Servant Leadership: Practices
“Content: Practicing Servant Leadership Today
– Part 1”
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack®
1:3 – Charting Your Course

“Charting Your Course” begins with an intentional choice and the continuous practice of servant leadership–or not! Just what is servant leadership–both its biblical and contemporary components? How does it relate to patterns and practices in congregational life? During recent years have you continued along a journey toward servant leadership? It’s really not a new journey because the path runs throughout the pages of Holy Scripture. Yet retracing old and favorite paths of service to Christ helps us stay on course–or when we stray, to get back on the pathway.

This working definition is a guideline for me, and I share it with you:

Practicing servant leadership in Christian ministry is self-giving service with others after the pattern of Christ through example and persuasion in order to achieve extraordinary commitment and contributions toward mutually shared kingdom goals. (L.E.–1995 and since)

Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.–Phil. 3:13-14

A Servant Leadership Pattern
Visuals, definitions, concepts, the sage instruction of a pioneer like Greenleaf, even Holy Scripture–all of these fall short of the mark if you and I do not get them down into “practicing servant leadership” consistently.
It is a way of living, serving, and leading. Let’s work through this together.


Years ago I started with the oft-quoted maxim adapted from Warren Bennis:

“efficiency [management] is doing things right”
“effectiveness [leadership] is doing the right things.”

Placing high value on these two elements and adding three others, the servant leadership graphic on these pages intends to portray the practice of servant leadership as five open windows of opportunity–of light and fresh air. The largest window, encompassing all else, is empowered leadership; the smallest window, supporting all else, is efficiency. All five practices work together reflecting a synergy that is true to the essence of the servant as leader. It makes for an exciting journey. Study carefully this visual (repeated from the introduction), beginning to assess key elements of your pattern of servant leadership as they compare to the graphic:

Practice #1.
Empowered Leadership:

“Doing the right things in His power.”

The presence, power, and pattern of Christ empower us to follow Him as servant leaders; that is the starting place.

Glossary–empower: To invest with power, especially legal power or official authority. To equip or supply with an ability; to enable.
Usage Note: Although it is a contemporary buzzword, “empower” arose in the mid-17th century with the legalistic meaning “to invest with authority, to authorize.” Shortly thereafter it began to be used
with an infinitive in a more general way meaning “to enable or permit.” These uses survive today, overpowered by its use in politics and pop psychology.

–from The American Heritage® Dictionary of English Language, Fourth Edition

  1. Christ himself is the “big picture” for all who would practice servant leadership.
  • He is the one who has given us authority to move forward to engage in kingdom work (Matt. 28:18). Chart your course to follow Him.
  • He is the largest window of opportunity, inclusive of servant leadership, the most powerful source of our energy, the truest example/model for every follower. “He is the starter and finisher of faith .
    . .”
    (see Heb. 12:1-2).
Hebrews 12:1-2
We are to run this race “with no eyes for any one or anything except Jesus” (Moffatt, in loc.). It is he toward whom we run. There must be no divided attention. The “author and perfecter of faith”
(there is no “our” in the Gr.) may mean that Jesus trod the way of faith first and brought it to completion. Or it may mean that he originated his people’s faith and will bring it to its perfection.
Zondervan Commentary
  • His abiding presence in our lives fashions who we are as followers/servants (See John 15:9).

    John 15:9 – Love is the relationship that unites the disciples to Christ as branches are united to a vine. Two results stem from this relationship: obedience and joy. Obedience marks the cause of their fruitfulness; joy is its result.Zondervan Commentary

  • He sets the ideal pattern for servant leadership in Christian ministry (see 1 John 2:6). “What would Jesus do?” is more than a popular bracelet; it is the energizing standard.

    John 2:6 – The uniqueness of Christian ethics comes again to the surface. Relationship to God requires moral behavior worthy of God. And as the revelation of God in Christ is accepted as  the high point of divine self-disclosure, so the human life of Jesus becomes the measuring stick of true moral and ethical behavior.Zondervan Commentary

  • Union with Christ is the source for all the tasks, functions and challenges of Christian ministry (John 15:5).

