Read an Excerpt
Down from the Head Table
A Call to Servant Leadership
All true work combines [the] two elements of serving and ruling. Ruling is what we do; serving is how we do it. There’s true sovereignty in all good work. There’s no way to exercise it rightly other than by serving.
Eugene Peterson Leap over a Wall
Above all, leadership is a position of servanthood.
Max DePree Leadership Jazz
The principle of service is what separates true leaders from glory seekers.
Laurie Beth Jones Jesus, CEO
People are supposed to serve. Life is a mission, not a career.
Stephen R. Covey The Leader of the Future
Ultimately the choice we make is between service and self-interest.
Peter Block Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest
Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Jesus Luke 14:11
I will never forget the second Tuesday evening of February 1996. We at Legacy Drive Baptist Church had struggled to retool ourselves to carry out the mission God had placed on our church: to make disciples who know Christ, share Christ, and multiply Christ in the life of another. During the transition, several core members left, attendance and giving went down, and the current church leadership—and I—began to question my ability to lead.
That evening, five men who loved God, our church, and me told me they had lost confidence in me as a leader. After meeting several times without my knowledge, these deacon officers had concluded that I was not the person for the next level of growth in the life of our church. They said it was not in their power or purpose to fire me, and they did not want to bring the issue to a vote because they knew it would split the church. Their job was to oversee the church and maintain its unity, not tear it apart. They asked me to take two weeks to pray and consider their position. They wanted to know my answer at the end of those two weeks.
As I walked from the house that evening, a strange sense of exhilaration came over me. These guys had done me a favor. They had put on the table what we all knew. I had stopped leading, and the church was floundering because of my lack of leadership. It was not long, however, before the elation turned to fear. I asked selfishly, "Why would God allow such a thing to happen to me?" Interestingly, just one month before, God had confirmed my call to and his vision for Legacy Drive. Ronnie and Tina Young, members of our church, had given me a trip to Robert Schuller’s Institute of Successful Church Leadership as a Christmas gift. I went alone to recuperate and write. God began to confirm his vision in my heart as I heard Dr. Schuller say that prayers he had been praying for forty years were just then being answered. I listened as this misunderstood servant leader told how he had followed God to a unique mission field and had labored for forty years to see the call of God on his life completed. I felt silly with my troubles, having been in my mission field for only nine years!
On the third day of the conference, Dr. Schuller said, "I don’t know who you are, but a dozen, maybe thirty [out of about 1500]; but God just planted a seed of a dream in your heart. I want to pray for you." As Dr. Schuller prayed, I wept. I prayed, God, help me. It was not a prayer of desperation but a prayer for God to help me complete the task he had assigned for me to do at Legacy Drive and with my life. I wrote in my journal that day, "I prayed not out of fear but out of a great sense that God does want to do something with my life that I truly cannot do on my own. It was a prayer of release to let God work however he would choose. It was a prayer of confidence that God is love and answers prayer. I will be obedient to his call—that’s what that prayer was about."
God had confirmed his call on my life in January. In February, God turned up the heat to test and change my heart.
The Sunday following the meeting with the deacon officers, I flew to Nashville to tape the training video to support the Jesus on Leadership workbook. When I landed, I asked Sam House, one of the project leaders, if they would still publish the work even if I were not a pastor. He didn’t laugh. It was ironic that my denomination’s publishing house was about to print a piece that I had written to help churches develop servant leaders—when I had just been told I wasn’t leading!
As I was preparing to shoot the training videos Monday morning, I read through John 13 again. As clearly as I hear any voice, I heard God say, "Gene, I want you to wash their feet." I thought, You’ve got to be kidding. I read the story again. I sensed a moving of God’s Spirit in my heart: Wash the feet of those who have called you to this time of decision. As we drove out to the shoot, I told Sam what God had said. He laughed this time and said, "Doesn’t God have a sense of humor!"
After a day of shooting and an evening of recording the audio version of the workbook, I rode with Henry Webb and Ralph Hodge to Atlanta for the first Promise Keeper’s Clergy Conference. While there, God changed my heart. One evening we heard Wellington Boone speak on reconciliation. He commented that while reconciliation between blacks and whites was important, God could not bring revival until blacks were reconciled among themselves. Wellington began to honor Tony Evans, a black pastor in Dallas. I did not know that Dr. Evans had been catching flack from the black community because he had reached out to whites.
Rev. Boone said in front of forty-two-thousand-plus clergy, "If I had a cup of water, I would wash Tony Evans’s feet." The men of integrity would have nothing of idle words. Suddenly, a man jumped up and approached the stage with a glass of water. Almost immediately, another man came running down the aisle waving a towel. Men began to cheer and stand to their feet.
Another black clergyman on the platform, Bishop Porter, went to Tony Evans, stood him up, and led him to a chair on center stage. Wellington Boone took the towel and water, unlaced Evans’s shoes, and washed his feet. The place erupted with emotion. Men began to cry at this display of humility and honor. I began to cry because I knew God really wanted me to wash the feet of those who had called me to decide how deep the mission of God was in my life. That was it. I knew. My responsibility was to wash their feet. God would take care of the rest.
I caught a plane back home before the conference was over. Jeff Koenigsberg, a twelve-year-old boy in our church family, had died of cancer while I was away. Jeff and my oldest daughter were the same age. I could not imagine the pain of his parents, Tom and Kris. The ordeal I faced was insignificant compared to what they had to endure. Washing feet is nothing compared to burying your son. Jeff’s memorial service was Saturday. God used that event to calm my heart and remind me of the important things in life. On the flight home to Dallas, God had also graced my life by placing me beside Bob Dean, a friend from college, who listened to my story and encouraged me to do what God had told me to do. He had his own stories of servant leadership.
That Sunday I preached three morning services, attended team meetings in the afternoon, and preached a service that evening. The officers and I met in the church offices after the evening service. No one had approached me all day about our meeting two weeks earlier. They had done what they said they would do and waited to hear what I had to say.
When we all got into the room, I thanked them for drawing a line in the sand concerning my leadership and my commitment to the mission of God on our church. I told them there was one thing God had told me to do before I gave them my answer. I took a towel that I use to wipe the feet of those we set aside for service in our church, and I walked over to Ted, the chairman of deacons. I knelt before him and began to wipe the dust from his shoes. I began to weep. God had humbled my heart. I asked his forgiveness for not supporting him and allowing us to be drawn apart. I prayed for him as I did what God told me to do.
When I finished praying, I stood up. Ted stood, too. Talk about a pregnant pause. I had talked to none of the officers since my return. I didn’t know if they had already put my termination package together or if they were really waiting to see what God had led me to do. Ted put his hands on my shoulders and turned me around to where he had been sitting. He took the towel from my hands and knelt before me. He, too, wiped my shoes and prayed for me. I could not hold back my emotions. I did not know what was next, but I now knew what reconciliation felt like.
After he finished, I returned to my chair. I told the group that God had confirmed my call to this church and its mission. I sensed I was the one to lead in the days ahead. I was convinced God was not finished with me and the church. I then turned to each man with whom I had been entrusted to carry out this mission and asked if he would continue to lead with me. Two said yes. Two said they would serve out their terms as officers but could not say what they would do after that. One said he didn’t think he could continue. We talked into the night, agreeing upon what needed to be done to address the needs of the congregation and what I would do to serve them and the church to meet those needs.
Within the next two weeks, two more families left the church. We told the other deacons of our conversations. Since that time, God has blessed our church. He had changed the leader’s heart through testing; God could now transform the church. By the way, Ted was the chairman of deacons the next year! The other officer who took a wait-and-see position is a deacon officer again even now.
Why do I tell you this story? I tell it because it is the crucible in which I learned the heart of Jesus and the power of servant leadership. I began to understand what Jesus did when he washed the feet of his disciples. I learned that the power of leading as a servant comes from God’s using a person who humbles himself (on his own or through the actions of others) to God’s call on his life and who serves those who were entrusted to him in order to carry out that call. I learned that my greatest test of servant leadership may be to wash the feet of those who have the ability to ask for my resignation. That event has become a watershed in my relationship with God and with Christ’s church.
This book grows out of my personal journey of learning to lead. The information on these pages comes from a personal crisis of choosing how I should lead among God’s people. This book also grows out of the need to find and develop leaders who can carry out God’s mission with me. This is not a complete picture of what I am learning, but it serves as a primer for those who want to learn to lead like Jesus.
Converse with the ideas on these pages. Let them challenge your presuppositions about leadership. Above all else, let them test your faith about who Jesus really is. That will make the difference not only in how you lead but in how you live your life.
Jesus’ Model of Servant Leadership
The essential lesson I learned from Jesus on leadership was that he taught and embodied leadership as service. Jesus was a Servant Leader in every sense of the concept. I would describe him as one who served his mission (in biblical language, "the will of [his] Father") and led by serving those he recruited to carry out that mission.
FOR JESUS, THE MISSION WAS TO BE THE MESSIAH.
He was sent to bring salvation to the world as God’s Sent One. He served that mission by living as the Suffering Servant Messiah. This mission was everything for Jesus. It was his purpose and direction for all he did while on earth—including his death.
If we take a high-level look at Jesus’ life, we see that everything he did was in service to his mission.
FOR JESUS, THE MODEL OF LEADERSHIP WAS SERVANTHOOD.
He was never self-serving. He led first as servant to his Father in heaven, who gave him his mission. If we take a high-level look at Jesus’ life, we see that everything he did was in service to this mission. His personal mission was to serve not his own will but the will of his Father. He said, "For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me" (John 6:38).
The Mission—and the Vision
And what was the will of his Father? How did that translate into Jesus’ life mission? At least three times Jesus provided what we would call a mission statement:
- When Jesus stood in his hometown synagogue, he read his mission statement from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 4:18-19
- When Jesus stood among his disciples and defined greatness and being a leader in the kingdom of God, he couched his mission statement this way: "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 10:45
- When Jesus stood in tax collector Zacchaeus’s home, he stated it another way: "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." Luke 19:10
Jesus articulated his mission in order to define what he was as Messiah. Where and how he led flowed from a clear sense of why he had come in the first place.
If Jesus was a servant to his mission, he led with a vision of what things would look like when he completed that mission. "What things would look like" was his vision of the Father’s call on his life. Jesus cast a vision of how things would look for his followers—if they allowed him to be the Messiah God sent him to be. Jesus often described that vision of things to come as "The kingdom of God/heaven." Jesus painted word pictures in the form of stories to show people the vision of God for their lives. These stories, or parables, let people see the implications of Jesus’ being the Sent One of God in their lives. Chapters 13 and 25 in Matthew’s Gospel are collections of vision stories. Luke 15 is also filled with stories about why Jesus came and what lives looked like when God’s love ruled in people’s hearts. Jesus led others by casting a vision of how things would look when he completed his mission.
Seven Principles to Lead As Jesus Led
After seeking to understand the elements of Jesus’ leadership style, I sought out timeless principles that described how Jesus led and that could be applied to my needs as a leader among God’s people. Here are seven observations I discovered that describe how Jesus led as a servant.
1. Jesus humbled himself and allowed God to exalt him.
2. Jesus followed his Father’s will rather than sought a position.
3. Jesus defined greatness as being a servant and being first as becoming a slave.
4. Jesus risked serving others because he trusted that he was God’s Son.
5. Jesus left his place at the head table to serve the needs of others.
6. Jesus shared responsibility and authority with those he called to lead.
7. Jesus built a team to carry out a worldwide vision.
These seven observations about how Jesus led are the foundation for our seven principles of servant leadership. Each principle is based upon a teaching or an example of Jesus as he lived out his mission and led those he recruited to join him. Before you can lead as Jesus led, you and I must move beyond what I call a "head-table mentality."
One day, I found myself at a head table. My job was to introduce the speaker after the musician sang. As the speaker began his talk, everyone at the head table stood and moved to sit among those attending the conference. Everyone but me! The speaker, who picked up on those leaving the head table, said, "If you are at the head table and would like to move, you can at this time." Alone, I stood and said, "I’d love to!" We all laughed, and I walked red faced to sit at a table with those who served in the kitchen. From head table to kitchen-worker status—in front of my peer group! What a demotion!
As the blood returned to the rest of my body, Jesus’ story about where to sit at big meals came to mind. He taught:
When someone invites you to a wedding feast [or conference], do not take the place of honor [at the head table], for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, "Give this man your seat." Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, "Friend, move up to a better place." Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. Luke 14:8-11
As I reflected on my social blunder and the speaker’s words about leadership, I realized that I had done what was typical of many who sit at head tables. When given a position, we happily accept the status that goes with it and somehow believe we no longer need to go near the kitchen. I was suffering from head-table mentality. I had accepted the myth that those who sit at the head table are somehow more important than those who serve in the kitchen. I even had perpetuated that myth by nonverbally resisting a place among the servers. I wondered if the people in my church suffered from this mentality.
I realized that we who lead often overlook the fact that the true place of Christlike leadership is out in the crowd rather than up at the head table. People who follow Christ’s model of leadership would never be embarrassed to find themselves among the kitchen help. Such a leader is comfortable working with those who serve in the background and gladly works alongside them until they complete the job. Head tables are optional for leaders who follow Jesus. Service, not status, is the goal of this kind of leader.
Bring Back the Towel and Washbasin
Too many organizations, homes, businesses, and schools struggle because they lack men and women who lead as Jesus did. Head tables have replaced the towel and washbasin as symbols of leadership among God’s people. Often those recognized as leaders in the church, for example, hold positions elected by friends and family. Some of these leaders love sitting at head tables but never go near the kitchen (or nursery). Leaders in civic groups may seek to push their personal agendas rather than work with those in their care to meet the goals of the group.
Churches, organizations, and the communities they serve, however, need leaders who know how God has made and gifted them for service and who willingly serve Christ and those placed in their care. These groups need leaders who have skills to equip others and to "team with them" in ministry. We need leaders who will step down from the head table and serve in the kitchen. Ministries and organizations will survive in the twenty-first century when men and women stop following self-conceived concepts of leadership and adopt Jesus’ teachings and examples.
Service-centered leadership has found its way into current discussions about leadership. The writings of businesspeople like Robert Greenleaf, Peter Block, Stephen Covey, and Max DePree have called leaders to a service-oriented model of leadership. In the marketplace, the pendulum has swung from personality-centered leadership to character-based leadership. I believe interest in principles of servant leadership has grown out of a desire for organizations to be led by those who will serve not themselves but those they lead. Our culture has wearied of the leadership models of Attila the Hun and rogue warriors. We are seeking leaders who consider us more than a means to an end.
The time is ripe to bring Jesus’ principles of leadership into the discussion of leadership. This should happen in the church especially, because leaders in the church—who should have been paving the way to service-oriented leadership—have actually gravitated toward the self-serving forms of leadership that are now being discarded by secular thinking.