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
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
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!