John 15:5Fruitbearing is not only possible but certain if the branch remains in union  with the vine. Uniformity of quantity and quality are not promised. But if the life of Christ permeates a disciple, fruit will be inevitable.Zondervan Commentary

  1. Practice what Jesus did; the disciplines and practices we find in the life and servant leadership of Christ, we should choose for ourselves. For example:
  • Pray as Jesus prayed . . . (see Luke 11:1-4)
  • Love as Jesus loved . . . (see John 13:34-35)
  • Walk as Jesus walked . . . (see 1 John 2:5-6)
  • Obey as Jesus obeyed . . . (see John 15:9-14)
  • Care as Jesus cared . . . (see Luke 10:29-35)
  • Work as Jesus worked . . . (John 9:4-5)
  • Send as Jesus sent . . . (John 3:16-17)
  • Lead as Jesus led . . . (see Mark 10:43-45)
  1. Jesus is our Way in His service.
    E. Stanley Jones, veteran missionary, passed down an account of a missionary who lost his way in an African jungle–no landmark, no trail.  Finally coming upon a native’s hut, he asked if he could lead him out. The native arose, walked into the bush and for hours hacked his way forward. The concerned missionary finally asked: “Are you sure this is the way? I don’t see any path.” The African chuckled over his shoulder, “Bwana, in this place there is no path. I am the path.”  (Source:
  2. Seven ways Jesus empowers servant leaders:
  • Seven contemporary terms, among those prevalent today, can be used to describe how Jesus was “the Master” at empowering His followers to be servant leaders: authority, acceptance, affirmation, delegation,
    enablement, encouragement, and support.
  • Seven biblical realities, often expressed in the ministry of Jesus, empower 1st century and contemporary servant leaders: indwelling of the Holy Spirit; enduring truth of Holy Scripture; calling to vocation, to ministry; spiritual giftedness; kingdom mission; and seeking and doing the will of God.

Practice #2.
Ethical Leadership:

“Doing the right things for the right reasons.”
Servant leadership asks and seeks to answer the ethical questions:
“Why am I serving this way, or leading in that manner?”

“What is the true motivation and outcome of my life and leadership?”

“Am I following biblical character and principles?”

In public and corporate life, ethical responsibility is so critical.

Glossary–ethical: Conforming to accepted standards of social or professional behavior; adhering to ethical and moral principles; “it seems ethical and right.”WordNet ® 1.6 © 1997 Princeton University

“Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”–Mark Twain

  1. The centerpiece for ethical leadership
    for Christian ministers of any generation, in every role or position, is shaped by the example of Jesus Christ and His indwelling life presence (John 15:5-8); and the guidance of the Spirit (John 16:12-13).
  • Love is the ethical mandate Christ has given to each of us. If the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) serves as an ethical pattern for those practicing servant leadership, then love is its ethical core.

    You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, . . . –Matt. 5:43-44

  • Servant leaders should seek and follow ethical instructions given throughout Holy Scripture; examples:

    Luke 6:31–Do to others as you would have them do to you.
    Matt. 22:37-40–Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
    Deut. 10:11-13–“Go,” the Lord said to me, “and lead the people on their way, so that they may enter and possess the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.” And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the
    Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

  1. Authentic “lived-in” character is the fabric of servant-first leadership.
  • Integrity has come to be the most sought-after characteristic of leaders in all arenas of life; how much more within the sphere of servant-followers of Christ.
  • Honesty was ranked the highest among the characteristics expected of superior leaders, before any skill or competence. This is true in national and international studies, insisting that there must be a consistency between words and deeds. (See Kouzes and Posner, The Leadership Challenge, pp. 16-17.)
  • Ethical leaders follow a “moral compass.”
    Ultimately we judge our ministry leaders in a framework of biblical values.
    In society, “morality refers to the standards by which a community judges the rightness and wrongness of conduct in all fields” (Gardner, On Leadership, p. 76).
    He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.–Micah 6:8
  1. The “best test” of servant leadership, according to Robert Greenleaf, is an ethical threshold for us all.

