Sunday, January 10, 2016

Leading While Being a Servant

I have been reflecting a lot recently on this Biblical passage from Mark: “And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 RSV)

How do we live in positions of responsibility (those who rule in some capacity) and yet serve – or even more, be a slave to all?  Who are those who are in such positions?  Do those of us who believe that leaders should serve have an obligation to challenge leaders who don’t serve? 

Why am I thinking about these things so much recently?  The world is full of exploding violence; people who are acting out against others who are not like them; immigrants facing incredible difficulties as they flee horrendous home situations; police in the USA (and elsewhere, no doubt) shooting those they are to “protect and serve.”  Are the men who have taken over the national park in Oregon terrorist or not?  Is the world worse that it was?  Or, are things just visible in a different way than they were 50 or 100 years ago?

I will say right up front that I don’t have answers.  I guess that is another reason I continue to think about these questions. 

I believe that is it normal for cultures to create ways to establish who is “in” the group and those who are the “other.”  It is natural that people get comfortable with what they have and want to maintain it.  It seems normal that when others want what we have, we feel threatened and strike out.  But, is “normal” right? 

Should immigrants be allowed into a country/state/town?  A knee-jerk reaction, too often, is “NO!  They will take our jobs/resources.  They will lower property values.  There will be terrorists among them.”  I would like to think that reading history would moderate this reaction.  In the USA, each new wave of immigrants was stigmatized and ostracized.  In various places it happened to the Italians, Irish, Jews, Eastern Europeans, Africans.  It was worse for the latter group because they couldn’t learn English, change their names and clothing in order to “blend in.”  The group in the USA that had the biggest right to feel threatened was the Native Americans whose homes and land were stolen as they were chased further west and then onto reservations. 

Global climate change, I believe, is related to these same questions.  No one wants to give up the level of comfort they currently have – in fact, most want to have more – even if it means we are damning future generations.  It seems we can tell “developing” countries to limit their use of power (electric, especially) and consummation of limited natural resources, but are we willing to do the same?  We say, “Yes, we cut down the majority of our forests and have suburban sprawl eating up more and more land.  Learn from us!  Don’t follow our example.”  But, what right do we have to limit access to modern technology, conveniences, and power-greedy appliances when we demand more and more of them for ourselves?

Do the actions of objectifying women, raping them, demeaning them, and passing laws limiting what they can do really make men more important?  More powerful?  When people in any position of authority demand a bribe to do their job, do they really feel better about themselves because of what they can now buy or the fact that they could demand something of others and get it?  Aren’t fear and insecurity about one’s identity really the root causes?  It takes a strong leader to be a servant (despite fear and personal insecurity). 

Privilege exists.  Certainly White privilege exists.  Colonizers everywhere insisted on it.  Affluence and habit reinforce it.  Here, I can speak with clarity even greater than when I was living in the USA.  I have electricity (a lot of the time) and running water (usually); I live in a large house – bigger than I need.  (And, before I came I lived in a large house – bigger than I needed.)  I can buy what I need and most often what I want.  I have so much more than the vast majority of people here.  Privilege.  OK, my salary comes from ELCA in dollars, but there are others who get good salaries who would find it more difficult to get what I have.  And, then, there are lots who live hand-to-mouth with very little. 

People in Cameroon and CAR defer to me – often, everywhere.  I was chatting with a Central African who now sells telephone credit at a small stand here in GB.  It was complicated explaining why I didn’t buy credit from him.  (The answer is, as often happens in the USA, I have an account, can make as many calls as I want a month, and pay at the end of the month; few Cameroonians or Central Africans have that privilege.)  Toward the end of the conversation, he asked that I stop by to talk to him more often.  He said that talking to a white person would help him advance.  I must have looked doubtful (shocked?) because he said that those who get and follow advice from white people can do better in business.  I would like to help him discover that he has all the intelligence he needs, but given differences in educational opportunities, refugee status, and income levels, is intelligence alone enough?  What would you do in a situation like this to counter the strong belief that white is better? 

When you are asked to sit up front (near the altar) in a church service just because you are white, what would you do?  If you refuse, you insult the people.  If you accept, you reinforce the privilege. 

I heard a church leader here say that he never walks anywhere because it is below the dignity of his office.  Well, here is a stand that is easy for me.  I walk most everywhere I go.  Shopkeepers in town sometimes offer to pay for me to go home on a motorcycle taxi, but I refuse explaining that walking is good exercise.  I am breaking one stereotype about leaders (and white people) with this small action.  (Maybe this is not a good example of me going out of my way to change perceptions since I like walking and it is genuinely what I prefer.)

If you hear that a church leader has raised his own salary despite the fact that the budget has been in the red for years, is it your (our) place to challenge that person?  If you (we) are living at the expense of others or living a privileged life without paying attention (or realizing it), is it necessary/appropriate for others to challenge us?  If we are challenged, can we listen and hear?

When fear, or its offspring hate, dominates conversations about refugees, immigrants, shootings, etc., how do we open dialogue in ways that calm fears instead of inflaming them?  When groups are so polarized (especially political parties) that they react to a person of another group without listening to what is said, and, react with inflammatory language, how do you (we) open doors.  Too many have let belittling others so that they can fell better about themselves become a habit – a knee-jerk reaction.  I believe that the message from Jesus calls us to listen, to understand why someone else feels the way s/he does, without trying to convert him/her.  We see the humanity in the “other.” We can even find common ground. 

I am making some small decisions to try to be a servant leader (besides walking to get where I am going). 
·      When I see Facebook postings, I have decided not to read those that demean the “other.”  My clues?  Words filled with negative connotations, like: “[politician] just slapped down attack on [another politician];  Why the hell isn’t…; Professors hated [politician]; __ sent brutal response to ___; ___ is a piece of garbage.  (People from “both sides” use this kind of language – and who said there were only two sides anyway?!?) I will certainly not share those and I will do my best to be respectful of everyone when I write messages and/or share postings. 
·      I am trying to listen more and talk less.  I like the quote (from I can’t remember who) that says when you listen you learn; when you talk you are sharing what you already know, not gaining wisdom.  This is hard for me.  (Look, I have been “talking” for 2 ½ pages already!)  But, I think it is important.  Good leaders know what others think, feel, believe, and want/need. 
·      Listening has to happen in meetings, too.  I am making efforts to allow those I work with to take responsibility for their actions and for the direction of the project (or whatever).  I believe I have knowledge (and maybe some wisdom) to offer, but I hope to share it through questions that the participants need to answer so that they can work out for themselves what is best for the situation.  (This is hard, too, when people often want to be told, want to allow another to take responsibility, and/or don’t know how to step up to the plate themselves.) 

I am sure there is more I could do.  What are your thoughts on this topic?  I would be happy if this were more of a dialogue than a monologue.  What small (and large) steps can we take to be the servant leaders that Jesus calls us to be? 


  1. A most insightful and intriguing post. Could it be that opening our hearts to the leading of God's own Holy Spirit, learning and practicing humility and surrender to the will of God. (Dying daily to sin?) Acting as we are called to in a situation, and detaching ourselves from the result of the action. Allowing God's grace to be clearly recognized as the real agent of change in a situation. (Someone once told me that actions speak so much more loudly than words.) Practicing a sense of detachment from the results of our efforts, and being open to seeing the transformative power of God in the situation may be the first step. I suspect however that this may be impossible for human beings... but with God all things are possible.

    Carl Johnson

  2. Very informative post, you have just refreshed my faith in God. Thanks for such a beautiful post and keep posting..