Bible College of Western Australia

Servant Leaders

Commencement & Graduation Message by David Bardsley on 22 February 2015.


It seems half a lifetime since I was sitting where you are, even though I started preparing for ministry rather later in life than most people. The fact that we are here at all sets us apart from the majority of folk in the Church – the Body of Christ. Not every person in the Body is called to participate in Bible College activity. And if you are here for any other reason than as a result of God’s calling, perhaps you had better leave now! Actually the difficulty in determining when God is calling you or not isn’t limited to a person named Samuel a few thousand years ago – it’s one of the trickiest aspects of Christian life. God speaks to us and calls us in all sorts of different ways. So you’d better stay anyway, just in case…

Our starting premise is one of “Every Member Ministry”. We are called to and equipped for Ministry when we become members of the Body of Christ. The aim of all Bible Colleges that I know of, is to equip us to be better for the specific areas of ministry to which we are called. We gain knowledge and techniques for handling Biblical truth. Our personal growth should be accelerated. And our walk with the Lord should become closer. We are in a really privileged position. But with that privilege comes responsibilities and, inevitably, we are going to be called to use and share the enhanced attributes and gifts God has given us. In other words, whether formally or informally, we are going to emerge as leaders, whether or not we see that now.

So your how are we going to lead? What is a Biblical model for leadership?

Thinking of Leadership in the way the world thinks isn’t much help in our situation. If we do that in the church we end up with a structure and a way of doing church which is no different from any hierarchical, power based model typical in the business world. It gives us a pyramid with the church leader at the top and everybody else below. That sounds far too familiar and in fact few church structures have deviated from this since the church was born. But that’s not the way Jesus worked. He embodied servant leadership and that title – servant leader – itself is a startling paradox. It’s even more startling if you put it into a Biblical context and language – the servant was in fact a slave!

We know more or less what a leader does. By definition a Leader is someone with followers – voluntary/willing or coerced – and in following they do what the leader directs them to do.

We also have a pretty good idea what a servant does – he enables and facilitates and makes things happen at somebody else’s direction. In worldly terms the two are mutually exclusive but in Jesus they come together. These two distinct aspects are clearly evident in his earthly ministry. Let’s look at them:

  1. Jesus the Leader – All four gospels include accounts of Jesus calling his disciples (e.g.Mt 4:18-22)

Most sermons focus on the calling of the disciples – the followers – and quite rightly encourage us to respond to the call Jesus makes on our lives in the same way as the disciples. But let’s look at the person of Jesus, not the disciples, in these accounts and it is clear that Jesus emerges from these accounts as the quintessential leader. He calls and people follow – he’s a leader by definition.

The Leader is in control of the agenda. Jesus was in control of God’s agenda in all situations and especially in these. Jesus called people to follow him – they did – to pick up his Father’s agenda. Jesus did not own the agenda and that’s a lesson for us. We do not push through our own agenda – God is always the proprietor.

Jesus is undoubtedly a brilliant leader. Look at his lifestyle, his teaching, his actions. When he was directing people he gave us a wonderful model for leadership. He was always focussed on what needed doing, he chooses and organises his ministry, he communicates well. But above all he builds strong, close and personal relationships with his followers.

But that’s only half the picture. Leading is what he did but in his heart he was a servant.

  1. Jesus the servant – Jn 13:2-17 Summarise (It was the sermon topic at a church we attended in Beijing in 1988 – took some explaining to the Government officials who took us there!). The account features Jesus of course on the night before his death.

Startling story – God is full of surprises – he is so unpredictable from human perspective!

The Son of God, Immanuel, God with us, does the work of the lowest servant or slave in the household. Familiarity dilutes the impact – really astonishing – to the disciples, to Chinese…to us?

Peter got the wrong end of the stick again but emerges at the top of the heap…again!

Key verses – v13,14 – “Teacher and Lord” (Leader)… “set example of service to others.”

It’s not about just being nice to each other – it’s a statement of mission

–      Serve God, serve each other, serve the world!

–      Take the message of salvation out into every place for the benefit of “all nations”.

–      Do things primarily for the benefit of others.