The best test is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?
–Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership, pp. 13-14

  • Servant leadership does not merely pursue achievements, or results, or position, or recognition–by any means. Applied to the public arena, the servant leader seeks to contribute to the common good and the improvement of individual persons. Ethical leadership includes using authority and power for service to others–not for self-service.  Leaders should specify what their goals are for the group and what they
    consider right–and why. (See also Gardner, p. 73.)
  1. An ethical leadership checklist might include questions such as:
  • Is it right: is it true to biblical standards?
  • Is it the best: does it measure up to the example of Christ?
  • Is it fair: are people treated equitably?
  • Is it legal: does it violate civil law?
  • Is it approved: is it permitted by church policies?
  • Is it best for the long-term, the system?
  • How will you feel later, if it were to be published and read by others?
  • What if others did this: if done by all, how would it contribute to the common good?

Practice #3.
Enabling Leadership:

“Doing the right things together.”
Servant leadership builds relationships, enriches congregational fellowship, and develops the life and competence of fellow workers.

Glossary–enabling: To supply with the means, knowledge, or opportunity; make able: techniques that enable surgeons to open and repair the heart. To make feasible or possible.–from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

  1. Leadership is within the company of others, not a solo performance. In fact, one test of a leader is “to look over your shoulder to see if anyone is following.”
  • Leadership is first a trusting, team relationship; then it can move toward performance and contribution. Servant-first leaders practice open communications, mutual respect, and works for the common good.
  • Full participation in the body of Christ offers opportunities to learn and develop as an individual and team member; opportunities to risk and fail and learn; genuine caring for people as people (not just assets
    for ministry); and, experience the congregation as a family/social system.
  1. Servant leadership is an equipping ministry as set out in Ephesians 4:11-13. Equipping others enables them to become servants and matures them toward leadership. This is further developed in SL#71 under Coaching Leadership but may be described by a diversity of tasks:

    It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up . . .–Ephesians 4:11-12

  • equipped, strengthened
  • fitted, readied, prepared
  • approved, commissioned
  • delegated, entrusted
  • built-up, edified, developed
  • competent, skilled, talented
  • motivated, encouraged
  1. Enabling leadership builds on the “one another connection” of the New Testament witness. The following Scriptures affirm that we are servants of one another; dependent on one another, and
    commissioned to do Christ’s work together:
  • John 13:34– “so you must love one another.” (See also Jn. 15:12, 17; Rom. 13:8; 1 Jn. 3:11; 4:7)
  • Rom. 12:5– “each member belongs to all the others.”
  • Rom. 12:10– “Honor one another above yourselves.”
  • Rom. 12:16– “Live in harmony with one another.”
  • Rom. 12:18– “live at peace with everyone.” (Mk. 9:50; Rom. 14:19)
  • Rom. 14:13– “stop passing judgment on one another.”
  • Rom. 15:7– “Accept one another.”
  • 1 Cor. 12:25– “have equal concern for each other.”
  • Gal. 5:13– “serve one another in love.”
  • Gal. 6:2– “Carry each other’s burdens.”
  • Eph. 4:32– “Be kind and compassionate to one another.”
  • 1 Thess. 5:11– “Therefore encourage one another.”  (Heb. 3:13)
  • 1 Thess. 5:11– “build each other up.” (Heb. 3:13)
  • James 5:16– “confess your sins to each other.”
  • James 5:16– “pray for each other.”
  • 1 John 1:7– “we have fellowship with one another.”

Conclusion: The purpose of this article is to move toward the actual practice of servant leadership. This article introduces a servant leadership graphic and presents servant leadership practices #1-3; it is continued with practices #4 and 5 in the next article (SL#63).

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© 2006; hosted and
copyrighted by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church