Friday, December 27, 2013

A Leader Serves

It was shocking really, when he washed their feet. The task was so low, so loathsome, that the twelve would've rather left it undone than do it themselves. Known for arguments about who among them was the greatest, this ragtag group of disciples cherished lofty ambitions.

Foot washing was not on their agenda.

Jesus gives us a model for leadership that is counter-intuitive for even his most sincere followers. He takes the worst of the work and does it with the height of passion. He is not angry. He is not exasperated. He is not shaming them; he is leading them. I imagine him smiling, delighted with his chosen duty; tender, but thorough with the cleaning. He surely did the work well.

Servant Leadership has almost become a catch-phrase in Christian circles--an honored concept, but one I rarely see in practice. I say rarely because when I do see it, I find myself feeling what I imagine the disciples felt when Jesus picked up the basin and the towel. I feel a moment of protest, a twinge of regret over my own neglect of the task, and a profound admiration for the one who stepped up to serve. I am completely convinced of the merits of servant leadership, but often remiss to employ them myself.

After all, there are many leadership concepts that seem to be at odds with the idea of servant leadership. Where does delegation fit in? And what about giving people opportunities to grow into bigger responsibilities by starting with the lesser? And if the leader is always washing feet, who is casting the vision and directing the programs? But I am beginning to learn how to reconcile these seemingly opposing approaches.

First of all, I'm learning that service is incorporated into all that I do, but it is not focus of what I do. Jesus didn't only wash feet. He was not above doing it--but he was also not against letting someone else do it. He didn't teach Foot Washing 101 to the masses nor proclaim it in the temple. He just did it when it needed to be done, and then gently reminded his disciples that they needed to serve others in the same way. So while I need to be ready, willing, and able to do the lowliest of jobs, I do not need build my vision around those jobs. I do them so that the vision can be accomplished. I don't have to walk around with a mop and dust rag in order to be a servant leader--but I certainly better know where to find them and how to use them.

One of the best ways I can incorporate service into my leadership style is by making sure that my schedule has margin. Leaders tend to be Type A personalities, and Type As are notorious for being driven. We fill every hour of every day with important meetings, projects, and activities. Then, when we are faced with an urgent need, we don't have the means to meet it. Our agendas handicap our capacity to serve. In order to be able to wash feet, we can't be captive to the clock. The harried don't have time to notice the needs of others, much less meet them. Most servant leading happens in the context of the unanticipated, the overlooked, and the eventuality. When I don't have margin I leave the messes to others and miss the opportunity to practice servant leadership.

In order to try to leave room for foot washing in my life, I have started scheduling only 30 hours of my work week. This does not mean that I am only working 30 hours a week, it just means that there are at least 10 easily interrupt-able hours in my week. Before I find ways to make myself busy during those "unscheduled" hours, I assess the needs of those around me. Does David need for me to run an errand? Could I help clean the church? Is someone in our community ill? Could I take them a meal? Often, the need is obvious. Sometimes, no need arises, and I give my time to other tasks. But I find that this margin makes me more sensitive to others and more attentive to the feet that need washing.

Second, I'm learning to serve without keeping score. When it comes to the menial work of life, its easy to resort to humanistic approaches like "taking turns." While I'm all about sharing the work, score-keeping kills generosity and love. It's all too easy to settle for trade offs rather than servant-hood. "Your turn to do this dishes." "My turn to choose a movie." "Your turn to make the bed." "My turn to pick a restaurant." Always trying to get one's fair share is completely at odds with the concept of servant leadership.

David and I learned this early in our marriage. As I was typing, David just folded a load of laundry--for the third time today. He is not less busy than I am, he just keeps beating me to it. And then he came to me and asked, "Is there any way I can bless you today?" This is our marriage M.O. Each of us does the things that we notice need to be done. And then just in case we've missed something we ask, "Is there anything I could do to bless you?" In other words, "How can I wash your feet today?" Obviously, David is better at this than I am--but I'm inspired by him. And as he serves me in this way I am eager to imitate him.

In order to be a servant leader, I need to not only do the menial things that just need to be done, I need to approach my day with a "How can I bless YOU?" agenda (again, without running a tab). I'm sadly self-absorbed, and so in order to lead with this sort of other-focus, I have to build new habits into my life. When I am serving on a team, I check in with the others before checking out for the day and ask, "Is there anything I can do before I go?" I sometimes ask people on my teams to lead me--that is, I might say, "I'm not sure what all needs to be done here, but I'm more than willing to help if you can give me some direction." For on-going projects, I make a habit of checking in regularly with members of my team. I not only ask how things are going, I end each call or email with an offer of service. "Is there anything I can do to help or encourage you?" This doesn't flow from me naturally just yet, but I'm leaning into the process with the hopeful expectation that my heart is being transformed into the heart of a servant leader.

Finally, attitude counts. Doing any act of service with a heavy sigh and a spirit of exasperation pretty much negates the positive leadership effect of the effort. Sure, the job gets done, but the method was one of shame and disgust, not heartfelt service. I am sure that Jesus washed feet happily. He did not feel more important when teaching in the tabernacle and less important when kneeling before his disciples. He knew that in each instance he was doing his God-given task. A servant might fuss about her tasks, but a servant leader does the same tasks with sincere determination, care, and joy.

I can embrace any task with delight because I do it for the Lord. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians slaves, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving." Whatever...with ALL your heart. SO whether leading a charge or cleaning up after the horses; whether giving a speech or filling the water glasses of the listeners; whether directing the board or cleaning the board room--all is for the Lord.

For thought and discussion: How is your margin? Are you allowing time to serve the ones you lead? Are you ever tempted to keep score? What is your attitude when the menial tasks land on your plate? 

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