The Thistle

Developing Servant-Leaders

Developing Servant-Leaders
by Dr. Bob Burns

“But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.
He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”
                                                                                                            — Jeremiah 17:7–8

A number of years ago a friend shared with me some memories about her freshman year at Wheaton College. She recalled her first day of class when she saw an older man in a suit walking along a campus sidewalk, pausing every now and again to pick up trash. Later in the week, even though she had no idea who he was, that same man stopped her between classes. Calling her by name, he asked specific questions about her family, her courses, and how she was adjusting to college life. After the conversation, a classmate told her the man was Dr. V. Raymond Edman, then-president of the college. Many years later, Edman continued to stand out to my friend as a shining example of a servant-leader.

What is a servant-leader? The description of a leader being a servant is popular today in business literature. It was popularized in 1970 by an article titled “Servant as Leader” by Robert Greenleaf. The theme of Greenleaf’s work was that true leadership emerges from those whose primary motivation is a deep desire to help others. This is a wonderful, altruistic idea that many seek to employ in their corporate and personal lifestyles. However, there is a problem with Greenleaf’s theory—it fails to take into account the brokenness of our human nature. As the apostle Paul records in Romans 7:21–24, it is difficult to maintain such high and virtuous standards when our sin nature constantly pulls us down.

Enter the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When the Spirit of God transforms our broken souls by the power of His redeeming love, we suddenly discover a new motivation in our lives. No longer burdened by this exalted standard of becoming a servant-leader, we discover that we can serve others because He first loved us (1 John 4:10–11).

As we grow in our understanding of God’s love, we discover that Jesus expected His people to be servant-leaders. In Mark 10:42–45, Jesus contrasted the leaders of this world who “lord [their power] over” others with the expectation that His followers “must be slave of all.” Then He concluded, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Later, in John 13, Jesus explained, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (vs. 13–15 ESV).

Because servant-leadership is God’s expectation for us, it is reasonable to ask the question: How does God form us into servant-leaders? What does He do to transform a busy college president into a man who willingly stops to pick up trash and know specific facts about new students? (Edman and his wife would read the student records and rise together at 5 o’clock every morning to pray for students.)

The Shaping of a Servant-Leader

As we explore the Bible, the ways in which God shapes servant-leaders are surprising. I was recently reminded of one of these methods while attending a seminar led by Russ Moxley (former senior fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership). Moxley pointed out that, of all the aspects of leadership development researched by the center, the single most important element was that of hardships.

Hardships. These are rarely referenced in books or training curricula. Yet as I heard Moxley talk about the role of hardships in leadership development, my mind raced to verses in the Bible. Take, for example, James 1:2–4, where the brother of Jesus tells us to “count it all joy” when we meet trials because this testing of our faith produces steadfastness and makes us complete. Or Romans 5:2–5, where Paul explains a process that begins with suffering, produces character, and ends with mature hope. Or even 2 Corinthians 12:7–10, where Paul states that his own thorn in the flesh caused him to learn God’s grace and exhibit God’s power.

Perhaps the passage that impacted me most in this reflection was Hebrews 5:8. Here the author makes this profound statement: “Although he [Jesus] was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” The context of this passage makes it clear that Jesus is the unique and only Son of God. This forced me to ask the question: How could the eternal Son of God learn anything?

Puritan John Owen helped me here. In his commentary on Hebrews, Owen explains that Jesus did not learn new knowledge because He already knows all things. Furthermore, He did not need to learn to obey because He was always prepared to obey the Father. Rather, Jesus’ suffering was learning through experience. Just as we learn the sweetness of ice cream by actually tasting it, so Jesus learned the experience of obedience by His suffering. Indeed, the hallmark of Jesus’ life was suffering—he was described as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3 ESV).

But what I found most interesting was how Jesus learned. His learning took place through hardship. And what is true for Jesus is true for us as His disciples. Look, for example, at the aforementioned passages from James and Romans. These verses say that God uses adversity to form the character of His followers. Traits such as steadfastness of faith and maturity of hope are formed in the crucible of hardship. When difficulties pushed him to move beyond his own capabilities to cry out for God’s intervention, Paul learned the availability of God’s grace. His discovery—learned only by facing his own limitations through hardship—was that God’s power is magnified in weakness.

