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Christ, the Servant Leader

This weekend we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, observed on the last

Sunday of each liturgical year. Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 with his

encyclical Quas primas (“In the first”) to respond to growing secularism and

atheism of his day. He recognized that attempting to “thrust Jesus Christ and his

holy law” out of public life would result in continuing discord among people and

nations. This solemnity reminds us that while governments come and go, Christ

reigns as King forever.

It seems to me that it also reminds us that while we seem to progress as human

people, there is always more to do to bring others along. The very familiar Gospel

today, Matthew 25 gives us some concrete examples how.

I’m not sure about you but whenever I read or hear that Gospel, I hear in my head

the words of that song, Whatsoever you do … to the least of my people, that you

do unto me. It’s hard to get that song out of your head when you hear it … and

perhaps that’s the point. The catchy melody reminds us that in every day we can

respond to those around us, and by doing so we respond to Christ. In those

moments we have the simultaneous opportunity to be both leader and follower …

in other words, a servant leader.

All professing Christians agree that a Christian leader should be a servant leader.

Jesus couldn’t be clearer:

The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority

over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the

greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who

serves. (Luke 22:25–26)

We know that there’s not always agreement on how servant leadership should

look in each situation. Sometimes servant leaders wash others’ feet, so to speak,

but other times they rebuke, and even discipline. Sometimes they serve at their

own expense, but other times they issue strong imperatives, but all in the spirit of

following Christ.

We also know that there are other factors that muddy the waters for us in aspiring

to be better servant leaders. To begin with, all of us are sinners, which means

even at the height of our maturity, we will still be defective servants. I can still

vividly see the first moments of Pope Francis’ pontificate when he was asked who

is Jorge Mario Bergoglio? And he responds, I am a sinner. This is the most accurate

definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner the Pope said.

Add to this the fact that most of us have not yet reached the height of our

spiritual maturity.

Add to this the fact that different temperaments, experiences, gifts, and callings

influence both how we tend to serve, and how we tend to perceive that


So, determining whether or we are acting from a heart of Christlike service

requires charitable, patient, humble discernment. It’s not simple and it’s a lifetime

process. There’s no one-size-fits-all servant leader description. The needs and

contexts in our community and in the wider church are vast and varied and

require many kinds of leaders and gifts. It is natural that each of us is drawn to

certain kinds of leaders but remember that our preferences can be unreliable and

even uncharitable standards at times.

The readings in the days of November have focused our thoughts on the end

times … that is, getting ready to meet the Lord. And the Gospel today is poignant:

What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.' And

these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

So, in the days, weeks, months, or years that we have left on this earth, in this life,

let’s recommit on this last day of our liturgical year, to work harder at being better

servant leaders. And while there are many ways, here are a few to consider:

1. A servant leader seeks the glory of the Master.

And our Master is not our reputation or our ministry constituency; it is God. A

Christlike leader is a follower of Christ and demonstrates over time that Christ —

not public approval, position, or financial security — has our primary loyalty. How

can we better seek the glory of God in our life?

2. A servant leader sacrificially seeks the highest joy of those s/he serves.

Whatever our temperament, gift mix, capacities, or sphere of influence, the

servant leader will make necessary sacrifices to pursue people’s “progress and joy

in the faith,” which results in the greater glory of God. What sacrifices can we

make to help others seek the highest joy in their life?

3. A servant leader will forgo his/her rights rather than obscure the Gospel.

Saint Paul said it this way in Corinthians: I have made myself a servant to all, that I

might win more of them. What did this mean for him? It meant sometimes he

abstained from certain foods and drinks, or refused financial support from those

he served, or worked with his own hands to provide for himself, or went hungry,

or dressed poorly, or was beaten, or was homeless, or endured disrespect inside

and outside the church. And he decided not to marry. This was all before he was

martyred. Paul’s servant bar may have been set extraordinarily high, but servant

leaders will yield their rights if they believe more will be won to Christ as a result.

What are we willing to forego for the sake of Christ and the Gospel?

4. A servant leader is not preoccupied with personal visibility and recognition.

Like John the Baptist, a servant leader sees himself as a “friend of the

Bridegroom”, and is not preoccupied with the visibility of his/her own role. The

servant leader doesn’t view those with less visible roles as less significant, nor

does s/he covet more visible roles as more significant. The servant leader seeks to

steward the role s/he’s received as best as possible, and gladly leaves the role

assignments to God. Are we preoccupied with personal visibility and


5. A servant leader anticipates and graciously accepts the time for his/her


All leaders serve only for a season. Some seasons are long, some short; some are

abundant, some lean; some are recorded and recalled, most are not. But all

seasons end. When John the Baptist recognized the ending of his season, he said,

therefore my joy is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.

Sometimes a leader is the first to recognize his/her season’s end, sometimes

others recognize it first, and sometimes God lets a season end unjustly for

purposes a leader can’t understand at the time. But a servant leader graciously

yields the role for the good of Christ’s cause, because his/her identity and trust

are not in his/her calling, but in Christ.

Honestly, no earthly Christian leader is the perfect incarnation of these five

fundamental marks of servanthood. Jesus alone bears that distinction. Most of us

are imperfect servants trying to the best of our ability to be faithful.

Perhaps that’s our promise today – to God and to one another – to take some

time to reflect on our own servant leadership – and to use all that we have each

day being better at it!


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