The Problem with Servant Leadership in Church
Our paradigm for servant leadership is wrong.
When servant leadership became popular, it was a positive alternative to the domineering and power-driven leadership we often see in the world, which wasn’t just a problem in the secular workplace. The church also had leaders who’d become overly dignified. Like anything else, the excitement of power and spotlight had drawn many people into ministry leadership. So servant leadership found its place among emerging leadership theories by promoting a more humble view of leadership that flipped the “leader on top” mentality upside down.
Though well-intended, the servant leadership theory extended an incorrect paradigm. This “leader on the bottom” view simply took a secular view of leadership and tried to fix it, instead of redefining leadership biblically.The first problem with this paradigm is that it keeps an artificial division between leaders and followers (everyone else). Whenever there is a division like this, there becomes an “in” crowd and an “out” crowd. Though it may seem prestigious to be in the leader’s circle, it’s no surprise that ministry leaders today are more isolated and lonely than ever.
Because of the division between leaders and followers, it perpetuates the idea that leadership is a special blessing or final stage for elite Christians. Yes, there are qualifications for leadership (1 Timothy 3), but checking off boxes doesn’t automatically make one a leader. Leadership is given by God (Ephesians 4:11). The truth is that not all are called into formal church leadership, but we’ve made leadership the pinnacle of Christian success for everyone in the church. When a spiritual gift like leadership (Rom 12:8) is exalted, it only leads to favoritism and belittles other spiritual gifts, making them appear less valuable. Leadership is just one of many gifts. In fact, the Bible says we should give special honor to parts of the body that receive less recognition (1 Corinthians 12:23).
Even our terminology “servant leader” unduly puts the emphasis on the noun “leader”. The “servant” part becomes the adjective, making it seem that some leaders serve and some don’t. If a leader has to be told they are supposed to serve, they may not be the right person to lead. The emphasis should be on servanthood- some lead and some don’t. When we tell leaders they should serve (instead of discovering servants who are called to lead), people may get the impression that leaders are the only ones who serve. In reality, every person in the church is called to serve (1 Peter 4:10). By narrowing service to leaders (and praising them for it), we are bound to see less engagement in the rest of the congregation.
Everyone in the church is a servant in the kingdom. So actually there is only one kind of leader- a servant. The Apostle Paul said, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord… Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4,5,7). Some are called to teach, some to encourage, and some to give generously, etc. The point is that each person has a spiritual tool that makes them uniquely able to bless others.
In the church, we need to think more biblically about leadership and then live it out. This means creating a culture where all saints serve and promoting equal value and interdependence between unique kingdom-building gifts. Then the church will radically demonstrate a kingdom culture that is less about us and more about the King.