Servant Leadership: Pathways
“Jesus, The Ideal Servant Leader”
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack® 1:2 – Following Biblical Patterns

“What would Jesus do?”

Every servant leader today needs a champion, a model to go by. As a Christian servant leader today, why not follow the example of the Lord Christ? Jesus throughout His life and ministry among people, including His first disciples, pioneered the pathway toward servant leadership. In this article we intend to make a journey down through the events of His life and instruction; this seeks to develop naturally the fundamental principles of servant leadership.

Think about your own journey. How often do you ask yourself the question, “What would Jesus do?” WWJD has become a popular motto for many contemporary Christians, especially young Christians. Decades before that, “What would Jesus do?” was raised as a life-challenging question from Charles M. Sheldon’s novel, In His Steps. Lives were changed as town residents tried to live out their understanding of that question in many circumstances and roles of life. But the highest motivation for this call to follow the ideal pattern of Christ is found in Holy Scripture:

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.–1 Peter 2:21

Put yourself on a journey with Jesus. At this point in your journey, how would you assess your development as a leader? In this article we will briefly summarize several events and principles in the life of Jesus. Assess yourself as to how your own life and leadership exhibit, and are committed to, these ideals. For now apply these events and principles discovered in the life of Jesus as your “standard.” Add any important comments or insights about your present journey, or your understanding of Christ’s journey. Each leadership principle is related to a physical place or event.

1. Development: The Nazareth Principle

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, was presented as an infant in the temple, but Nazareth was his hometown. At his birth and his presentation, great things were spoken of him, but he grew up in Nazareth with personal, family and holy attention.
The development outcomes were spectacular. At age twelve when a Jewish boy becomes a “son of the law,” a visit to Jerusalem and back to Nazareth opens a window of understanding about His earliest development. (Luke 2:39-52)

When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him (Luke 2:39-40). And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men ( Luke 2:52).

  • his growth was developmental, vigorous, whole, and complete (see Luke 2:40,52)
  • through religious training according to the tradition of his family (2:39-42,51)
  • by listening and questioning in the temple about the things of the Law (2:46-47)
  • in self-understanding and awareness of his true relationship to family and to his Father (see 2:49)
  • he grew by continuing obedience to his parents in Nazareth ( 2:51)
  • physically he “became strong” (see 2:40) and “grew in stature” (2:52)
  • intellectually, he was “filled with wisdom” (see 2:40), he “grew in wisdom” (2:52)
  • socially, he advanced in “stature” (in years, maturity, and standing); he grew “in favor with men” (2:52)
  • spiritually, “the grace of God was upon him” (2:40); he grew “in favor with God” (2:40, 52).

This development principle, briefly stated, affirms that to be a servant leader today calls for a lifetime of intentional growth and development. Jesus’ early development as a leader may in some cases be much like your own; it can be applied in many ways to your pathway toward being a servant leader:

  • Begin with the earliest report of Christ’s growth and development; start young, be intentional and vigorous, become whole and healthy, put your lessons into daily practice, and stay with it for a lifetime.
  • Really listen to the formal and informal religious training in your family; learn even from the flaws and failures of family and home life.
  • Pay attention to the wisdom and experiences of those around you in “your own hometown”; such lessons may help you to understand the reality of human nature and the need for the message and example of God’s love.
  • As a youth–really, throughout your whole life–listen to the learning of others, but also develop and express your own understandings Grow your life and leadership in balance, wholeness, a healthy manner–after the pattern of Christ; be inclusive of the several aspects of your life and leadership.
    (See Luke 2: 39-40, 49-52.)
  • Discover your life calling through your self-understanding, emerging awareness, and the influence of others.
  • As you lead, do so out of your spiritual center, your relationship to God; be about your Father’s business.

2. Relationship: The Jordan Principle (see Luke 3:21-22)

. . . and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’–Luke 3:22

Jesus demonstrated that the servant leader’s primary relationship is a love relationship with God, a living relationship through the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ baptism was a public dedication to the messianic task for which the Father sent him into the world. His baptism identified him with the Old Testament prophetic assurances from God that the day of redemption was to come as his Servant/Son. The baptism of Jesus identified him with John the Baptist, the forerunner sent from God to point to the Lamb of God. Jesus’ baptism identified Him with the human race, many coming to repent of sin and turn to God under the preaching of John. For us as servant leaders today, dedication to any great enterprise requires the direction and power of the Holy Spirit, often coming with the quietness of a dove. Others have come before us to labor in the kingdom service of God;
we build upon their labors. Others serve Christ in your relationship sphere; build strength with them.

3. Preparedness: The Desert Principle (see Matt. 4:1-11)

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Matt. 4:1)

As a servant leader, Jesus prepared for vocation and life, at the front end and along the pathway, by depending on God (see Matt. 4:1) He did not take a shortcut or a low road. His pathway was to follow the way of God, as prefigured in Holy Scripture. There are at least five areas of preparedness found in His desert experience; follow this principle.

  • Even when we are led by the Spirit, we are tested by the evil one, the Devil.
  • God is the source of physical provision (the bread); depend on the Word of God to accomplish his work.
  • God is the source of spiritual means (the temple); do not depend on dramatic, alternate means.
  • God is the source for eternal consequences (the mountain); worship and serve Him only.
  • Enduring guidance and nurture(the angels) is God’s ministry; seek to be aware of His angels.

4. Purpose: The Homecoming Principle (see Luke 4: 17-21)

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked.–Luke 4:21

The most significant, internal guidance for life and leadership is an impelling, worthy mission in life; such a mission must be articulate and full of opportunity. It must be invested in purposeful action. Jesus had a very clear picture–biblical, profound and challenging–of His purpose in life, His mission on earth. After
His 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, the epoch experience was framed in the three-fold test pictured by the bread, the temple, and the mountain. Then Jesus returned to Galilee proclaiming the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures about His coming. In His own hometown, the most significant place of His childhood, He committed himself publicly to a prophetic statement of His life’s work. (See “homecoming” in NIV Study Bible Dictionary.)

5. Discipleship: The Personnel Principle (see Matt. 4:19-20; 10:37-39)

‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.–Matt. 4:19-20

The personnel principle is that Jesus put His team together in order to do His redemptive task; He put them not on the payroll but on the kingdom task force.

  • Jesus invited them to come to Himself; he called them to discipleship, to learn of Him.
  • He called them to follow Him in dedication, obedience, and likeness; forsaking all others, to strike out after Jesus, the Carpenter.
  • He gathered His disciples to become fishers of men; to join Him in the redemptive task of gathering others.
  • Wonder of wonders, at His call they left all that was familiar and treasured to follow Him, not knowing what was in store.

To be servant leaders today, we must do no less than that willing but unproven band of disciples. To lead others, we must first follow Him, and in His name, serve others. Because Jesus chose to do His kingdom work with and through others, His call today is still to come and follow Him, to bear His cross, to be on His team; it requires a lifetime of discipleship and service. To lead others, we must truly first follow Him in service.

6. Kingdom: The Mountain Principle (see Matt. 6:19-24,

The mountain principle was that kingdom priority was to be the disciples’ highest, conscious treasure to be sought. It was to cascade down into the valley, into the valley of human need. When Jesus drew His disciples aside to teach them what we call “The Sermon on the Mount,” it reflected His own experience of the transcending true satisfaction of whole-hearted service and single-minded pursuit of the kingdom of God. He taught His disciples to serve in this manner and to expect the provision of God for all their needs.

Matthew 6:33-34: To seek first the kingdom (“of God” in some MSS) is to desire above all to enter into, submit to, and participate in spreading the news of the saving reign of God, the messianic kingdom already inaugurated by Jesus, and to live so as to store up treasures in heaven in the prospect of the kingdom’s consummation. –Zondervan Commentary

7. Service: The Towel Principle (see John 13:1, 4-5)

The principle is clear: Jesus came to serve and by example to teach us to do so. Jesus, at a high feast of worship, expressed serving love for His disciples by washing their travel weary, dusty feet, and drying them with a towel–the servant’s towel. This not only met a practical deed of hospitality in His context but has forever given us the model and symbol of servant leadership.

John 13:4-5: Sometime during the meal Jesus rose, removed his outer cloak, tied a towel around his waist, and began to perform the work of the servant who was not present. It was a voluntary humiliation that rebuked the pride of the disciples. Perhaps it accentuated the tension of the situation, because Luke notes that when the disciples entered the room, they had been arguing about who among them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Luke 22:24).–Zondervan Commentary

8. Mutual Love: The Radical Principle (see John 13:34-35)

Love is the radical principle for every servant leader today. Jesus led his followers by loving them and, out of that love, drawing them to love one another in such a way that it demonstrates that they are His disciples. Even those who serve in the private and public sector are discovering that qualities of love are powerful components of leadership in the workforce.

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.–John 13:34-35

9. Confrontation: The Temple Principle (see Matt. 21:12-13)

The servant leader today must know when to confront evil and wrong-doing. That is the lesson for us from this Temple episode. Jesus usually expressed His leadership through nurture, acceptance, and encouragement; He was first a servant. The hungry, the lame, the ill, the despairing, the outcast, the bereaved–they all knew His tender and specific care. But Jesus knew when and how to confront those who intentionally broke the higher spiritual laws of God. So, to be a servant leader today does not mean to be weak or condoning in the face of evil; rather, it means to discern and to act as those who would stand for the things of God. True enough, we do not always have the pure discernment as our Lord.

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.’–Matt. 21:12-13

10. Redemption: The Cross Principle (John 19:16-18)

The “cross principle” sets forth God’s purpose and bearer of redemption for all mankind. John 19:16-19 and other texts report the record of Jesus’ death. He was crucified on a real cross at a time in history, under a renegade Roman colony. The meaning of the cross was explicitly proclaimed by the early church:
"that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). Jesus pursued the way of the cross: its burden and its death, in the midst of those He loved, pursuing the high mission of their salvation.
A redeeming relationship is described as being crucified with Christ; it is the pattern of our highest expression of servant leadership today.

  • John 19:17–Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull . . . Here they crucified him . . .
  • See also Gal. 2:20–I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

11. Power: The Resurrection Principle (Matt. 28:6-7; Acts 1:8)

In God’s power, Jesus overcame death and the grave to arise as our living Christ, to send us out in His power and to be His witnesses throughout His world. The core message of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ is the resurrected Lord of Life. We are to live in His presence, to proclaim that central message, and to serve Him faithfully in His resurrection power.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.–Acts 1:8

12. Commission: The World Principle (Matt. 28:16-20)

Jesus commissioned His followers to go into all the world, to make and baptize disciples, to teach obedience to His commandments, and to enjoy His enduring presence. That is the high road of servant leadership!

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.–Matt. 28:19-20

Reflection/Assessment Application:
Think about how your life and leadership embody each of the above leadership principles, and assess yourself now. Read related Scriptures and develop your own informed definitions of each principle.

For additional characteristics that shaped Jesus’ life and ministry, see Reggie McNeal’s A Work of Heart, pp. 51-70.


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© 2006; hosted and copyrighted by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership