Servant Leadership: An Overview

“Your Journey Toward Servant Leadership (SL#04)

by Lloyd Elder, Th.D. (adapted from SkillTrack®
1.1, 1.2, 1.3: Servant Leadership)

A Servant Leadership Thesis:

“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.”

After more than three decades of exploring servant leadership, this definition is for me a work-in-progress, serving as a basis for my continued findings. The thesis, first drafted in 1995, is set in place for the study, learning, and practice of servant leadership. It will be revisited often.

  1. Key Leadership Text–Mark 10:35-45

    “After the pattern of Christ” is a critical element of servant leadership in the practice of any type of Christian ministry. A host of biblical texts set out the situations, styles, and skills of servant leadership, but seldom by that precise term. Christ remains central; He is not only its champion, but the supreme example of servant leadership. Consider His direct teaching:

Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43-45 NIV)

There are a vast number of other biblical texts presenting the practice, situations, gifts, skills, and contributions to the work of God’s kingdom. In Romans 12:6-8, “service” and “leadership” are tied together in the pattern we are to follow:

We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s
gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
(Rom. 12:6-8 NIV)

    1. Objectives and Practical Goals

      The objective of this overview article is to provide a servant leadership context for Christian ministry, as it is in reality, a lifelong journey. Practical goals include: (1) to empower today’s Christian lay and staff ministers/leaders, (2) to explore a working understanding of leadership and servant leadership today, (3) to discover biblical patterns lived and taught by Christ, (4) to learn from Robert K. Greenleaf and other contemporary teaching leaders, (5) and, to chart your own course in the journey.

    2. Your Own Journey

      Step into the picture and content of this topic; it intends to invite you along on the journey that Christ himself walked. This overview is an introduction to a series of articles reporting a continuing study of servant leadership–its principles, pathways, and practices. A thorough study of this series of articles
      should enable you to:

      • understand the biblical and contemporary foundations for servant leadership;
      • evaluate the concepts and practices of servant leadership as you focus on “servant first”;
      • make a continuing assessment of your leadership styles and skill levels;
      • understand your basic choices among the various styles and models of leadership;
      • apply servant leadership to the many functions of Christian ministry;
      • map out your own journey toward servant leadership development and practice;
      • reach back into this and other materials as a “toolbox” for “as-needed help”;
      • guide others in their development and practice of servant leadership;
      • keep the leadership of Christ as the pattern every step and mile of the journey.


  1. Practicing Servant Leadership: A Graphic

    What does “servant leadership” look like and how do you start out on the journey? This servant leadership graphic seeks to portray the practice of servant leadership as five windows of opportunity–of light and fresh air. Each of the five intersecting windows provides a distinct view reflecting a synergy that is true to the essence of the servant as leader. The largest window, encompassing all else, is empowering leadership; and the smallest, supporting all else, is efficient leadership.
    Servant leadership is not just a concept; it is not learned until it is practiced. Developing and practicing servant leadership is truly self-directed by continuous choices and practices in every arena of your life and leadership. This graphic will be expanded and applied in other articles in this Servant Leaders Library.


  2. Leadership Theory–the Longer Journey

    Just how does “servant leadership” fit into the longer journey of leadership theory? Volumes have been written about leadership, although the term has come to its “loftiest use”–if not overuse–in our generation. Yes, and servant leadership has its own champions in corporate, institutional, and nonprofit life. Since much of this body of material is about leadership theory, dominant theories are briefly summarized here:

    • Succession Theory: Leadership is given by divine right, by the succession of one sovereign to another in a royal line. But becoming king by succession does not confer the ability to rule wisely; and it doesn’t apply at all to most of humankind.
    • Natural Theory: Some are born and destined for leadership, they are natural leaders, and others simply are not. Natural characteristics often contribute to the capacity to lead, but history has proven there is more to leadership than that; natural ability is too often wasted or misused.
    • Great Event Theory: Leadership shows itself with an occasion, an event in history, when one rises to do what must be done. There was a Winston Churchill and an Abraham Lincoln; but then again, many crumple under the weight of historical challenges.
    • Position Theory: Leadership is linked to a position such as prophet, priest, judge, president, chairman, pastor, deacon, etc. A position may provide the opportunity for leadership but does not guarantee the vision, relationship, skill, or leadership performance.
    • Trait Theory: Leadership is vested in a particular set of personal qualities, talents, and skills; but as you may know, without a particular set of leadership traits some succeed, and having all of the most desirable ones may not be transformed into reality.
  3. Servant Leadership and Theories

    Servant leadership is more than theory, style, or method. Although there may be some truth in each one of the above theories, or a combination of them, servant leadership is based on biblical and more contemporary principles and practices–on your character, behavior, and contributions to others. Keep this in mind and add your own insights as you build upon our efforts. Evaluate the concepts and practices of servant leadership, always focusing on servant first:

    • to understand the basic choices you have among the various styles and models of leadership;
    • to apply servant leadership not only to the many functions of Christian ministry but also to the many other roles that you live;
    • to increase your contribution and satisfaction in your chosen field of ministry;
    • to map out your own journey for leadership development;
    • to reach back into material such as this as a “toolbox” for continued practice;
    • and, to guide others in the consistent development and practice of servant leadership as they serve along with you.
  4. Servant Leadership Learning Tools

    Someone has said that “leadership can be learned, but it cannot be taught.” Others may provide tools, but developing servant leadership is self-directed by your own continuous choices to follow the pattern of Christ. Servant Leaders Library builds upon many tools useful both for your affirmation, knowledge, awareness and for putting your training to work in your own daily life and ministry.As one tool, leadership self-assessment is presented throughout these articles. That is always a good starting place on the servant leadership journey: honestly assessing your current level of knowledge, your patterns of behavior, and your actual practice of servant leadership. Also, case studies are often used as effective ways for the interactive teaching/learning process. Concrete situations and actions–real or invented–are described in such a way that a person or a team can propose options, actions, lessons, and corrections for handling such future situations. How can you do this for these articles?

  5. Signposts on My Journey

    My own servant leadership journey continues. As author or co-author of most of these articles, perhaps it would be helpful for me to state some of my commitments to and findings about servant leadership. This is also a good
    place for you to complete a self-assessment activity of your own. Some of these thoughts are clearly drawn from others, but they are pulled together here as my own sense of journey:

    • Jesus is the one ideal pattern of servant leadership, although many others may practice this approach to life and leadership.
    • The Bible reports a great diversity in styles and models of leadership expressing servant leadership.
    • Servant leadership is always in that order–servant first, then leadership; or as Robert Greenleaf put it, “servant as leader.”
    • Servant leadership is a way of life and is expressed appropriately in many settings and relationships: the church, family, school, business, society, government, etc.
    • Servant leadership is a relationship, a team effort, not a solo act practiced in a vacuum.
    • Even if servant leadership cannot be taught by another, it can be learned and improved; you learn by practicing it as you travel the journey.
    • Servant leadership is a journey, not a short trip. That is the dominant concept in this series of articles. You seldom get there; it is a process, not one point in time or an event completed.
    • Servant leadership will be dealing with kindred realities: calling, choices, processes, persuasion, example, influences, situations, abilities, capacities, energy, passion, relationships, direction, vision, inspiration, hard work.
    • Servant leadership takes all of you–your spiritual gifts, innate abilities, acquired skills, circle of acquaintances, situations, and life of choices.
    • It is an exciting venture to contribute guideposts, tools, concepts, and practices for others as they choose to travel the ancient way of Christ as servant leaders. Are you on your journey?

Servant leadership in the church setting at its best always serves the kingdom purposes of Christ, both the immediate and eternal needs of individuals, families, and cultures of the nations. The thirty or so servant leadership articles are organized into three categories: principles, pathways, and practices. You may follow the order in Servant Leaders
, or you may explore the articles that fit your own interests and needs.

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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 Leadership