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What Does Real Servant Leadership Look Like?

By April 22, 2016April 23rd, 2022Ministry & Leadership5 min read

There’s a lot of talk in both the Evangelical church and increasingly in the secular business world about “servant leadership.” For many years at Calvary Chapel, Gayle Erwin has poignantly taught us the beauty of being servant-leaders. But I’m concerned not all have understood a crucial truth that’s disconnected them from that beauty and the example of Christ.

There’s a difference between serving and BEING A SERVANT.

Some, who aspire to leadership, consent to what they consider “menial” or “trivial” work. They think, by doing so, they’ve paid their dues. They work in the nursery for three months and think that earns them a promotion to junior high. Then, after 1 year in junior high, they graduate to college ministry. And once they’ve paid their dues at that, they’ll be a senior pastor.

They’re serving, but they aren’t servants.

The servant, the person who IS a servant, doesn’t assign value or importance to different kinds of service.

Servants serve because they’re servants, and whatever they’re doing is what’s important and needed at that moment.

Great leaders are servants, who are as content emptying trash, as running a board meeting. They take as much pride hosing a sidewalk, as expounding a Biblical text. Nothing is beneath their dignity, if it makes the life of another better.

I’ll never forget watching Pastor Chuck pick up trash in the parking lot at CCCM.

You can tell if you’re a servant by how you react, when you’re treated like one.

Servants are especially sensitive to other servants and treat them with courtesy. Mistreating waitstaff, counterworkers, attendants and cashiers is a telling sign. It’s been interesting going out to dinner with Christian celebrities.

Fame doesn’t always equal spiritual maturity and Christ-likeness.

Servants are attentive to the waitstaff, so when they come to the table, they turn their attention to them. Those who ignore waitresses, as though they’re being interrupted, when it’s time to order or the food comes, don’t have a servant’s mindset. Servants defer to other servants, because they know how difficult it can be to serve.

As servants, who own our identity as servants, we need to keep in mind whose servants we are.

We serve God. We serve Him by serving others. It’s crucial we keep our focus on Him as we serve. If we don’t, the danger is that our service can decay into performance. It becomes performance when what we aim for is words of appreciation, kudos, backslaps and “atta’-boys” (or girls) from others.

“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).

“God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to [served] the saints, and do minister” (Hebrews 6:10).

An important guideline for leaders is this: Those IN authority must also be UNDER authority.

As followers of Jesus, though we are in authority as leaders, we’re also under the authority of Christ. Because we believe in the sovereignty of God, we know whatever leadership role we’re in is by His appointment and sanction.

So just as the people under our authority are accountable to us, we’re accountable to Jesus.

These verses remind us He’s watching and will reward our faithfulness. It’s crucial we remember this, because a lack of visible gratitude from others can mess with our heads and hearts. While gratitude is fitting and proper, both to give and to receive, the leader must never aim for it. It’s nice to be appreciated by people, but our service cannot be tied to it. So that, when we’re affirmed, we’re more faithful, diligent or happy. Then, when we’re not hearing appreciation, we slack off, or worse, grow bitter because, “No one cares how hard I work.”

As leaders, we need to maintain our identity as servants of Jesus and settle the issue that He appreciates us and rewards our faithfulness. Think of it this way; our work will either be performance or service.

Service flows from the confidence we ARE appreciated and our work is known. Performance is work done to gain attention and kudos.

A couple of signs we’re reaching for the appreciation by people rather than resting in God’s appreciation of us in Christ are . . .

1) We feel the urge to tell others about how busy we are.

2) Then, because inwardly we’re not sure that list is full enough, we exaggerate and make stuff up. You had three projects last week but say it was five. You led one person to the Lord but say it was two. Because in your head, you assume you’re not going to BE appreciated unless you make yourself out to be more than you really are.

If you’re growing in grace and walking in the Spirit, Jesus says, “Thank you.” He wants to free you from the performance trap and let you enjoy serving as He did.

Lance Ralston is the founding and lead pastor of Calvary Chapel Oxnard and provides content for Check out his YouTube channel,, for Church History, Leadership, and Bible commentary, as well as the popular podcast series “History of the Christian Church” on Apple Podcasts.