Jesus: The Role Model for Christian Leadership

Jesus: The Role Model for Christian LeadershipChristian Leadership in Crisis

Since the autumn of 2011 the concept of leadership has definitely been in view.  The “Arab Spring” and its ongoing fallout has brought into focus failing and abusive forms of leadership; a style of leadership that demands and domineers and has little if any interest in people.  On the economic front we still see the repercussions of the poor, arguably self-centered leadership that caused the credit crunch, the banking crisis and the global recession. In many countries, like a recurring bad dream, we also repeatedly see somewhat  less than inspiring political leadership. Is the sate of Christian leadership any better?

There is a lot that is said and written about Christian leadership too. Much of it is not actually about leadership at all, but is focused on theological, expositional, hermeneutical, worship facilitation and communications skills. It’s also sad to say that Christian leadership today seems frequently to get confused with the modern concept of celebrity.  Where consideration is given to the vital skills of people and organizational leadership, the Christian world so often seems to call upon secular, worldly models, passing over the one role model who should be in focus – Jesus Christ.

This article is adapted from a paper published by Dr. Thorsten Grahn. It is a study on servant leadership which was modelled by Jesus as he grew and developed the disciples into the leaders of his Church.  As such, this is a model that should have primacy in Kingdom service.

What is Servant Leadership?

It is the focus on the growth of the individual, that they might flourish and achieve their full potential and not primarily the growth and potential of the organization, that distinguishes servant leadership from other leadership styles. The primary concern of the servant leader is service to their followers.

In the secular business schools it was Robert Greenleaf who, in the early 1970s, proposed the servant leader model. However, the concept of a servant leader is not such a modern concept, but can be found in the biblical account of the life of Jesus Christ. By examining his model we can identify a Christ-centred, Christ-like servant leadership style that works for Christians who lead people in any situation.

Jesus, the Model Servant Leader

Jesus submitted his own life to sacrificial service under the will of God (Luke 22:42), and he sacrificed his life freely out of service for others (John 10:30). He came to serve (Matthew 20:28) although he was God’s son and was thus more powerful than any other leader in the world. He healed the sick (Mark 7:31-37), drove out demons (Mark 5:1-20), was recognized as Teacher and Lord (John 13:13), and had power over the wind and the sea and even over death (Mark 4:35-41; Matthew 9:18-26).

In John 13:1-17 Jesus gives a very practical example of what it means to serve others (see also “The King Who Led With a Towel”).  He washes the feet of his followers, which was properly the responsibility of the house-servant. Examination of this passage shows that:

  1. Jesus’ basic motivation was love for his followers (v. 1).
  2. Jesus was fully aware of his position as leader (v. 14). Before the disciples experienced him as their servant, they had already experienced him many times before as Master, and as a strong and extremely powerful leader.
  3. Jesus voluntarily becomes a servant to his followers (v. 5-12). He did not come primarily as their foot washer, but he was ready to do this service for his followers if needed.
  4. Jesus wants to set an example for his followers to follow (v. 14-15).

The Servant Leader

From the teaching and example of Jesus Christ we learn that being a servant leader in the most general sense means being:

  • A voluntary servant, who submits themselves to a higher purpose, which is beyond their personal interests or the interests of others,
  • A leader who uses the power that is entrusted to them to serve others,
  • A servant who, out of love, serves others needs before their own,
  • A teacher who teaches their followers, in word and deed, how to become servant leaders themselves.

The Christian Servant Leader

Applying these considerations of Jesus as a role model for Christian leaders we can see that, from a Biblical perspective, a servant leader is a person, who is:

  • Christ-centered in all aspects of life (a voluntary servant of Christ)
  • Committed to serve the needs of others before their own,
  • Courageous to lead with power and love as an expression of serving,
  • Consistently developing others into servant leaders, and
  • Continually inviting feedback from those that they want to serve in order to grow towards the ultimate servant leader, Jesus Christ.

There are some implications worthy of note that arise:

  • The servant leader is a “servant in all things” in relationship to God.

This is the Christian servant leader’s higher purpose. He is also a “servant first” in relationship to people.

    Jesus Christ came into this world as God’s servant (Isaiah 42:1, Isaiah 52:13, Acts 3:26, 4:27). He also came to serve man (Matthew 20:28). However, Christ did not come to be our servant, whereas he came out of obedience to God, serving him.
    Christians are called to be God’s servants in every aspect of our lives. From the Bible it’s clear that this means serving fellow man in accordance with the higher purpose of serving God. Note however, that simply serving people is insufficient. It does not necessarily imply that a leader is serving God. It is possible, for instance, to serve people based on an humanistic worldview.
  • There is a big difference between serving the needs of others and being a servant of others’ needs.
    • Serving the needs of others is liberating. It implies recognizing their needs (without judging them), and then doing what can be done, in line with the higher purpose of serving God first, to help satisfy that need. Whereas;
    • Being a servant of the needs of others, requires that one must do anything and everything possible to satisfy those needs, whether it is in line with one’s service to God or not.
  • The servant leader themselves is a growing leader, led and grown by the Holy Spirit.
  • Jesus was the only human being who never abused his power.
    For a leader the abuse of power is a major issue and temptation. The keys to avoiding abuse of power are feedback from God and from the followers, along with sharing power. These factors are necessary to help the leader apply power in line with God’s purpose and for the best of the followers. The development and growth of followers into servant leaders inherently requires that the servant leader passes power on to them (sharing power), so that they can also grow in using that power to serve others according to the higher purpose.
  • Servant leadership is more about being than about doing.
    Without a serving heart it is almost impossible to become a servant leader. There are different ways to grow servant leaders, although Greenleaf (the founder of secular servant leadership) considers that a leader may need a “conversion experience” in order to become a servant leader. In any event, the highest priority should be given to help servant leaders to grow in their service to God. Out of the service to God, true service to others flows more easily.

