Servant Or Server?

by Jeremy Parks on December 23, 2013 · 6 comments

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place.
“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 
I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

John 13:12-17

“I’m trying to teach you how to have a servant’s heart.”

My mother was telling me to go help old Mrs. Agnes Scott get through the glass doors into the foyer at church.  Mrs. Scott lived in a tiny little house composed of two smaller houses that her husband joined together 55 years earlier.  When I got big enough to handle a push-mower, I’d head over to her house and cut the grass on her tiny little plot, making sure I didn’t damage her blackberry bushes.  I never charged her, mainly because I knew she would tell my mom who would tell my dad who in turn would tell me I owed Mrs. Scott a refund equal to twice what she paid me.

Servants filled our church.  Dot and Joyce played the piano and organ for years.  John O. worked with young men.  Louie – ahh, Louie – nursed a cantankerous old blue bus, coaxing it Sunday by Sunday into making the rounds in order to bring every possible child whose parents were willing to send them to church.  Mom and Dad believed they had a calling to minister to the people at church through teaching, serving, helping, hosting…whatever.

Today, I look around at leaders and followers and workers and laborers within the kingdom.  Every ministry needs servants, but not every ministry has them because, as I think I have discovered, not every server is a servant.

____________________

Sven* is a great guy.  He loves the Lord.  He works hard for the kingdom.  He’s one of the busiest guys you’ll ever meet.  At large meetings, you can always see him hustling off to make copies, or get coffee, or summon a wayward attendee to the gathering.  It seems like ol’ Sven will do absolutely anything.

*Sven is not an actual guy.  He’s an amalgam of individuals I’ve seen who all share the characteristics I’m examining.

There’s a catch: Sven only really serves leaders.

The copies were for the boss’ presentation.  The coffee was for the keynote speaker’s wife.  Summoning that guy to the meeting was mainly so Sven could make sure everyone respected the coordinator’s schedule.  Sven works hard for others, so long as the others are people of significance.  He’s the guy who shows up for work days, and labors shoulder-to-shoulder only with the music director.  He’s in the Christmas program because the pastor pulled him aside to talk about it.  He might appear to serve the church itself, but in reality his service is leadership-focused.  Serving the goals of the group makes the leader happy, and that’s Sven’s focus.

Sven will never mow a yard unless it is part of a church-wide Widows and Orphans outreach.  You’ll never catch him playing with toddlers in the corner of the gym in order to allow their mothers the chance to eat lunch with friends during the church’s anniversary party.  He doesn’t stay after to sweep or fold tables or wash the dishes; no, you’ll find Sven giving the pastor’s son a ride home or working on the lights with the choir director.

Olga* presents another interesting case.  She’s worked in the nursery for the last 22 years, and has been its coordinator for 17 of those years.  Loves children.  Works well with parents.  A fabulous servant, no?

*Not a real person – just an avatar representing the many who behave this way.

Sort of.  Olga does labor and the church does benefit and she does work for the good of those who are not in a position to do something in return, unlike Sven.  However, those who work alongside her know: Olga is not so much the coordinator of the nursery as she is Queen.  Sure, she laughs and smiles as she questions those who moved the rocking chair from the Creepers room, but make no mistake: Olga lords it over the nursery and generally runs roughshod over any Children’s Ministry Director who dares pitch new ideas about her fiefdom.

Inga* presents a bit of a middle way.  She serves her leaders quite well.  She also serves select peons who would otherwise slip and stagger along.  There’s a catch; the little people she serves find themselves locked into an expectation of vassalage.  They must do as Inga requires, support what Inga supports, and ostracize those whom Inga cannot control through service.

*You know what I’m going to say here, so just insert your own statement regarding the facetiousness of Inga’s identity.

Sven, Olga, and Inga represent servers, people who labor in anticipation of wages.  Sven receives clout, or attention, or plum opportunities.  Olga lines her pockets with a sense of power, importance, and control.  Inga cashes a paycheck of personal influence and domination, not only of those she has served but also via voting blocs and voices raised in compulsory unison with her own.  These three fall short of true servanthood.  They do not gird up their loins and wash the feet of those who cannot truly give anything in return.  They do not labor for the benefit of others without contemplation of their own reward.  Ultimately, their labors are self-serving.

