It came out of nowhere. I thought he was enjoying the workshop, but without warning, this seasoned leader abruptly announced, “I am no man’s servant.” Since the workshop was on the topic of “servant leadership” I knew I had a problem on my hands. I tried to gauge just how serious he was about the comment, but before I could process it, he said it again more emphatically, “I am no man’s servant.”
To be fair, I don’t think he was really saying that he had no interest in things like empathy, nurturing the spirit, building community, foresight, awareness, or any of the other 12 hallmark principles that Robert Greenleaf espoused. Had he stayed around to hear the discussion, he probably would have agreed with all of them. He was probably reacting out of his own hurt.
My guess is that some bully somewhere had embarrassed him, humiliated him, or maybe insulted him, and this man had made a pact with himself that he was going to rise to a safe place where no one would ever be able to do that to him again. But sadly, he left prematurely without giving himself a chance to discover that it is through serving that we often experience healing.
Of course, he’s not the first person to react negatively to this concept. The Gospels demonstrate very clearly that the apostles weren’t exactly raving fans of servant leadership themselves.
In fact, it seems like every time Jesus talked about His upcoming death, they started arguing about which one of them was the greatest. Who me? A servant? I don’t think so!
Think about Luke’s account of their behavior at the Last Supper. Jesus tried to prepare them to face the dark hour ahead, but somehow it fell on deaf ears. After Jesus raised the subject of His impending death, notice how they reacted.
And they began to discuss among themselves which one of them it might be who was going to do this thing. And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:23–27, NASB95).
Let’s be honest. We’ve all felt the fear that someone will take advantage of us if we get too carried away with this idea of servanthood. We may not say it out loud, but the voice inside our head thunders in no uncertain terms, I am no man’s servant! And when that voice is shrieking, it gets really hard to hear the still small voice of the Savior saying, “But I am among you as the one who serves.”
This is one of the great challenges for Christian leaders. How do you follow Jesus without being a servant? And yet, how do you serve without feeling servile? How do you live as a servant without making yourself vulnerable to the bullies? How do you serve without sacrificing your sense of worth?
I think that if you look closely at what Jesus said about Himself, you see the key to being a servant without feeling like a doormat. Jesus certainly understood His own worth.
In fact, He was so clear on this that He didn’t feel threatened by the prospect of serving anyone ‒ and everyone, even imperfect people like the apostles and like you and me. That’s the kind of leadership Jesus wants us all to embody. That’s the kind of attitude that Paul calls for when he says:
“For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Galatians 5:13. NASB)
Freedom is the foundation for servanthood. We are free but we can make the conscious choice to use our freedom to serve others because we are following the example of Jesus, and because we believe that the best kind of leadership in this turbulent world is the kind of leadership that rises above the temptation to “lord it over” others.
What servant leaders know is that while you can’t really rise high enough to be safe from bullies, burns, or bullets, there is another choice. It’s the choice to serve. As children of the King, we’ve got nothing to prove.
We are free to serve. In reality, freedom doesn’t come from defiantly saying that you are no man’s servant. Freedom comes from choosing to follow the example of the One who is among us as the one who serves.
This article originally appeared here.