A leadership of service: Letting go

Chris Richardson

The Gospel prescribes servant leadership, but this is often misinterpreted and difficult for priests to practice given their status and responsibility for the pastoral care of souls. This article rehearses what is meant by servant leadership and how it can be put to good use in distributing leadership within a parish. Chris Richardson is a retired Catholic headteacher and diocesan commissioner.

A desire to serve
The synoptic Gospels all recount the same incident where a dispute arises among the Apostles about status (Mk. 10.35-45; Mt. 20.25-28, Lk. 22.24-27). Individual details differ but all three accounts resonate with human experience in general and ecclesial history down the ages. The desire for status and with it the right to exercise authority over others seems to be hard wired into the human condition. The answer that Jesus gives in all three Gospels redefines hierarchy, ‘whoever wants to be first must be your slave’. In Luke’s account this is illustrated by insisting that the leader must be the one who serves at table, not the one who is served.

John does not recount this particular incident but provides a powerful model wherein Jesus practices what he preached by insisting that he wash the feet of his disciples (Jn. 13.1-15). Having completed this task Jesus mandates those who will go on to lead the Church to ‘copy what I have done’. Status is not enhanced by sitting in a place of honour but by providing service for the community, even demeaning oneself for the sake of others.

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