Servant Leadership

Today I accompanied a group of eighth graders on another service project. This time we went to help an area rancher whose wife recently suffered serious injuries to her left arm after getting it caught in a combine. The work that we did was pretty simple, really. First, we went around to the various hay fields to pick up twine that had snapped off of last year’s round bales when they were moved from the fields to the house. Apparently this twine would get all wrapped up in the rake when the field is harvested next year if it was not picked up. After lunch we helped clean “the shop,” which included putting things away and sweeping the floor.

As I was sweeping the shop floor, pushing piles of dirt and trash into larger piles, I was reminded of a story my friend Mark Snodgrass likes to tell about the time he and I “met.” Truth be told we had met a few days earlier in terms of formal introductions, as we were both new on staff at a children’s home in Virginia. But the first time we spent any time together was mopping the floor of the gymnasium in preparation for the organization’s 40th anniversary celebration coming up fast. Mark likes the story because it illustrates perfectly the fact that there should be no job that is beneath anyone. Mark came to the children’s home with an impressive resume that included a couple of graduate degrees and considerable experience in the U.S. Army, as a city manager, and as an executive for the Boy Scouts. My resume was much less impressive, but I was Mark’s “boss,” in that he and his wife were hired to be houseparents and I was hired to be the Assistant Program Director. Just over a year later I would be the Program Director and Mark would become the Assistant Program Director.

Fast forward a few more years and I was now the Executive Director of that organization. Mark had left and was serving about 45 minutes away as a pastor of a small church. One day as I was sitting in my office my friend Carl Etheridge came in. When Mark left to pastor the church, Carl became the Program Director. Carl told me that someone on our staff (who shall remain nameless in order to protect the guilty) had balked at a task he had been asked to do, saying that he was too highly educated to do something so menial. Carl and I shared our mutual disgust for this kind of attitude, but I also thought immediately of Mark–who was a mutual friend of Carl and me. I told Carl that Mark would get a kick out of the incident, and told him that Mark would immediately recall the story of our experience mopping the gym floor. So I put Mark on speaker phone and called him. I got the reaction I expected.

That incident, however, led to what I think may be the only time I can recall in what has now been ten years of holding the top executive position at a few Christian ministries where I told an entire staff of people in no uncertain terms that as long as I was in the position I was in there would be no room on our staff for that kind of attitude and that should something like that ever again come to my attention the guilty party would be dismissed immediately.

Mark and Carl were both promoted from within at the children’s home. Both of them are older than me (Mark could be my father, Carl could almost be my grandfather) and both of them had considerably more life experience than I did, but I did not promote them for those reasons. I promoted them primarily because I knew that they would lead by example–that they would never ask anyone else to do something that they had not done or would not be willing to do themselves. Mark and I mopping the gym floor is one of many examples I could give. I could tell a similar story about Carl and I stripping and waxing the dining hall floor over spring break one year.

I don’t recall anyone ever point-blank telling me that I needed to be a servant leader, someone who leads others by my example. I don’t recall ever making a conscious decision that that is the kind of leader I would be. But I do know that the people in my life who have had the strongest influence on me have been those kinds of people. I can remember, for example, the two government/economics teachers in my high school. Every other teacher who got food from the line in the cafeteria would go to the front of the line, get their food and disappear into the teacher’s lounge. Mr. Giga and Mr. Kolbe, though, would stand in line with the students and talk to those in line around them. Something that simple made an incredible impression on me, and on many other students at OHS too, I am sure.

Now, I would be less than honest if I did not admit that it I did wonder today while sweeping that shop floor if I was really making the best use of my time. After all, like Mark when we were mopping the gym, I have several graduate degrees now, and I have “important responsibilities.” I mean, I have more letters that come after my last name than I have in my last name if I want to list my degrees. But, thankfully, that thought did not last long. I realized that what I was doing was important, because I was helping someone who had a need, I was doing it alongside some really cool kids, and I was leading by example.

My point here is not to pat myself on the back. I’m not big on tooting my own horn, quite frankly. But I am troubled by the fact that servant leadership is so unusual. The rancher we were helping today made a comment as we were preparing to leave that he never knew superintendents were normal people. He said he couldn’t get over the fact that, “the Superintendent of Sunshine Bible Academy is sweeping the dirt on my floor.” Did that make me feel good? Sure. But please believe me when I tell you that more than anything else it makes me sad. I know the gentleman who held this position before me, and I am confident that this rancher did not mean to disparage him in any way. The truth is, though, this idea has come to my attention before. At the last school I was at I received all manner of astonished looks and comments when I helped take out the garbage or sweep the cafeteria floor. At the children’s home it was, at least initially, considered unheard of that the Executive Director would be helping to weed eat or trim hedges or paint walls.

The Gospels are full of examples of Jesus leading by example and serving others. I suspect He would have no qualms about sweeping dirt, taking out trash, mowing grass, washing dishes…whatever needs to be done. Here’s my challenge to you and me…why is it so unusual for someone in a position of leadership to do such things now?

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