Absent is any true sense of service as Christ intended.

How shall we then describe true service?

Labors performed for the glory of God and the benefit of others without regard for remuneration of any kind.

Our three amigos may labor for His glory, but when the possibility for reimbursement is missing so, too, is their desire to hang around and help.

The primary benefit of this entire line of discussion is, ironically enough, self-examination.  I cannot truly study the motivations of others, but I can and should evaluate my own approach to service.

- Do I routinely serve those who cannot return the favor in any way?
- Do I perceive my labor for others as a form of qui pro quo?
- Is all of my service done in the presence of someone who matters – leader, boss, minister, teacher?
- Do I serve – without hesitation – those whom I might never see again?
- Does my service have some goal besides simply making life easier for someone?
- Can I serve people who will gladly accept the fruits of my labors while pointedly ignoring me?
- Is my service personal or is it exclusively corporate?
- Do I serve because it is my nature or because it is expected of me by people of influence?

Christ served those who could not do anything for Him that He needed.  In many instances, He served those who would not ever respond, not even by devoting their lives to Him.  Even so – He served.  Can we make the same claim?

Are we servants or servers?

1 Jim Pemberton December 26, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Nevertheless, Sven, Olga, and Inga, are the kind of people most often recognized as apt leaders. Those who serve out of the limelight are not seen as opinionated or intimidating enough to garner support for leadership. These kinds of servants acquiesce to the “strong-willed” manipulators in order to make things run smoothly and are consequently seen as weak.

2 Jeremy Parks December 26, 2013 at 5:36 pm

You’ve utilized two words that never belong in the same conversation: leaders and manipulators.

3 Jim Pemberton December 26, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Well, those words shouldn’t be embodied in the same person. However, many who appeal to people as good leaders – as those who get things done – really only do so by virtue of the fact that they manipulate people and social situations to do so.

4 Ben Coleman December 26, 2013 at 6:03 pm

How much of a failure to disciple does it represent that being opinionated or intimidating often *is* regarded as a requirement for leadership in our churches? Being opinionated, intimidating and manipulative is a mark of the worldly leadership that Jesus tells us we are *not* to imitate.

5 Jim Pemberton December 26, 2013 at 6:23 pm

I don’t know how you’d quantify it. I think discipleship has something to do with it. However, we never stop learning and growing as disciples. Therefore, there are many who are discipled who don’t get it. In part, we have some leaders in churches who are there because they have used unbiblical leadership to become successful in business who are regarded as someone who will be likewise successful as a leader in the church without taking the time to consider how it was that such a one became successful.

I personally think it has something to do with the role of church in American society for so many years and is related to American moralism. But I could be wrong about the extent of that connection.

The thing is, God has used leaders with bad leadership qualities to accomplish many great things among us all. It’s easy to make the Machiavellian argument in this case that the ends justify the means. Of course it doesn’t, but it does lead those of us who know better to submit to such leaders anyway as those given by God as long as the doctrine of the church stays biblically sound in general.

6 Jeremy Parks December 26, 2013 at 9:48 pm

I think sometimes we confuse accomplishments with leadership. We look at people who get things done (Olga in the Nursery) and we assume it is because they bring some sort of leadership to the table. They might, but it’s not a sure thing.

At other times we see someone serving (Sven) and assume he’s like that with everyone. Often those already in leadership roles only see the benefit Sven brings to the group or to their own agendas, and just overlook the one-sided aspect of his service.

Maybe it’s a result of bringing our views on workplace productivity to the church. Perhaps we just don’t know one another in the body of Christ well enough to see the potential for flaws. Of course, as you pointed out here, Jim, we are all flawed. Perhaps the answer is having leaders who see the flaws and work to mentor people in order to find the good in them.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: