I’ve always seen servant leadership as one-way service. Not sure why, but I suspect it’s a western, individualistic interpretation of service. Perhaps that’s why I’ve had a vague uneasiness with the servant leadership concept. In In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen picks up on some of the shepherding themes I’ve been ruminating on in my studies over the last few weeks. He caught my attention with his thoughts on John 10, about Jesus laying down his life for the sheep.

Nouwen would say my interpretation of servanthood stems from my experience with the professional “civil servants.” For instance, I was watching my flight attendant a week ago as she served passengers, realizing that she was paid to meet the passengers’ needs. But it’s one-directional. It would be very strange for a passenger to try to serve her in return. You just wouldn’t see someone stand up and take her cart and ask her to sit down while they served her — though that would be fun to try sometime!

There is no dependence among nurses, doctors, police or firefighters. No mutuality. Follow Nouwen’s logic here: “Someone serves, someone else is being served, and be sure not to mix up the roles!” That leads to the conclusion that “mutuality can only be seen as weakness and a dangerous form of role confusion.” Therefore servanthood “quickly becomes a subtle way of exercising power over others.”

How on earth can something as humble as servanthood break down into paternalism and authoritarianism? When it doesn’t allow reciprocation.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Nouwen says that we are to be a radically different kind of servant:

The leadership about which Jesus speaks is of a radically different kind from the leadership being offered by the world. It is a true servant leadership — to use Robert Greenleaf’s term — in which the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as they need him or her….

We are not the healers, we are not the reconcilers, we are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for…. The mystery is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love now the gateway for both the unlimited and unconditional love of God.

How difficult is it for you to become indebted? How difficult is it for you to receive love back again? How difficult is it for you to allow someone to serve you? These are questions that those who enter another culture face on a regular basis. Over and over again, I hear people who return from mission trips say how they thought they were going to bless the people “over there” and they ended up being blessed far more themselves. There’s real power in the “servant” allowing one who has little to give them whatever they do have to offer. To deny that is to begin to slide toward an unhealthy view of oneself.

How much do you open up about your brokenness to those you serve/lead and let them minister to you? Servant leadership is about mutuality.

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