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Breaking Open the Ordinary

By Sandy Prather


Servant leaders call forth gifts and empower others


In the first Upper Room, they are gathered for a meal. Jesus removes his outer garment, ties a towel around his waist and, taking a jug and a basin of water, he proceeds to wash, one by one, the feet of the uncomprehending disciples. In the second Upper Room, they are huddled together in fear. The winged Holy Spirit swoops overhead and bright flickering flames descend on each startled head. In the first Upper Room, they are shown what power looks like; in the second, they receive that power. In the first Upper Room, they are told, “Go and do what I have shown you.” In the second, they are sent out to do so.

The link is clear. Christ promises power from on high and, at Pentecost, that power, through the Spirt, descends on them. But the power they receive is Christ’s power, meant to be interpreted by Christ’s gesture of service. “Wash each other’s feet,” is their commandment and servant leadership thus becomes our watchword. Leadership within the Christian community, the use of power within the ekklesia, is a leadership and a power that reaches out, not in domination, but in humble care for the other.

It is an idea that seems too frequently to be honoured more in the breach than in the observance. While the phrase “servant leadership” fills our church rhetoric and permeates our documents, Pope Francis has found it necessary to point out the gap between “mere talk” and action as he devotes a portion of Evangelium Gaudium to the dangers of “spiritual worldliness.” Such worldliness, he points out, takes shape in leaders who hide behind the behind the appearance of piety and even love for the church, but are more interested in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being (EG 93). He chastises those who are so convinced of their own soundness of doctrine or discipline that it leads them to a, “narcissistic and authoritarian elitism,” whereby instead of evangelizing, they analyze and classify others, and end up closing rather than opening the doors of grace (EG 94).

It is, indeed, a favourite theme of Pope Francis: the need for the shepherds to “smell like their sheep.” He is constantly calling the hierarchy, priests, bishops and cardinals to service, not self-service, and he warns about the dangers of clericalism and careerism. In late October 2013, ordaining two archbishops, Pope Francis told them: “Keep in mind that you were selected to serve, not to dominate.”

Service, not domination: it is about how Christian leaders are to understand and use power. In itself a neutral word, power is often seen as something negative, especially when it is a power used to dominate others or to impose one’s will on another. We are all familiar with the misuse of power, even in the church.

Yet power is to be valued — being powerless is not a virtue. Insofar as power is the ability to effect change, it can be as much a force for the good as the opposite. It depends on how it is used. Power can also be empowerment. Leaders, in this understanding, are those who tap into power in order to enhance and bring life to others.

We see it with Jesus. God’s power flows through Jesus and it is a power that heals illness, forgives sins, arouses hope and builds communion. It is, in a word, generative power. Jesus in turn passes that power on to his disciples. Gifted with his Spirit, they tap into his power in order to bring life as he does. Power in the Christian community is a movement of “salfivic energy” and meant to be released into the world. True Christian leaders will be those who can tap into the power already present in the community so that it might accomplish the purpose for which it is intended.

An ancient verse states: “Go in search of your people: love them, learn from them, plan with them, serve them. Begin with what they have; build on what they know. But of the best leaders when their task is accomplished, their work is done, the people all remark, ‘We have done it ourselves.’ ”

A life-giving, servant leader calls forth the gifts of individuals within the community and empowers them to use them. A generative leader welcomes collaboration, knowing that power is not the possession of one but the gift of many. A servant leader walks with and among the community recognizing that different contributions of all are necessary.

Leonoardo Boff, in his book Francis of Rome, Francis of Assisi, warns that the gospel can be obscured when authority understood as service is transformed to authority understood as power. It is only when we remember that we are people of the Upper Room — both Upper Rooms — and so are our leaders that we will hold onto the right use of power and the Spirit-led way of leadership.

Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.