3D Servant Leaders

There are three dimensions in which Christian servant leaders must grow:

  1. As a voluntary servant of God
  2. As a servant of others, and
  3. As a leader.

If someone is already a committed servant of God and of others, they need to employ their leadership gifts to serve others as a leader with the right use of power and with love. Leadership skills training, continuous encouragement and feedback can support a servant leader in this growth process.

Someone, who is already a leader, but who wants to become a servant leader, also needs training, encouragement and feedback, but they need a conversion towards servanthood much more. This commitment must then be strengthened again and again. It is harder to learn to be a servant than to learn to be a leader, especially for those who have been senior leaders for many years. Old habits die hard.

The servant leader must be a “learning servant” who wants to grow both as a leader and as a servant. Therefore, the servant leader invites feedback especially from God – through prayer, Bible reading, and communication with spiritual mentors – and from the people being served. One way to start a feedback process with the people being served is simply is to ask them how the leader can best serve them. Ideally the feedback will be an ongoing process, resulting in the servant leader serving more effectively according to the actual needs of the people.

According to the Bible, to become a servant of God and to enjoy serving others is not only a decision that a person needs to take, it is first a gracious gift from God. More than this, because of our new nature, as Christian leaders we should find ourselves readily drawn to the Christ-centred servant leadership model. It is the “leadership style” of our role model, Jesus Christ, and as we see throughout the Bible, serving God inherently includes serving others in line with his good plans and purposes.


How do you compare to the leadership role model of Jesus? Are you drawn to the higher purpose of serving God? Are you focused on your people, those who follow you (remember leaders have followers) achieving their full potential for the Kingdom?  It requires a conscious decision to become a servant of a higher purpose and of others.

It may be that you have never looked at Jesus as a leadership role model. To discover more work through the references given in Thorsten’s article.  Take a look at the “King Who Led With a Towel” series on

An interesting exercise is to read through Mark’s Gospel and look to see how Jesus led and developed that disparate collection of men who became his disciples and to whom he entrusted his Church.

Remember, this Christ-centred servant leadership model is not just for Church leaders but Christian leaders in Kingdom enterprises and secular organisations too.

Growing the Servant Heart

Growing the Servant Heart” is a free on-line training programme that examines the nature and role of  Christ-centred servant leadership in Kingdom enterprises. It is available in the Academy section of Christian Leadership, which you can select from the menu

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There is also a free White Paper entitled “Growing the Servant Heart”  which reviews the challenges of  people and organisational leadership in a Church or Kingdom enterprise.

An enterprise is an organisation specifically structured to deliver some specific good or service. Kingdom enterprises are those that have Christian objectives and which are led and staffed by Christians. Often they may be para-church organisations but a church may also be called to a specific ministry, which in itself is effectively an enterprise. A Kingdom enterprise requires a distinctively Christ-centred leadership style, following the example of the Servant King.

Download a free copy of the Growing a Servant Heart White Paper here.

More on Christ Centred Servant Leadership

Claybury International’s team has spent many years coming alongside Christian leaders around the world to help them meet the practical challenge of Jesus, to serve those that they lead.

Christ-centred servant leadership is not a theological construct; it is about the reality of day to day leadership carried out in the character of Christ. As such it is immensely practical but we need to work out how to apply it in our daily lives as leaders.

In “The Servant Leader’s Garden” series, Thorsten Grahn, who wrote this article, offers a fascinating insight into this challenge through parable, by comparing the roles of leader and gardener. It helps those who aspire to be Christ-centred servant leaders to see what it means to serve those whom they lead, so that they are able to achieve their full potential.

The Servant Leader’s Garden: Grass Doesn’t Grow Faster If You Pull It

The Servant Leader’s Garden: Without Change There’s No Growth

The Servant Leader’s Garden: Artificial Flowers may be Beautiful but…

In their book, Culture Craft, Rick Sessoms and Colin Buckland examined lessons that can be learned by servant leaders from Jesus, especially the John 13 foot washing incident, when Jesus challenged his disciples to follow his example as the servant king. Their text is adapted for in this pair of articles:

The King Who Led with a Towel – Jesus’ Servant Leadership Role Model

The King Who Led With a Towel – Jesus’ Servant Leadership Values

The issue of power and integrity for Christian leaders is not trivial and Colin Buckland offers some insights born of years both as a pastor and coming alongside Christian leaders in church, mission and other organisations.

Insights on Power, Character and the Ministry

The articles on Christian-leadership .org are a rich resource concerning the issues faced by Christian leaders who seek to live out the servant model in their role. The archive page and the tag cloud can help you explore this rich resource.


Image: Jesse Kruger