I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. – Jesus (John 13:15)
I am the firstborn in my family. When I was a kid, one of my parents’ mantras for me was “set an example”. There were three younger siblings watching what I did, they said. And whatever I did, they’d be likely to follow.
It just so happens that they would pull that mantra out whenever I wasn’t setting a good example – and it worked on some level. I received it as an honor and a responsibility to set an example for my brother and sisters. Not that they always did – or that I always set a good example. But that mantra stuck with me.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my parents were developing me to lead people.
Peter addresses church leaders in 1 Peter 5:3, saying: “Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example.”
This is timely instruction for us for two reasons.
1) At a time when some would question the notion of leadership in the church, Peter indicates that we don’t need to do away with leadership, we need to refuse to be a certain kind of leader, namely one who leads with a heavy hand and sees his or her ‘position’ as an opportunity to boss people around. (Okay, let’s get real: for many churches it’s not his or her…it’s his. But that’s a different blog post.)
Jesus is saying the same thing in Mark 10:42-45: “So Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them.But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant,and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else.For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
Jesus does not abolish leadership altogether, but he does abolish a certain kind of leadership in the kingdom – the leader as ruler paradigm for leadership. The kingdom paradigm for leadership is leader as servant. This is why Paul seems to shun common leadership designations and instead refers to himself as a servant or slave of Jesus Christ. “Minister”, in fact, comes from a word that means servant.
2) At a time when leaders sometimes lead solely from a board room or central office, Peter challenges us to lead with boots on the ground, by setting an example. Kingdom leaders don’t lead from the top; they lead from the front. They pioneer ways of living so that those who follow them can have an example to imitate. As Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Jesus.”
Jesus’ paradigm for leadership defines the kind of example leaders set. Leaders don’t primarily set an example for how to make good decisions or lead good prayers or preach good sermons (though that’s probably part of it). Leaders set an example in service. In loving people. In laying down their lives for the sake of others. In submitting their lives to God. In offering gracious hospitality to those who are searching for God.
Christian leaders set an example by following the example of Jesus in living UP – connected to God; IN – engaged in Christian community and discipleship; and OUT – having regular rhythms for loving the lost and least.
Perhaps every Christian leader should take up my parents’ (and Peter’s) mantra for leadership.
What’s a next step leaders can take to lead by example?