A 1996 song by Paula Cole states:
Where is my John Wayne?
Where is my prairie song?
Where is my happy ending?
Where have all the cowboys gone?
Now that I’ve got that tune stuck in your head, as I consider much of what’s going on in Christian life and leadership these days, I wonder:
Where is our Grant Teaff?
Where is our Kingdom vision?
Where is our towel and basin?
Where have all the servant leaders gone?
So many Christian organizations claim servant leadership as a conviction that the phrase almost rings clichéd. Christian churches, denominational networks, camps, hospitals and universities all tout servant leadership as a core value, hoping to somehow embody the idea within their respective spheres of influence.
In the culture we live in — with politicians (on both sides) who seem to be driven by ego rather than public good, with business leaders who buy influence through lobbying, with terrorists that torture and behead confessing Christians in other parts of the world — servant leadership may sound like wimpy leadership. “Just tell it like it is!” or “Money talks!” and “Bomb ‘em all to hell!” are the cries of a culture resistant to (and fearful of) true servant leadership. The fact is, servant leadership is anything but cowardly.
When people think of leadership, they may conjure up platitudes like “you cannot take people where you have not been” or “you have to minister from the overflow and not the fumes.” Moreover, there are countless Twitter feeds, blogs and TED Talks on leadership, and many do little more than quote theory. Leadership, however, at its core is more than just truism and academic theory.
How do we embody the principles of servant leadership within the body of Christ? James wrote that believers should not only be hearers of the Word, but also doers. What word might Scripture give us in terms of leadership? Moving past simple adages and clichés concerning leadership may prove difficult because, in large part, everyone has a different idea of what the ideal leader looks like.
For Christians, servant leadership ideally models the leadership style of Christ, which was relational yet prophetic, incarnational yet visionary, strong yet gentle, authoritative yet humble, agitating yet healing, human yet holy, and ultimately willing to sacrifice life itself. I feel guilty sometimes concerning what passes for leadership in my own ministry when I consider the example of the Suffering Servant. Servant leadership as exhibited in Christ is self-giving but differentiated, thick skinned but tender hearted, unpretentious yet bold. The list could continue. Embracing the call to Christian leadership is to embrace the servant leader par-excellence, Christ Jesus.
When considering the example of Christ, many Christian institutions actually don’t want a servant leader at the helm. Many churches want little more than a hired gun for preaching, weddings and funerals — in contrast to a pastoral leader. Hospitals want administrators who can ensure profits for investors. Universities want presidents that can raise money for endowments and coaches that win bowl games.
Leadership in the way of Christ is counter to the results-oriented, numbers-motivated, face-saving, conflict-avoiding, glory-driven, personality-cultic leadership styles of this world. Servant leaders always put serving people above serving the bottom line, above sweeping things under the rug, above unhealthy ways of being, above pleasing everyone, even above winning. Servant leadership is anything but wimpy. It is willing to die on a cross out of sacrificial love.
In his seminal work on servant leadership (actually coining the term), Robert Greenleaf identified the following characteristic habits of servant leaders: 1) Listening, 2) Empathy, 3) Building Community, 4) Healing, 5) Awareness, 6) Commitment to People, 7) Foresight, 8) Persuasion, 9) Stewardship, 10) Conceptualization.
By definition, the failures exhibited at Baylor University concerning sexual violence are failures not only in institutional and moral leadership, but in servant leadership. In demoting Ken Starr, firing Art Briles and making other needed personnel changes, Baylor’s board of regents are fighting to preserve the value of servant leadership at Baylor. But the school can and should go further.
The victims of sexual assault deserve a listening ear. They deserve empathy followed by action. They deserve the building of a safe community on Baylor’s campus. They need healing.
In their response to the Pepper Hamilton summary report, the Baylor board of regents is attempting to bring transparent awareness to the problem of sexual assault at Baylor. They are showing a commitment to valuing people over bowl games and dollars, and the foresight to know that the mission of a Christian institution is far bigger than sports.
Through their actions, the board of regents is attempting to persuade Baylor Nation (and countless others) that the values the institution was founded on, Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana (For Church, For State) still matter. The regents are attempting to exhibit wise stewardship of a sacred trust, and a remarkable legacy, helping Baylor and other collegiate programs conceptualize a future where sexual assault is taken seriously on college campuses.
The need to restore true servant leadership is at the heart of Baylor’s sexual violence scandal. Servant leadership is about putting people first, and in this instance, the people that need to be put first are the victims of sexual assault. Fellow BNG columnist and Baylor alumna Amy Butler was right in recently stating, “If it’s true that Baylor’s recent action set a high bar for colleges and universities everywhere, Baylor can now become a school that builds and models safe, nurturing community that acts swiftly to rid the campus of sexual predators and makes the care and healing of victims its highest priority.”
What would the prioritization of servant leadership look like in relation to the sexual violence problem at Baylor? It might look like hiring women at the senior administration level (the current roster is 100 percent male). It might look like bringing more women to the table on the board of regents (about 1/6th of voting members are female). Both moves would create listening and empathy in positive ways.
Servant leadership might look like not waiting until there is a national outcry and an independent legal review to take sexual violence seriously, realizing that the insular feel of a Christian college campus does not make Baylor immune to a problem that runs rampant in the larger culture. Building Christian community requires a proactive approach.
Servant leadership might finally conceptualize a new reality in Texas Baptist life where women aren’t treated as second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God, and press to educate more churches about issues concerning gender equality in the church. As pointed out in another recent BNG column, there is a vast expanse between the spoken language and actual practice of Texas Baptists concerning women in ministry. It’s a wonder many of our gifted women ministers even stay in Baptist life — a true testimony to their divine call and tenacity.
Restoring servant leadership at Baylor would mean finding proactive ways to restore hope, dignity and wholeness to victims of sexual violence and institutional neglect. Healing is at the heart of servant leadership.
Will Baylor’s board of regents heed the call of this author and many others to restore servant leadership at Baylor, setting an example for all Baptist (and non-Baptist) universities? Is it possible to cut through the clichéd understanding of servant leadership (often receiving lip service in our institutions), and establish a true culture of servant leadership at Baylor, in all its fullness?
Putting people (made in God’s image) first is at the heart of servant leadership, and at the heart of the gospel. Baylor’s website claims that “At Baylor, ‘Love thy neighbor’ is a way of life.” May it prove increasingly so.