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Serve in Missions

6 Qualities of a Servant Leader

May 1, 2022
person holding compass up to backdrop of mountain range

There are thousands of books about leadership out there.

You could scroll online right now and find at least half a dozen titles about how to be a great leader — how to get people to follow and listen to you, how to achieve influence and make a difference. You’d find titles about how to make your name known, build your company or acquire positions of power.

Leadership isn’t a new concept; there have been leaders since the creation of the world. But when Jesus came along, He decided to flip the narrative of leadership on its head. People didn't expect that — at all. And it’s not the kind of marketing strategy you’d find in a best-selling “how-to” leadership book today.

In Matthew 20:25-28 (NLT), this is what Jesus said about leadership:

But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

There’s this beautiful Christian-ese phrase we use to describe the kind of person Jesus talks about in Matthew 20 — a “servant leader.” In Christ, the goal of our leadership is not to grab power but to serve.

Leadership isn’t about making our names known. It’s about making God’s name known and having the ability to love and respect the people in our care, using the authority we’ve been given with grace.

No matter whether you’re the CEO of an organization, an older sibling, the drum major of a high-school marching band, or a volunteer at church, everyone is leading someone. So how do you actually become a servant leader?

While we might not have a bestselling book to reference (sorry!), we do have six different qualities to keep in mind if you want to become a servant leader:

1. Integrity

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice. — Proverbs 21:3 (ESV)

As a servant leader, perhaps the most important quality is integrity. It is the foundation on which all other leadership qualities are built. Proverbs 21:3 is a reminder that Jesus calls us to walk in the ways of righteousness and justice — our actions should reflect our faith.

If we are true servant leaders, we can’t cheat, lie and manipulate our way to the top. We are called to do something much different and entirely countercultural — to be honest.

The world tells us to do whatever it takes to achieve success and acclaim. Books tell us to dress and act a certain way to get noticed. Fairy tales tell us to just believe in ourselves.

Jesus tells us to humble ourselves and live lives with integrity.

Integrity is an intentional lifestyle, reflecting an overall track record of honesty and good character. We will stumble here and there, and we will we fall short (because we’re humans, after all). But true servant leaders are able to confess their sins before God and those they lead.

Living life with integrity, especially in the face of challenges and temptations, is an incredible way to witness to those who look up to us.

2. Humility

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. — Colossians 3:12 (NLT)

One of the most difficult things to admit to ourselves and others is that we don’t know it all.

With the internet at the tip of our fingers, it can be tempting to swipe through a few pages in a search engine and convince ourselves we’re an expert on a subject. It can be so easy to isolate ourselves in a bubble of self-knowledge and self-assurance, kicking out any and every opinion that doesn’t align with what we want.

If we’re not careful, we can become prideful. It’s easy to become addicted to the power and authority attached with being a leader.

In Christian servant leadership, we have to be willing to learn from and listen to those we lead, because we know that they have value and worth. The truth is that they might actually have better ideas than we do or a perspective we don’t.

A servant leader is someone who has built in space to learn and grow from the experiences and opinions of others.

Have you ever had the chance to hear a story about someone else’s culture or step into a space where everyone looks different than you? Have you ever tried an authentic meal from another country?

One of the most rewarding experiences is the opportunity to meet people from various backgrounds who can share their perspectives and stories.

Knowing someone else’s journey allows us to expand our view of the Kingdom of God — it’s a beautiful place filled with people from all countries, languages and ethnicities!

3. Flexibility

I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. — Philippians 4:12‑13 (NLT)

Servant leaders practice flexibility — they’re willing to adapt to their situations and surroundings. They recognize that life can throw them into unexpected situations or challenges.

But instead of allowing those unexpected events to cause anger, confusion or panic, servant leaders recognize that God is present in every circumstance. They have the willingness to practice being flexible and actually invite change!

It can be easy to get stuck in routines, with one set way of doing things. But a servant leader’s ability to recognize change for what it is — an opportunity for growth and faith — will help as they lead others well.

4. Resilience

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. — Hebrews 12:1‑2 (ESV)

Set in the context of running, the first two verses of Hebrews 12 define a life of resilience. It’s a quality that comes from building up spiritual endurance to the point where you’re actually thriving in challenging situations.

If you’ve ever trained for a race or played a sport, you know that endurance doesn’t just happen overnight. Initially, you have to trick your body into liking long distances! You run short distances first and then build up to longer ones. You get blisters and you take water breaks, but eventually you can run farther and longer.

Life will always have challenges: fights we cannot win, mountains we just can’t climb and dark valleys with no visible way out.

But in the midst of life’s challenges, God’s constant presence is our source of comfort. He doesn’t always fix our circumstance, and sometimes the solution isn’t on our timetable, but He will always help us get through it — with love, strength, patience and more.

Resilience in the Christian life can only happen when we look to Jesus. If we rely on ourselves and our own strength, we’ll fail every time — we’ll faceplant in the middle of our race and quit.

Servant leaders recognize that struggles are real and life is difficult, but God is in control. Resilience isn’t an absence of fear, challenges or momentary failures. Resilience is the ability to bounce back, to push through and to press on based on the truth that God has enabled us to persevere because He is our ultimate source of strength.

5. Stewardship

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace. — 1 Peter 4:10 (ESV)

God’s given so many different spiritual gifts to his people. Could you imagine what life would be like if everyone thought, looked and acted the same? The world would be so dull!

When you hear the word “stewardship,” your mind probably goes straight to money. One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of the word is “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care.”

So while being good stewards of our finances is definitely something God wants us to do, that’s not the only thing we can steward! It’s just as important to be good stewards of the people God has placed in our lives.

A servant leader sees people as valuable to God and stewards their time and talents well. This kind of leader calls out what is good and true about the people they lead, giving them instruction and encouragement in how to serve God well. A servant leader uses their time for God’s glory, not their own.

When this kind of person interacts with you, you’ll know it. You’ll leave interactions feeling like you are valued by them and God, and that your talents are being leveraged for the kingdom. That’s an example worth following!

6. Empathy

Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. — Romans 12:15 (NLT)

How many times have you had a friend or family member sit with you when you were hurting? Have you ever received an encouraging note from someone when you needed it most?

Think about what it meant for you to have a person truly empathize with you during your struggles.

Empathy for a servant leader is simply being able to visualize yourself in someone else's position. It helps you to understand what someone is feeling.

Empathy is a key aspect of leadership. It’s easy to get hyper-focused on tasks and the work that we do. Work is important and accomplishing goals is too! But if we’re not careful, we can begin to see people as problems to be solved instead of human beings to be loved.

When we’re able to take time out of our day to empathize with those around us and put ourselves in their shoes, we become more like Jesus. Whenever Jesus encountered someone who was hurting or in need of encouragement, He looked at them and had compassion for them. Then He acted.

A servant leader can see people through the eyes of Jesus. That’s the kind of leader that others follow!

Leadership might seem intimidating. A lot of responsibility goes into it. But servant leadership also brings the potential to witness to others and demonstrate Jesus in ways other positions wouldn’t have fully allowed.

Take some time today to think about the people in your life God is calling you to lead. And when it’s time to make decisions within that role, ask yourself a famous question: “What would Jesus do?”

Scripture helps us understand how to lead others the way that Jesus would. But what would happen if you didn't have access to it in your own language? How would you know how God wants you to live? Learn how you can be part of bringing Scripture passages like the ones mentioned in this article to people who do not yet have them in their language!

Today God is doing amazing things around the world, and you can be a part of seeing people encounter Him through Scripture in a language and format they clearly understand. Join the work by praying with us!

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