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.

Suspect your ability to handle power

As I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings to my boys, a series of moments stick in my mind: the times that Frodo seeks someone to give the ring to. Surely Aragorn or Gandalf or the Lady of Lothlorien would use the power benevolently to combat the evil of Sauron! Each one contemplates briefly the possibility of harnessing such amazing power and concludes that they wouldn’t be any less ruthless and horrific than previous owners. They therefore studiously avoid touching or looking at it, some even taking great satisfaction that they passed the test.

Last week at a leadership development event, we read together Henri Nouwen’s message, In the Name of Jesus. Nouwen is a Harvard man of great earthly success who ended up as a priest working among mentally handicapped people at the Daybreak community near Toronto. He cautions against the rationalization many Christians go through regarding power: that as long as it’s used to serve God and other human beings, it’s a good thing. He points out the irony that, throughout Church history,  followers of the one who emptied himself of power have used power for crusades, inquisitions, enslavement, opulence and manipulation of all kinds and forms. Then he cuts to the point.

What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistable? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.

Wow. Whether you follow Nouwen’s logic and conclude that love is the opposite of power, his words sure slice deep. He’s right: it is easier to control than to love, and yet the latter is clearly God’s command for anyone, but in particular leaders. Nouwen spoke from a long personal journey into the messy world of loving those that our culture overlooks. Control and ownership are wrong methodologies arising from wrong motivations from a wronged heart. Nouwen continues,

One thing is clear to me: the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.

I remember when I worked in youth ministry that I lost count of the people who got into that field because of their own pain growing up. Few came from a healthy place and wanted others to share in that health; many more were on a personal journey to redemption and sought to help others avoid what they had experienced. But if you haven’t experienced real healing, how do you avoid temptations like power? I think Dan Allender has a lot of solutions in his book, Leading with a Limp. He suggests we confront our brokenness and allow God’s grace to redeem it. Failure and brokenness are not necessarily obstacles to leadership; they can be incredible motivators and a foundation for the right kind of servantly leadership. But those core needs must be addressed and the failures brought into the open.

Nouwen based much of his message on Peter’s example of being restored after abandoning and denying his friend and Rabbi Jesus. The lessons he learned on that beach in John 21 were to love deeply, receive love and give love to others. That was the basis for Peter’s leadership of the Church. It’s a lesson that many of his successors failed to get.

My boys were surprised when I told them I think of Lord of the Rings as a Christian story. I’m still teaching them the idea that a Christian story doesn’t mean that Jesus is a character, or that God is explicitly mentioned. Failure, redemption, fear, ambition, love, evil and desires are deeply woven into the story. And I think I can learn from the characters who suspected themselves and wouldn’t allow themselves to get near to raw, unbridled power.