“Servant Leader” Colchester Federated Church, October 21, 2018, (Mark 10:35-45) Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus and his disciples are on the road again, going up to Jerusalem.  Along the way, he’s teaching his followers that he will die at the hands of those in power and in three days will rise again.  As he’s sharing the events that are to come (for the third time in Mark’s Gospel actually), James and John come forward and say that they want Jesus to do for them whatever they ask.  Jesus responds, “What do you want me to do for you?”  And then their request follows, “Allow one of us to sit on your right and the other on your left when you enter your glory.”[1]

Now this request is all the more crass because Jesus had just predicted his own death and resurrection for the third time.  James and John are more focused on themselves and their position in Jesus’ inner circle both now and in the future than on the difficult fate that awaited their friend.  Though Jesus patiently explains that the brothers don’t know what they’re asking, challenging them as to whether or not they can drink the cup he drinks or receive the baptism he receives.  Jesus is asking them if they are truly willing to go as far as he will go for the sake of God’s Kingdom.

The other disciples overhear this conversation and become angry with James and John.  So Jesus basically has to call a team meeting and explains, “You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around.  But that’s not the way it will be with you.  Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant.  Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”[2]  The expectations of the disciples once again are challenged by Jesus.  Yet again Jesus is explaining that the point of following him is serving one another.  Leadership isn’t about showing off.  Leadership isn’t about ordering people around.  The true leader, the exemplary follower of Jesus Christ is the servant of all.  The one who doesn’t come to be served, but to serve others.

Now there’s a term often used to describe a compelling leadership style that has service at its heart.  It’s not just found in the Church either—servant leadership.  A servant leader is driven by their own deeply-held beliefs and values.  The point of leadership for them is supporting those they are leading.  It’s not about accomplishments and accolades for themselves.  Servant leadership is about serving instead of commanding, being humble, and not focused on one’s own authority.  The servant leader is instead focused on unlocking the potential and the creativity of those with whom they work, knowing that if people work with a sense of purpose and feel empowered, it helps create something beautiful for the whole team, organization, or institution.  Now in the Church, we could say that this leadership style is exactly what Jesus is teaching his disciples.  Some Gentile leaders in Jesus’ day showed off their authority and ordered others around to do their bidding.  Jesus observes that behavior and says that this is not how it should be in his community that he is co-creating with his disciples.  “Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant.”

It’s worth contemplating Jesus’ instructions and whether or not we can apply his words to our daily lives.  Do we value people who exemplify servant leadership?  Or do we find this leadership style to be lacking, too meek and mild to work in our society?

Author Susan Cain wrote a wonderful book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.  She argues that modern Western culture misunderstands and undervalues introverted people.  Most of us do fall into the category of introverts or extroverts.  Here’s some common characteristics in case we’re not sure how we operate.  Introverts tend to recharge by spending time alone, enjoy one-on-one conversations, have close relationships with a few friends, listen more, struggle with change, can deeply focus for long periods of time, are more reserved, open up to just a few people, reflect before making decisions, aren’t interested in getting attention, like working in quiet spaces, and share ideas when prompted.  Extroverts tend to recharge by being social, enjoy group conversations, have many friends (but the bonds aren’t always strong), speak more, easily accept change, get distracted easily, are more open, open up to almost anyone, make decisions quickly, love getting attention, are good working in open spaces, and have no trouble speaking up in meetings.[3]

Now servant leaders can be extroverted or introverted.  But Susan Cain’s work helps us to consider what we value in our leaders.  Cain argues that the United States is an overwhelmingly extroverted nation.  She explores studies of quiet people versus loud people, relating that there was one experiment where two strangers met over the phone and those who spoke more often in the conversation were considered more likable, more intelligent, and even better looking.[4]  Keep in mind that these were complete strangers.  Yet the talkative person often won the day.  These perceptions were based on understanding talkers as leaders and therefore worthier of our attention (and apparently better looking, more intelligent, and more likable!)

Further, Cain argues that we’ve moved from being a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality in the United States.  In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was people who were disciplined, serious, and honorable.  What counted was how someone behaved in private not so much the impression that someone made in public.  If one is behaving horribly behind closed doors in the Culture of Character, one would not be a person that society would admire.  Whereas in the Culture of Personality, the ideal shifted to how people perceive us.  We all became social performers and a whole lot more anxious as a result.  What matters now is our public persona and how others respond to us.[5]

Americans began to glamorize big personalities: movie stars and athletes.  These are often the folks that society still admires today.  Earlier conduct guides for Americans highlighted good virtues to possess.  Yet by 1920, self-help books changed from inner virtues to outer charms.  The new guides began to use words like: “magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, glowing, dominant, forceful, and energetic” to describe the qualities people should possess in order to be admired.  But you either had them or you didn’t.[6]

So we have this Culture of Personality that we contend with every single day whether we are conscious of it or not.  Whether we are extroverts or introverts.  Whether we consider ourselves leaders or followers.  We are still swimming in these waters and breathing the air of our American culture.  We have been conditioned to value leaders who are dominant, forceful, and energetic as opposed to more quiet, humble, and restrained leaders.  Because like that experiment of two strangers just talking on the phone—we may perceive the biggest or loudest talkers as leaders even when we don’t know them.  And therefore we tell ourselves that they are more worthy of our attention.

In just a few weeks, there will be important midterm elections in our country—on November 6.  As we hopefully research the issues and candidates to decide how we may be voting, let’s pay attention to the ways that leadership is embodied and communicated by candidates.  Are politicians humble and focusing on servant leadership at all these days?  Do they understand themselves to represent the people and not just the special interest groups or mega wealthy donors that are funding their campaigns on the left or the right?  What do we personally seek in those among us who occupy positions of power and authority?  Maybe we are comfortable with the Culture of Personality that we have right now.  Or maybe we long to focus on the Culture of Character and feel that the character of a person matters more than outward appearances and personality.

The point is that our Christian faith isn’t just lived out on Sunday mornings when we come to worship.  Our faith must affect how we live every day of our lives.  We can care about all of this stuff because Jesus taught his disciples what leadership looked like in the Realm of God after James and John wanted to be in Jesus’ inner circle for all of eternity.  According to Jesus, leadership is about not showing off authority.  Not ordering other people around.  Rather it’s about rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty and doing the work that needs to be done.  Not because we’re always going to get pats on the back and accolades.  Jesus said, “But that’s not the way it will be with you.  Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant.”

In our families, with our friends, at work, in our church, out in the community—servant leadership isn’t usually glamorous.  And it may just be that our society has moved even further away from the values embodied in servant leadership as Jesus taught it.  Particularly because servant leadership is a quiet way of being in the world, focused on the empowerment of others.  Though leading with humility, with the heart of a servant may provide more meaning than we imagined possible.  To see those we serve realize their own potential, to be creative and innovative and passionate and live with a purpose.  That is a gift from God.  May it be so with us.  And thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark 10:37, CEB.
[2] Mark 10:42-45.
[3] Abigail Williams, “The Difference Between Introverts and Extroverts in One Simple Chart,” 10/7/16, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/difference-between-introverts-extroverts-chart_n_57f794c2e4b0b6a430316b3a
[4] Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, 51.
[5] Cain, Quiet, 21.
[6] Cain, Quiet, 24-25.