Jesus and the disciples gathered just before the Passover for their evening meal. During the meal, Jesus quietly slipped away from his place at the table, removed his robe, tied a towel around his waist, and poured a basin of water. The disciples, as was the custom, were reclining at the table. This meant they were lying prone, propped by an elbow, facing inward with their feet extending away from the table. In this position, diners could have their feet washed while they ate. This was menial work assigned to the lowliest servants. Touching feet was taboo; washing them even worse.
The Twelve appeared oblivious to their feet being washed. Why pay attention, when no one worth acknowledging would be doing it? Jesus worked his way down the line unnoticed, until he came to Peter who looked down and asked, “Lord, are You going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “What I’m doing you don’t understand now, but afterward you will know.” This was too much for Peter. He exclaimed, “You will never wash my feet—ever!”
Peter was appalled. Jesus, his Lord and Savior, the Messiah, the most important person in the room, in his life, and the universe was attempting to wash his feet. This was work for servants, lowly servants who were supposed to do dirty work. Not Jesus! Peter once again found himself telling the Lord what he could and could not do. And once again, Jesus had to remind Peter what the title “Lord” means. Jesus determines his course of action without consulting anyone else or obtaining anyone’s permission.
“If I don’t wash you, you have no part with Me,” Jesus rebuked Peter. The threat of exclusion stung. Peter replied, “Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” This is one of the more humorous statements in Scripture. The subject matter, receiving service from Jesus authenticating belief in him, is certainly a serious matter. The imagery is comical, however, as Peter asks for a whole bath. Jesus’ reply returns the focus to the key issue—his example of service by foot-washing—while borrowing Peter’s bathing analogy to make the cogent point that one disciple’s faith was illegitimate.
Jesus finished washing their feet and resumed his place at the table to teach the disciples why he had done it. He said, “You call Me Teacher and Lord. This is well said, for I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done for you.”
While some have interpreted this literally—meaning foot-washing is a required church practice—most understand Jesus’ actions as an object lesson to teach the importance of maintaining a servant’s spirit in leadership. Jesus used this incident to powerfully communicate this principle: the essence of Christian leadership is service.
Christian leadership is often equated with servant leadership. What does this mean? Are Christian leaders only leading when they are doing menial or practical things for their followers? Is it possible to be a servant leader when your breadth of responsibility makes personal ministry to hundreds or thousands of followers impossible? Younger leaders are often zealous and ambitious. Are these qualities compatible with Christian leadership?
Servanthood in leadership is both an action and an attitude. Let’s consider each category and discover how they apply to Christian leaders. Servant actions are important for every leader. A servant attitude in all our actions is equally important.
Servant leadership involves practical acts of service to meet the needs of others. No matter how large your leadership responsibility, you will always have some people who work closely with you. Every leader, including those in executive or senior leadership roles, can still meet the practical needs of those who work most closely with them. Jesus modeled this when he washed the feet of the Twelve.
A more difficult question: “How do you serve a large number of people in a growing church or expanding ministry organization?” The answer is also exemplified by Jesus who “did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave. . . . He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6–8). Jesus had “equality with God” but “emptied himself” to make redemption possible for all humankind. Jesus models this leadership principle: use your leadership position for the benefit of your followers. Servant leadership doesn’t deny the influence, power, and authority that rests in your leadership role, but it does use those resources for the benefit of your followers, not to feather your own nest or further your own career.
Acts of service aren’t necessarily defined by how menial they are—even though the foot-washing illustration might point to that conclusion. Service is defined more by its outcome—the benefit of others—than by the essence of the work performed. For example, preaching can be a self-aggrandizing show or it can be a self-sacrificing offering. Motive and results determine the difference. Giving money can also go either way—self-promotion or selfless sacrifice. When you give to benefit others and not for what you will get out of it (monetarily or emotionally), your giving demonstrates servant leadership. Christian leaders focus their acts of service on meeting the needs of their followers, not on making themselves look good. Servant leadership is an attitude. Most leaders, as their responsibility grows, do fewer and fewer personal acts to support their followers or facilitate their ministry’s mission.
How can you develop a servant spirit, particularly when your scope of responsibility broadens and you are no longer expected to do the so-called dirty work?
First, choose to do a dirty job. Don was rapidly progressing in executive leadership in a secular company. He became convicted about increasing pride. He told his pastor, “The next time you have a dirty job at the church, call me.” A few days later, a major sewage backup had several toilets erupting at once. The pastor called Don and said, “I think we have that dirty job you were looking for.” Don arrived within minutes, told everyone to leave for the day, and spent the evening cleaning the church. He later told us it really changed his attitude for the better. Choosing to do a dirty job will refocus you on serving others.
As a seminary president, I don’t mow the lawn, paint walls, or make copies for professors. The seminary depends on me to serve by doing other things—assignments only the president can accomplish given my experience, resources, and relationships. This doesn’t mean, however, I am too good to do those hands-on tasks. While there are some tasks I don’t do—for the good of the seminary—there are no tasks I am too good to do. When leaders puff up with self-importance saying, “There are just certain things I won’t do,” their servant spirits have vanished. Their attitude is wrong, no matter their actions, and it will ultimately undermine their leadership effectiveness.
Second, choose to serve anonymously. The more notoriety you have as a leader, the harder it is to do this. Our ministry decided to build a large facility with volunteer labor. Every holiday weekend, teams would come to work. I worked with them, not telling them I was the organization’s chief executive. Giving my holiday time and working manually just like the other men helped me to refocus. God uses secret service to revive a servant spirit.
Third, choose to serve a critic. Not everyone will like you. Leaders often manage difficult relationships. Serving those who criticize you is a means God uses to purify leadership motives. One of my critics once came to me with a life crisis—his son had impregnated another church leader’s daughter. He asked for my help . . . not long after he had publicly attacked my integrity. I was tempted to turn him away but chose instead to help him as best I could. Through the process, two good things happened: my leadership motives were tested and purified, and a new friendship was formed.
Jesus modeled servant leadership when he washed the disciples’ feet. While you may not literally wash feet, you aren’t too good to do it if that’s your assignment from Jesus. More important, you must approach every task with a servant spirit. Set aside your own interests and use your leadership position and influence for the good of others.
Questions for Reflection
- Are you tempted to use your leadership position for self-serving gain? How do you resist this temptation?
- Are there any jobs that you are too important to do? Why or why not?
- What is your plan for sharpening your servant-leader attitude?