Heroes & Villains: Jesus On Leadership (by George Elerick)
The true form of servant leadership doesn’t lie in Nouwen’s downwardly mobile Christ, because there is still the assumption that the top-down model is implanted within the very psyche of leadership. If you can allow me to be simplistic for a moment, maybe our ideas of leadership, however informed they are scripture, might not be informed enough. Let us venture through some of the more axiomatic verses typically used within Christianity.
One of the most used verses to speak of what is known as servant-leadership comes from the scene where Jesus takes a towel and washes the feet of his friends. For most, this might be easily defined as a service-oriented/customer-service philosophy of leadership wherein the ‘leader’ remains the leader but takes a position of no-leadership to better serve those s/he is ‘called’ to lead.
What if that wasn’t it though? What if our notion of leadership in the Church isn’t radical enough? Jesus was a rabbi.Just by being a Rabbi meant you already came with socially recognized status. Status in this culture, much like our culture, also signified some sort of power and influence. I think what is also important to remember that in this ancient Jewish culture, to be a servant meant you had no-name.
Now a name in this culture wasn’t just a label of some sort but it was who you were/could be/shouldn’t be at the core of who you were. Your name was intrinsically tied up with identity. To be a servant meant you were quite literally a no-body. Jesus would have been aware of this. In this one act, Jesus negated himself. In doing so he allows space for others to establish themselves in their own identity.
As part of our human condition it seems that more often than not we look to others to define our ethics and/or how we define reality. Take for example the reverse-deification of historical people. Notice that not every person is included in our history, but rather only those who either contributed for the well-being of humanity or those who have really messed it up for us. And it seems the pedestals on which these heroes and villains sit is chosen by those who help write history. It seems by Jesus choosing the status of servant he eradicates pedestals. To be a leader doesn’t mean we look for pedestals to stand upon, rather, it means we look for pedestals to eradicate.
If we continue to frame our definition of servant leadership on the life and acts of Jesus then it means we must be in continual revision of how we define both servant and leader. In another place Jesus challenges his listeners with the notion of death coupled with following. In fact, he goes so far as to say that for some this way of following might be too radical for them. I think this is what happens in a top-down-model, because not only are there pedestals but it includes the death/subordination of everyone else around.
Jesus tells his audience that they must take up their cross to follow him. This is a radical idea. Because it illicits a full negation of self. Both literally & figuratively. Jesus seems to define the journey through death. Through self-eradication. Leadership is not what you do on a Sunday or in a workshop, it seems to be defined as a way of life.
You are not anymore a leader standing in a pulpit then when you are cleaning a toilet after camp. It’s visceral. So is death. This is why mega-churches are ultimately a failure because they promote the top-down model. They have to have a traditional leader to sustain their behemoth existence.
But be rest assured this macabre leadership style is and will never be popular. It’s too Tim Burton for most in the Church. To take up an object like a cross means to also know what its going to mean in the end. That to claim to be a servant leader means one must eventually come to a point of pedestal-burning and self-negation. This is not a easy option, but neither is following Jesus.
George Elerick is a cultural theorist, author, & human rights advocate. He lives in England with his beautiful wife and amazing 4-month old little boy. Catch up with him at his blog, follow him on Twitter, and purchase his new book, Jesus Bootlegged.