Servant leadership is a popular term. Yet, what does it look like? Can you actually be a leader who serves others with a humble spirit in today’s competitive marketplace, in today’s political environment, even in today’s church? I believe the answer is yes because Jesus modeled it and expects us to follow his leadership. The kind of love and grace he offers has motivated extreme acts of devotion for centuries. In this fourth post of my four-part series for Women’s History Month, we will look back at the impact of two women’s acts of service and what we, as leaders today, can learn from them.
To Be Remembered Forever
One aspect of being a leader is the experience of being known, recognized, and observed by people, sometimes by people you don’t know. For some leaders, that seems to be a permission slip for arrogance and selfishness. For Christ-following leaders, it is a reminder that others are following our example and we constantly need to weigh our actions and attitudes against what Jesus would do. Since Christ gave his all for us, we can pattern our efforts after that and always give our best to our endeavors. And since there’s a chance any of our efforts could be remembered, let’s strive to do things we would want to be remembered.
Extravagance for Love
Consider your annual salary for a moment. Do you own something that is worth that much? What if you put that “something” in the offering plate this next Sunday? What would people say?
That would be an extravagant gift–or would it? If you are giving out of love and devotion, nothing feels too extravagant. Sometimes love goes beyond practicality.
The unnamed woman who gave up her alabaster jar of perfume worth a year’s salary to anoint Jesus’ head gave out of that kind of extravagant love and she was criticized for it. You can read the story in two places in the gospels (Matthew 25:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9). Jesus took the opportunity to teach a lesson in servant leadership and used the woman’s extravagance as Exhibit A.
Before the precious perfume had even dripped onto his forehead or the fragrance had wafted through the whole room, the disciples were judging her actions as wasteful, unnecessary, and a gross misuse of her property. They even voiced an unsolicited better solution. (I’ve been in that committee meeting, haven’t you?!)
“But Jesus” . . . one of my favorite phrases . . . Jesus always has a different perspective if we stop long enough to listen. The passage in Mark 14:6-9 records Jesus’ response this way:
“Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (NRSV)
He reframes the situation in such a way that the giver is affirmed, encouraged, and elevated while the observers are reminded that each situation may have a transcendent purpose beyond what they are willing to see or accept. Jesus saw the intent of her heart and revealed the disciples’ stinginess. Jesus found a way to turn her immediate action into something with a long-term purpose. Jesus declared that she had just made “herstory” and she would be forever linked with the gospel.
What This Story Teaches about a Servant Leader’s Humble Habits
- Servant leaders seek to understand the hearts of those they lead before judging–or misjudging–the deed in the moment.
- Servant leaders strive to show how the smaller, everyday actions of those they lead are connected to a larger vision and purpose.
- Servant leaders find a way to recognize the efforts of those around them and promote those efforts in memorable ways.
Sojourner Truth – A Name Change from GodOne of the most famous people of the Civil War era that you may remember from your history books is Sojourner Truth, the tall ex-slave with a powerful presence. However, the “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech with which we are probably most familiar is not the whole picture of this fiery Methodist preacher. The details of her life story, which were put in writing by someone else because Truth was illiterate, include a detailed explanation of how she came to know Jesus through a vision and felt called to serve him the rest of her life. Her relationship with Christ shaped the rest of her life–including changing her name–as she continued to be a strong advocate for persons of color and for women based on her understanding of how God loved everyone equally. She had numerous children (one source claims 13, but others claim 5) who were separated from her through the slave trade until later in life when she was reunited with several of them. After the Civil War she was active in helping freedmen find jobs and made her home in Battle Creek, MI. She was a good steward of her freedom by helping others establish their new lives outside of slavery. Today, there is a larger-than-life, 12-foot statue of a preaching Truth in Battle Creek, Michigan’s Monument Park.
Truth had been born in New York as a slave and named Isabella. During the 1850s and 1860s, as a former slave, Sojourner Truth became a traveling spokesperson for abolition and for women’s rights and was well acquainted with white abolitionists and women’s rights activists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was often involved in the same women’s rights conventions as they and would be hosted in the Stanton home.
Truth could not read or write, but she was a persuasive orator. She studied the Bible by having others read it aloud to her, preferably children. According to one biographer, she was able to use the Bible effectively in her speaking because “most Americans of Truth’s generation—including William Lloyd Garrison and Abraham Lincoln—so often reread their Bibles that they knew them practically by heart” (Painter, p. 135). The latter half of the 19th century witnessed not only the Civil War and Reconstruction in our country, but also a growing church membership among the American population due to the results of the Second Great Awakening in the earlier part of the century. Church membership would grow from 10% in 1800 to 40% by 1910 (Humphreys, F. [Ed.]. . Nineteenth Century Evangelical Theology. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press).
Isabella took the name Sojourner Truth claiming God had given it to her. Her famous speech of 1851 is one we know today as the “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. While historical records do not give us a true transcription of that speech, we can still attest to its message. As an answer to jeering clergymen in an Akron, OH, women’s rights convention, Truth made it clear that since she was a woman who was strong enough to withstand the plow, the whip, hard labor in the cotton fields, and had borne numerous children, then the men’s claim that women were just too delicate to be involved in the world outside the home was totally false. She also managed to express humor in response to the naysayers in her audience. Here is a quote from her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech:
“The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble. I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. . . . And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where was your part?”
An 1852 speech of hers is memorialized on her tombstone noting the question, “Is God dead?” which she used to refute Frederick Douglass’ claim of the necessity of bearing arms to end slavery. After the Civil War, when it came time to choose the fight for women’s suffrage over the passage of the 15th Amendment giving black men the vote, she sided with the women.
Sojourner Truth was one of the most famous preachers of her day. Her personal testimony of her encounter with Jesus in a vision and choosing to serve him was the driving force of her life. Her dying words in 1883 were, “Be a follower of the Lord Jesus.” Truth’s message of the equality of the races and sexes was based in her deeply held Christian faith.
What Sojourner Truth Might Teach Us about a Servant Leader’s Humble Habits
If Truth were with us today, I think her wisdom might convey these ideals:
- We all had someone help us get where we are, so work to help others achieve what you have been blessed to experience.
- Be sure your walk and your talk reflect the change Christ has made in your life. Your life reflects the one you’re following, so be sure you’re behind the right leader.
Join the conversation below by clicking on the Comments and adding your thoughts about the women we’ve discussed during Women’s History Month.