Some of the most popular shows on North American TV are referred to as “reality TV.” In many of these programs, groups of people are put under difficult and extreme conditions to reveal the “survivors.” Contestants are encouraged to plot and scheme to “survive” to the next level. At intervals, group members could be voted out of the group. One of these programs popularized the phrase “You’re fired!” Those not expelled or tossed to the side seldom seemed to have any concern or empathy for those who were shown the exit.
These programs seemed to encourage bombastic, aggressively plotting, egotistical extroverts who lacked even a gram of humility. The dominant framework most often showcased was the person who ruthlessly and aggressively looks out for number one. Don’t expect to see a biblical model of servant leadership in most contestants.
Over my career I have held various technical, management, and leadership positions. I have worked for and with a wide range of leaders and staff. I have had an interest in organizational behavior, how people work, think, and behave in an organization that makes the organization stronger or weaker. Study after study concludes that servant leaders have broader spheres of influence, earn more loyalty, attract better talent, and are more respected than leaders who rely mostly on shameless bravado.
A quick illustration: In this information age, information is power. Some leaders horde it, and those who need access to that information often have to plead for a slice. Other leaders freely share the information and knowledge they hold with those around them. I appreciate the latter. Humble leaders understand that sharing information builds stronger relationships and long-term success.
The past few months have left many people feeling powerless, anxious, fearful, even angry.
This should not be a surprise to followers of Christ. Scripture abounds in examples, illustrations, and words of guidance about humility, from kings and prophets to individuals whose names are unrecorded.
Micah 6:8 has been my go-to verse in talking about what the Lord expects and requires of His followers in meeting the needs of suffering humanity. I’ve often focused on the first part—“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy.” That bias grew out of 30 years of working with Adventist Development and Relief Agency and being exposed to serious disasters.
More recently, I have given more thought to the phrase “and to walk humbly with your God.” The grammar gives these three phrases equal authority. They are not in order from more important to less important. They are of equal importance.
In recent weeks the world has been challenged by gross injustices and brutality that lack any hint of kindness. Micah says that we can only walk humbly with God when we have hearts brimming with compassion and humility that seek to understand and right injustice.
Jesus said, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12).
He drove the concept further: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
Sadly, the words “humble” and “humility” have sister words that exude negativity: “humiliate” and “humiliation.” Humility, however, contains many qualities: kindness, generosity, compassion, patience, and respect. A huge part of humility is an ability to consider with compassion the feelings and needs of others. This is often an unnatural human inclination. An environment and atmosphere of teamwork and cooperation is important for nurturing compassion and empathy in those who look up to us.
Do you remember your first job, your first day in a new workplace? The setting where you feel you have little to back you up, as you want to fit in, not make any mistakes, leave a positive impression? There’s no such thing as arrogance on the first day of new job. “Servant” by definition suggests humility.
The past few months have left many people feeling powerless, anxious, fearful, even angry. Lives have been upended by COVID, violence, and the aftermath they have produced. It’s doubtful that many things will ever return to “normal.” What then are some useful actions to consider as we serve with humility in this new situation?
Do not ignore anxiety. Anxiety can “freeze” us and keep us from seeing opportunities and acting on them. Talk and pray with someone to rebuild trust and faith.
The unknown can paralyze. Most people crave facts and accurate information. Uncertainty is often more harmful than bad news.
A crisis can be a unifying force. Servant leaders are better equipped to engage, to review, to understand, and to act, not as heroes but as servants.
Do not focus on what’s lost. I attend Sligo Church in Takoma Park, Maryland. I miss our Sligo worship services and my Sabbath School class during this time of self-isolation. But I’m thankful that our Sabbath School has gone online and has tripled in the number of participants; our worship service has doubled. Clearly, there is a “new normal,” some of which needs to be retained even when Sligo church’s doors reopen.
Don’t let isolation take root. Keep up contact. Voice is best, but even an “I thought of you this morning” e-mail is appreciated and gives a feeling of belonging. Persons in isolation may have rather boring days; you might have to do most of the talking.
Most mornings at the Community Services center I lead a short devotion for staff and volunteers. Almost every day the one who prays asks God to help us to be honest in all our dealings, to be fair, and, most important, to be kind. We remind ourselves that everyone who walks through the door—to ask for food to feed their family, for clothing, for a bar of soap—is not having a good day. Their day started with worry, anxiety, and possibly frustration. We, as humble servants, must hear and share with His children what our Lord knows they each need to hear.
This happens only when the Spirit fills each of us with a servant’s heart.
Ken Flemmer is director of Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington in Silver Spring, Maryland.