we may be called into hardship by the Spirit and other times be guided around hardship?

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      These are great questions. I wonder if those questions would be answered more holistically in communities that embrace suffering and lament through liturgy, the work of the people, as they travel through the Christian calendar in a way that incorporates the stories of suffering into specific and extended seasons? But even that is an incomplete option, especially if the stories are kept at arms length. Fostering a culture where suffering and struggle are embraced would take time, intention, and leadership that is willing to wade deep into the muck of life to lead people toward freedom.

  5. Chris Pollock says:

    How have we experienced failure and rejection in our lives and how have we responded to them?

    A great interview question for an honesty, character and integrity search in a leader. Awesome.

    There’s revelation in our failures and rejections! Through these moments of struggle, there’s opportunity for story-telling and space given in the stories for description of true-life success.

    Came across this neat quote today and was wondering where to share it, and here it is:

    ‘It is not revolutions and upheavals that clear the road to new and better days, but revelations, lavishness and torments of someone’s soul, inspired and ablaze.’ Boris Pasternak, “After the Storm”, 1958.

    Thanks Darcy 🙂

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      Beautiful. What a wonder this life would be if revelation and story were markers of humanity more so than revolution and superficial success.

  6. Shawn Cramer says:

    Personal bios and resumes are the stuff of success, not suffering. I love this. How do you hope to play a small part in flipping this script with your upcoming course?

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      I hope to flip the script by inviting people into the conversation and holding space for the pain and suffering to simply be. People who are hosted and held well in times of grief often do the same for others. Bringing grief and loss into the light is key to developing language around it. If we don’t see it, we can’t name it. In not naming it, we strip others of their dignity and humanity, while also neglecting our own. I hope in some small way this course begins that process of shining light and giving language to that which is often tucked away and deemed taboo.

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