Sometime after returning from Russ Moxley’s seminar, I read a chapter he wrote on hardships. In it Moxley says: “People seek to minimize the possibility of experiencing hardships…[but] comfort is the enemy of growth. Hardship experiences unfreeze people, by which we mean open them up to new awareness…. How people respond drives learning.”

If our response to hardships drives our learning, I wondered what kind of experiences would form a man into a servant-leader who, as president of a college, would mark a freshman’s life by picking up trash and praying for students. In his book titled They Found the Secret, Dr. Edman shares that it was his response to three specific hardships that shaped his life and service for God: serving as a soldier in World War I, a near-death experience as a missionary in Ecuador, and a crisis of faith while returning from missions service. In each instance, God used hardships to form in Dr. Edman a servant spirit.

In my work at Covenant Seminary’s Center for Ministry Leadership, I had the privilege of meeting with 30 pastors three times a year over a two-year period. As we shared our lives and ministries together, a consistent theme was the way in which God has used hardships to shape our lives. Among these pastors were some who had faced personal rejection, physical trauma, accusations against their leadership, and even church splits. Yet, in each case, these pastors have not responded in bitterness and anger; each has allowed his experiences to mature him in his calling. How will we respond to hardships? Our answer plays a critical role in our development as servant-leaders.

Three Responses to Hardships

First, we can respond by viewing our hardships through the lens of Scripture. In Romans 15:4 Paul says, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (ESV). God designs our hardships to shape our character as servant-leaders. This is seen in Paul’s experience of his thorn in the flesh. Examples similar to this are found throughout the pages of the Old and New Testaments.

Second, we can respond by viewing hardships through our theology. When our second son was stillborn, I received great comfort and encouragement by reminding myself that God, for His own glory, has foreordained whatever comes to pass. He was governing all of His creatures and all of their actions—including mine—through His holy, wise, and powerful providence. These words (which are responses to questions in the Westminster Catechism) moved from being rote answers I know to soul-shaping refreshment in the midst of personal crisis.

A third way to respond to hardships is to do an audit of past and current experiences, seeking to identify what God may be teaching us about ourselves, about others, and about His purposes for our lives. Pondering these lessons can teach us much about the way God is forming our character and shaping us into servant-leaders. Journaling is one way to do such an audit. Many have found that writing their thoughts and reflections provides a means of remembering difficult experiences and recalling how God was faithful to them during the trials. Occasionally revisiting these journal entries becomes a reminder of the lessons He has taught during difficult times. This kind of reflective introspection can be challenging for many of us. God has not called us to be isolated and without support—especially in times of hardship. We can find numerous resources within the Church to help us process the lessons learned in hardships. This can occur through talking with friends, sharing with a pastor, or even meeting with a counselor. This type of support aids us in both understanding our experiences and grappling with the implications stemming from them. God does not waste pain, and we must not squander the opportunity to learn from it.

Josiah Henson was born into a slave family in 1789. Having come to faith through the ministry of John McKenny, an itinerant preacher in the early 1800s, Josiah led his family north from Maryland to freedom in Canada. There he learned to read and write and ultimately became a lay preacher. Known as Father Henson, he was an abolitionist leader who spoke across Canada and the Northern United States. In 1851 he traveled to London, and through contacts within the church, he continued his fight against slavery.

After one speaking engagement, Henson was introduced to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been in attendance. Impressed by the presentation, the Archbishop asked Henson which university he had attended. With keen insight into God’s leadership development plan over his life, the former slave simply replied, “I graduated, your grace, at the university of adversity.”

God has called us to Himself in Christ, and part of that calling is to be servant-leaders. One important aspect of our leadership development for this vocation is the experience of hardships. Because His loving hand guides us into these learning experiences, we must not allow the lessons to pass. Rather, with confidence placed in His grace, we can respond to these lessons with the knowledge that “he who [has begun] a good work in [us] will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6 ESV).


Dr. Bob Burns is currently senior associate pastor and head of staff at Central Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri. He previously served at Covenant Seminary as director of the Center for Ministry Leadership and the Doctor of Ministry program. A veteran of two church plants and ministry positions working with youth, singles, families, adults, worship, and the arts, Dr. Burns has a heart to nurture ministry leaders in sustaining pastoral excellence. Growing out of his desire for the church to serve the needs of today’s world, Dr. Burns founded Fresh Start Seminars and is the author of The Fresh Start Divorce Recovery Workbook. This article originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Covenant magazine.