A Pastoral Leader is a Servant

The most important characteristic of a pastoral leader is to be a servant and meet the needs of others.

This might be a word of encouragement to someone who needs it, it might be a great sermon prepared to cast vision to the congregation, or it might be teaching a practical lesson people can apply in their own lives  

The role of a leader is to make the lives of people better, happier, more fulfilling, and easier.  That’s a pretty tall order for a pastoral leader, but he does that by serving the needs of the people he pastors.

A pastoral leader does the job that few others want to do—not because of what she will gain from it—but because that’s what she is called to do in response to how Jesus was a pastoral leader to us.  One of the first verses in scripture I memorized was Luke 22:26-27 where Jesus is talking with his disciples after dinner the night he is arrested.  Jesus teaches his disciples:

But among you it will be different.  Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant.  Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves?  The one who sits at the table, of course.  But not here, for I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:26-27, NLT)

This passage of scripture is even more influential when we research Jewish culture and learn that a large emphasis was placed on status, power, control, and authority.[ref]John C. Hutchison, “Servanthood: Jesus’ Countercultural Call to Christian Leaders,” Bibliotheca Sacra 166 (January-March 2009): 60.[/ref]  And just before Jesus exhorts Luke 22:26-27, the disciples were arguing about which disciple would be the greatest and most respected by God (Mark 9:33-37).

Jesus also makes this statement in Luke after James and John had gone to Jesus and asked if they could be seated next to Jesus on his left or right hand side in heaven (Mark 10:35-39).  Jesus is telling us that to be a true leader is not to have power and control. 

To be a true leader we need to serve the needs of others because a pastoral leader is responsible for the spiritual and mental health of a group of believers.

Now that we’ve seen Jesus telling his disciples to be servants, in John 21 we see Jesus responding to Simon Peter about why pastoral leaders should be servants.

You and I both know that Peter denied having known Jesus three times the night Jesus was crucified.  But when Jesus rises from the dead and comes back to talk with Peter, Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him.  Peter answers yes, and all three times Jesus responds to Peter saying that because Peter loves Jesus, Peter should serve others (John 21:15-17). 

Jesus was the holiest person to have ever lived.  He is perfect in his love for us, and thus has authority to tell us that because we love him, we need to serve others.  This is further evidence that we, as pastoral leaders need to serve the needs of others.

This theme of serving others as a means to be their pastor is woven in and out of scripture.  Especially in the New Testament where Peter talks about what it means to serve others.

As we said earlier, Peter had denied Jesus three times and had to respond to Jesus’ questions about whether or not he loved Jesus.  1 Peter was written about thirty years after Jesus gave Peter the instructions to follow Jesus,[ref]D. Edmond Hiebert, The Non-Pauline Epistles and Revelation, vol. 3 of An Introduction to the New Testament (Waynesboro, GA: Gabriel Publishing, 2003), 121.[/ref] so we have good perspective to see how Peter has lived out pastoral leadership through Jesus’ serving instructions and to see what Peter is teaching others.

At the end of this first letter to Christians of the early church, Peter boldly teaches us to “Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you.  Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God” (1 Peter 5:2, emphasis added).

A pastoral leader is to watch over her flock because she’s eager to serve God.  But, I am not the only person who has studied this passage of scripture and interpreted it as a reason for a pastoral leader to serve others.

Leadership expert John C. Maxwell specifically refers to 1 Peter 5:2 when he shares in The Maxwell Leadership Bible that “A leader is called to be . . . a minister to the people.”[ref]John C. Maxwell, The Maxwell Leadership Bible, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 1558.[/ref]  We are called to minister to and serve people as a leader.

That statement comes from a man who has written 56 books (mostly about the topic of leadership), led three different churches, and founded a nonprofit organization which has served over 3 million leaders around the world.[ref]Equip: Equipping Leaders to Reach our World, “Press Kit Facts,” Equip, (accessed February 12, 2011)[/ref]  Coming from Dr. Maxwell, an important element of a pastoral leader is to serve and minister to people. 

A pastoral leader who is effective often looks at people and asks, “How can I serve them?” Throughout this paper we’ve seen reason after reason about why a leader should be doing that.  It’s what Jesus says we are to do, it’s what the disciples did for the early church as young Christians were maturing over time, and it’s what modern day Christian leaders also encourage us to do.

What’s ironic is that when a pastoral leader begins to serve people, they begin to willingly follow him.  As we look at scripture, most of the followers Jesus gained came after he did miraculous signs and wonders.[ref]Matthew 15:13-21, 15:22-32, 15:34-36[/ref] When people realized that he was here to serve and help them, they began to follow him because they knew he was someone who could heal their physical and mental pain.  He could take it away and make them feel better and live a more enjoyable life because servanthood is the answer to many of the questions and problems people have.

As John Hutchinson states in an issue of Biblotheca Sacra, “Servanthood does not avoid leadership.  Instead it is a different kind of leadership, one committed to meeting the needs of others.”[ref]John C. Hutchison, “Servanthood: Jesus’ Countercultural Call to Christian Leaders,” Bibliotheca Sacra 166 (January-March 2009): 69.[/ref]

We often ponder over the deep thought of what came first: the chicken or the egg?  A similar pondering comes about when we think of pastoral leadership through serving others.  Do people follow us because we are serving them, or do we serve them because they follow?  I believe based on my own experience and the stories of Jesus, that people follow as a result of us serving them.

In closing a paper about the most important characteristic of a pastoral leader, we need to realize that both scripture, biblical leaders, and modern Christian leaders all believe that being a servant is the most important characteristic of a pastoral leader.  Allow me to close us out with a poem summarizing what we now know:

Christ’s example teaches us
That we should follow Him each day,
Meeting one another’s needs,
Though humble service be the way.[ref]Clair Hess, “Pay it Forward,” Our Daily Bread Blog, entry posted June 2, 2009, (accessed February 16, 2011)[/ref]

By Christopher L. Scott

Christopher L. Scott serves as senior pastor at Lakeview Missionary Church in Moses Lake, Washington. Through his writing ministry more than 250,000 copies of his articles, devotions, and tracts are distributed each month through Christian publishers. Learn more at