We are called to model Jesus, to be Servant Leaders. Church is designed to be different. We are not to be like BHP! A mark of the Body of Christ is or should be our relationships within the Body. How closely do we walk with Jesus and how closely do we walk with those around us?

One of the key characteristics of typical worldly models of organisational structure is separation. No matter how much lip service is paid to bonding and team work, they work on individual distinctiveness, competitiveness, personal evaluation and comparison. In Jesus’ economy things work differently. Removal of barriers is at its heart – supremely the removal of the barrier of sin which separates us from God and each other. And a measure of how well a church is fulfilling its mission is in how effectively barriers are removed between people within the fellowship. How “in tune” are we with each other? Like an orchestra, we all have different notes to play but how well do we sound together? Another word for all this is “love” – beautiful harmonies in Kingdom life come out of our expression of love in action, caring for each other. The way we love each other sends a really powerful message to those around us too. And the way the leader loves those around him sends out the most powerful message of all.

We need to be leaders with the heart of a Servant not servants with the heart of a Leader. It’s a real problem for the church when we get it wrong – power based churches have damaged lots of people. I weep when I think of some of the things that have been done. Jesus’ primary role was of a servant – Mt 20:25b-28. Jesus makes it quite clear that there is a huge difference between secular leadership and Christ centred leadership. If we see ourselves primarily as leaders there are some huge pitfalls ahead. We can end up projecting the perception that we “have arrived”. Our followers become servants to us in a hierarchy. They can become highly dependent on us and often stagnated in their personal growth. They become inhibited, constrained and inadequate. Outreach and mission become duty driven rather than acts of love and service. And we, as leaders, end up carrying the load for everybody. Have you heard about ministry stress? Look at the personality and leadership style of the person under the pump…

On the other hand, the characteristics of someone who is primarily a Servant in a leadership role are equally distinctive:

  1. Their personal agenda is secondary to the purpose or vision of the whole (Jesus’ eyes on the cross) and the needs of others become top priority (Jesus’ work on the cross).
  2. Servant leaders offer themselves to be accountable, transparent and vulnerable (Jesus’ teaching and sacrifice)
  3. They are available to others at the expense of themselves (Jesus’ sacrifice) – that’s not always stressful…it’s a privilege. It’s only stressful if you consider your own agenda top priority.
  4. They are inherently team players. They see their role as inseparable from the team…different perspective (Jesus’ vision)
  5. They have a concern for the growth and well-being of the whole person (personal, emotional, spiritual aspects)…Jesus healing (sins forgiven – get up and walk). One more I would add in a church setting is that they inevitably feel inadequate for the job – I know I do – and I believe that is a big plus because it throws you back on to Jesus and the power of the Spirit every time.

For genuine Servant Leadership, relationship rather than power is the key issue and that will always be a bit messy. Don’t expect things to be always neatly organised. Jesus was informal, unpredictable, startling and risky in his ministry. He was far too messy for the religious leaders of his day. A church led by a good servant leader may end up being equally messy.

Vision/Picture of Church Leadership – the upside down pyramid. An upside down pyramid is rather wobbly! That won’t suit anybody who is primarily a leader and they will inevitably try to turn it the other way up to stop it wobbling. But the servant heart will see past the wobbles – he will see the changes taking place in individuals, the growth in discipleship, the growth in himself and he will rejoice as people draw closer to Jesus even if it means the shape of things changing.

In summary I am asking each of us to audit how we think about leadership because that’s where we are going to end up. I guess it should be encouraging for those who feel somewhat overwhelmed by this calling – it’s ok to feel overwhelmed! And to those who see themselves as a natural leader, maybe I am calling for a heart transplant. Either way we need to throw ourselves at the feet of Jesus and ask the Holy Spirit to do Kingdom business in us. He guides in the distinctive way of the Lord. He renews us and shows us when we’re going wrong. He gives us strength. Openness to the work of the Holy Spirit is the only way to Christian maturity. As we are open he will equip us for the calling made on us, the call to follow Jesus, to reflect his servant heart and to model his leadership, bringing his light into a dark and hurting world.

May God bless you now, in the year ahead and in your ministry, whatever shape it may take.

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