…[W]hoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
-Matthew 20:26-28 (NIV)
This has been a momentous week for football coaches. On Wednesday Nick Saban, head coach for the Alabama Crimson Tide football team, announced his retirement after 17 fairly successful seasons. Over a 50-year career, Saban was head coach for four different college teams and the Miami Dolphins of the NFL. He has a won-loss record of 307-88-1. He won 7 National Championships (1 at Louisiana State and 6 at Alabama), 11 Southeastern Conference Championships (2 at Louisiana State and 9 at Alabama) and 1 Mid-America Conference Championship (at Toledo).
Then the next day, arguably the only coach as successful as Saban left his own team. Bill Belichick was head coach of the NFL’s New England Patriots for 24 seasons, and won nearly 70% of his games there (266-121). He won 6 Super Bowls (and lost in 3 others). The Patriots won their division 17 times in 19 seasons, including 11 straight. He was also defensive coordinator for two other Super Bowl champs.
Both Saban and Belichick have had success that most coaches couldn’t even dream of. For reference, in over a century of football, my University of Tennessee Volunteers have won the same number of National championships that Saban won in his 17 years at Alabama. Tennessee's had six head coaches during Saban's tenure, with a combined record of 93-92.
The Chicago Bears have also had 6 coaches during Belichick’s 24 years at New England. Their combined record is 191-203. They’ve won, let's see... 0 Super Bowls in that time (they did lose one), and four division championships.
Both organizations will of course want someone who can approximate the success Saban and Belichick have had. But that’s easier said than done. Finding successful leaders is hard.
In our world, we assume that certain qualities are common to good leaders, almost innate, and that other kinds of expertise can be learned. Businesses hire CEO’s with charisma, vision, and big-picture thinking who can delegate, represent the company well, inspire confidence, and get people to do their jobs successfully.
In our world, character seems to be secondary when it comes to leadership. We routinely now elect government officials who we know lie, cheat, try to rig the system, and abuse and manipulate the people they’re supposed to lead. It’s mystifying to me how a nation in which freedom and democracy are values can be drawn to authoritarian figures. Some of us even seem to think that certain character flaws make a person more qualified for leadership — as long as they use those flaws to accomplish what we want them to accomplish.
Churches sometimes seem to select leaders based on what we’ve learned from corporations or teams. (Sometimes we even borrow the language of those organizations.) Some churches want charismatic leaders who can get folks to show up and give money. Some look for authoritarian leaders who provide certainty. But church history, maybe especially our recent history, is littered with the wreckage caused by the failure of those churches have set up as leaders, but who use the church for their own purposes.
The problem, of course, is that every leader shares one major flaw. They’re human.
So maybe we shouldn’t be trying to learn about leadership from the Belichicks and Sabans, the Bezoses and Musks of the world. Character flaws in a CEO won’t necessarily sink a Fortune 500 company, or even a nation’s government. But character flaws in a church’s leaders are ticking bombs, waiting to blow up in everyone’s faces.
Maybe, instead of looking for high-vision, high-energy leaders with plans and agendas, or totalitarian leaders who tell us what to do and condemn those who don’t fall in line, we should take seriously what Jesus said about leadership in God’s kingdom.
Three of the four Gospels tell us about a dispute between Jesus’ disciples that I would have left out of the story. Two of them, James and John, had a mother who aggressively looked after her sons’ interests: “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom,” she asks Jesus.
She isn’t really interested in seating arrangements. She’s asking for offices in the executive suite for each of her boys. Because that’s leadership, isn’t it? Position. Influence. Let’s just say it — power. Fame. Prestige. Glory. She wanted her boys to get the big contracts and the speaking engagements and the book deals.
The other disciples hear about it, though, and they’re angry — likely because they didn’t think of it first. Because leadership, in our world, is a zero-sum game. And if you get the better place of influence, that might leave nothing for me.
Jesus says a couple of things in response about leadership that we need to hear.
First: he says that greatness in God’s kingdom is found in suffering. That sounds just wrong, but that’s how upside down we have it. “Can you drink the cup I’m going to drink?” Jesus asks the ambitious sons of Zebedee. Want to be a leader in your church? Suffer like Jesus did. Leadership isn’t luxury. It isn’t having respect and glory. It isn’t privilege. It isn't being a decision-maker. You’ll have to bear insults and give love in response. You’ll have to forgive. You’ll grieve. You’ll hurt. You’ll plead with God to take it away, and sometimes you’ll think he didn’t hear. We can’t lead in Jesus’ name without expecting to suffer as he did.
Second: he says that greatness in God’s kingdom is found in service. Leadership as the world knows it is all about ruling over others. Hierarchies are clear. Powerful people tell others what to do. But in God’s kingdom, the person who considers themselves to be “first” will be first to serve. To be a slave, even. You might wonder, how could someone looking in from the outside even tell who the leaders were? And the answer is, they probably couldn’t. This isn’t winning respect by being magnanimous and generous to those everyone knows are your subordinates. It’s doing away with the whole idea that leading involves subordinates. As Jesus told his ambitious disciples at the Last Supper, “Who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
In God’s kingdom, there’s one Coach. One CEO. One King. There’s one leader, and he gave his life for those he leads. If you want to lead like Jesus does, don’t look for someone to give you a position. Go find someone to serve.
He’s the only leadership model that makes sense for us.
And here’s one thing we don’t consider enough in all the church’s fascination with leadership: If leadership in the Kingdom isn’t about someone giving you position and influence, then anyone can lead. Just go find someone to serve. You don’t have to wait for a nameplate on a door, a title, a paycheck, or a place on the stage. And, honestly, anyone who isn’t already serving the church should never presume to be a leader in it.
Leaders aren’t just someone we choose. We become leaders, Kingdom leaders, as we follow Jesus and love others like he has loved us. May he raise up Kingdom leaders among us.
And may we recognize those he’s already raised up by their love and service.