Church Leadership Shaped by Jesus’ Heart of Service

For Christians, church leadership is shaped by the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ. As Jesus said to his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28 ESV).

Jesus spoke these words to future leaders of the church as he was on his way to Jerusalem to demonstrate what kind of leader he had come to be, one who would lay down his life as the rescue price for a world of sinners. Jesus made this sacrifice willingly in accord with his Father’s will. Jesus’ selfless offering at the cross reveals how leadership in the church is characterized not by self-interest, but by attending to the interests of others in need, including their eternal interest: being reconciled to the Father.

Just prior to going to the cross, Jesus had taken up the basin and towel as he knelt before his disciples and washed their feet. The disciples were taken aback by Jesus’ actions, prompting this explanation: “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him…. A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:12-16, 34 ESV).

Leaders in the church, shaped by the servant heart of Jesus, exhibit their leadership in ways that may seem strange to the world. Church leaders will first and foremost strive to carry out the mission of their Lord and Savior, Jesus, emphasizing his vision over their own. Church leaders will operate best by serving others in the manner of Christian love.  The trail church leaders seek to blaze is the path for others to fix their eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfector of their faith (Hebrews 12:1-4).

One of the great leaders of the early church, the Apostle Paul, wrote these words, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5 ESV). Prior to his conversion (known to us as Saul of Tarsus), he exhibited a different kind of leadership, very interested in his own position and prestige (see Galatians 1:13-14 and Philippians 3:4-6). Yet, when Jesus took the initiative and graciously revealed himself to Saul on the road to Damascus, a great transformation came about: Saul became a servant of Jesus, grateful that his sins were forgiven.

Paul’s transformed view of leadership can be seen in what he wrote to the Corinthian Christians, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:19-22 ESV).

Leadership in the church today is carried out in many ways by full-time church workers: Pastors, Directors of Christian Education, Deaconesses, Parish Musicians, Parochial School Teachers.  They each strive to carry out their duties by exhibiting the “mind of Christ,” demonstrating humble service for the extension of Christ’s kingdom. They look to feed and lead Christians with God’s gifts (Word and Sacraments) toward the end that those same believers will extend the saving message of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. By participating in church work programs at Concordia University, Nebraska, you can expect to learn much about being a Christian leader, and you can expect all that learning to be shaped by the servant heart of Jesus.

However, church leadership isn’t exercised only by full-time church workers. Lay Christians also are shaped by the servant heart of Jesus. Lay leaders in congregations enable the ministry of the church to multiply, enriching the lives of other Christians and reaching out to the world. Lay leaders reflect the selfless service of Jesus since they carry out their work as volunteers, offering their skills and talents not for self-advancement but for the advancement of the Gospel.

Genuine church leadership, taking its cue from St. Paul’s desire to “become all things to all people,” will be innovative and entrepreneurial, using every tool at its disposal to share Jesus’ saving work with others. But church leaders will also operate in ways that are distinctive and different from the world, having hearts transformed by Jesus’ heart of service, he who sought not to be served, but to serve, offering himself as a ransom for many. Jesus, lead on! Teach us to lead!

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