The theme of the Year of the Clergy and Consecrated Life focuses on “Servant-Leadership.” This theme is based on Vatican II emphasis that the clergy should “exercise leadership and authority in the spirit of service following the example of Christ who came not to be served but to serve and lay down his life for his sheep.” (Lumen Gentium 27)
There are several texts in the Gospels where Jesus’ teaching on leadership can be found. The first is from the Gospel of Matthew (20:25-28) which has parallels in other Gospels:
“But Jesus summoned them and said, you know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life for the ransom of many.”
In this text, Jesus criticizes the usual way of exercising leadership which is the use of authority motivated by the drive for power, prestige and privilege. Jesus offers another way of exercising leadership that he prescribed to his disciples -- humble service. He refers himself as the model: “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.” At the heart of Jesus’ teaching of leadership is servanthood – servant-leadership. This is manifested in a symbolic way at the last supper when he washed that feet of his disciples. After doing this he says:
“If I, therefore, the master and teacher have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (John 13:14-15)
This text sums up what Jesus’ life signify and what his death on the cross the following day mean. Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples must have been a shocking and confusing act for the disciples. It is a demeaning act. Only servants do this. Jesus’ washing of the feet is a symbolic act to dramatize his view of leadership – humble and loving service. This should be the underlying motivation in the exercise of leadership. Jesus presents himself as the model and asks his disciples to follow his example. St. Paul in the letter to the Philippians also highlights this:
“If there is encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking not for his own interests, but everyone for those of others. Have among you the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself taking the form of a servant, coming in human likeness and found human appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on the cross.” (Phil 2:1-8)
Society tends to regard leadership as a high position. The leader is placed on a pedestal. He looks down on his followers who look up to him. He looks at those below him as his subordinates who should obey him. He occupies the top position and is served by those below him. Thus, leadership is viewed from a vertical perspective – top to bottom – like a pyramid. This is not how Jesus regards authority and leadership. Christ the King is Jesus the servant. He came to serve and not to be served. The ultimate symbol is the washing of the feet. He lowered himself and knelt to wash the feet of his disciples. To be a humble servant. This is what servant-leadership is all about. A leader should not look at himself as above the rest, occupying the dizzy heights and feeling lonely at the top. To occupy a leadership role is not to ascend to a high, exalted position but to be humble and lower oneself. It is a descent, not an ascent, for a servant is not higher than those he serves. Thus, like Jesus this requires kenosis: self-emptying. This requires emptying oneself of pride and superiority complex -- of thinking of oneself as god-like. This also requires emptying oneself of the drive to dominate and hold on to the trappings of power, pomp and privilege, of selfishness and self-centeredness. Humble and loving service – this is what is required of a servant-leader. This is what is means to be a good shepherd.
The emphasis on servant-leadership does away with the sense of entitlement, privilege and prestige that is often associated with the position of leadership and authority. The leader should not expect or demand special treatment. The leader must always remember that, like Christ, he is sent to serve and not to be served. As servant, he is not greater or higher than those he serves. Leadership is not a position of honor or glory but of humble service – a position of responsibility. There is no room for vain-glory or pomposity.
Servant-leadership is carried out vis-à-vis the Christian community – the Church – whether at the parish or the diocesan level. The pastor is called to be the shepherd and servant of the flock. His responsibility is to gather and lead the Christian community and to lead it in the spirit of service. Community building and formation is essential that is why it is necessary to form Basic Ecclesial Communities that makes up the parish. The goal is to lead a community whose members live in communion and participate in Christ’s mission as a prophetic, priestly and servant community. In doing so it becomes a community of missionary disciples and an expression of the Church of the Poor. Thus, leadership is always service to the community of God’s people, for the good of the community. The focus of the leader’s attention is the community and not oneself or one’s personal gain. The poor in a special way are the objects of the servant-leader’s loving concern. The shepherd loves and serves the flock more than himself and is willing to give up his life for his flock.
The Church for a long time has been plagued by clericalism. This is the view of the clergy as a privileged elite class in the Church that is placed on a pedestal and wields control and power. This is often accompanied by careerism – of constantly striving for higher position in the Church. The emphasis on servant-leadership can overcome clericalism and careerism in the Church.
Servant leadership – this is what the Church needs, this is what society also needs. Emphasis on this can overcome the dark side of leadership.