“Moving the Story Forward: Servants as Leaders” by Brenda Seat

July 7, 2019

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Naaman is such an interesting character! Here he is, this great man, a commander of armies under the King of Aram, but he had leprosy. Leprosy was a deadly progressive disease; it was contagious and there was significant risk that those who cared for him, like servants or family members, would get it too. It must have been devastating for a man like Naaman to have an incurable disease. He was used to giving orders and having everyone obey him without question, and yet he was unable to make his sickness go away. And this story might have ended here, with Naaman slowly dying a disfiguring horrible death and taking those he loved with him, except for a young girl from the land of Israel, a captive from one of the raids Aram had conducted against the Israelites.

So I want you to imagine the life of this girl. We don’t know her name, indicating that she was very unimportant in the scheme of things. She probably came from a small village close to the border with Aram. She might have been helping her mother do the chores, or taking care of her siblings, or going for water, or feeding the chickens, when these fearsome soldiers came to her village and grabbed her and others in the village and took them away. Away from everything she had ever known. We don’t know what happened immediately after she arrived in Aram, but we know that eventually she ended up serving Naaman’s wife, forced to work for someone she didn’t know and who had taken her from all she knew and loved. She was definitely “a lamb among the wolves.”

So it surprises me that this girl spoke up and said to her mistress, “You know there is a prophet in Samaria and he could cure Naaman of his leprosy.” It took a lot of courage just to say that to her mistress, but it also took something else: Faith. Faith that even though she had been wronged by this man and these people, he still should have a chance to be healed, and secondly, that the God she knew and had worshipped would be willing to save and heal this man who was a foreigner and who didn’t know or worship the God of the Israelites. Here this girl, isolated and alone, far from all she knew, instinctively wanted to work for the good of all – even her captors.

And with that one sentence from a servant girl, our story moves forward. Her mistress tells Naaman, and Naaman tells the king, and the king says “Good Idea” and sends Naaman with a letter to the King of Israel and a whole lot of expensive gifts.

Now let’s just stop here a moment and think about what is happening. The King of Aram is sending his most powerful general to the King of Israel and asking him to help him. We know these two kingdoms were not friendly because they raided Israel and took captives. In fact in later chapters of II Kings we find that a later king of Aram eventually does invade and capture the entire kingdom of Israel. But for now, the current King of Aram is asking his rival to do him a favor and heal the man that will potentially lead Aram’s armies into battle against Israel! That is a pretty big ask!

So back to our story. The King of Israel received Naaman and reads the letter and sees the gifts and he is terrified! He thinks this is a prelude to war. He is convinced that the King of Aram is taunting him, asking him to do this impossible thing and then when they cannot heal Naaman, they will use that as a pretext and attack and take over his kingdom. So what does the King of Israel do? He tears his clothes in rage and distress.

So our story now teeters on a precipice – we have a king who thinks he is backed into a corner and another king hoping against hope that Naaman can be healed and serve him many more years.

And then something funny happens. News of the King of Israel’s distress filters through the countryside and eventually reaches the ears of Elisha in Samaria. I find it interesting that there is no indication that the King of Israel ever directly contacted Elisha. You would have thought that might have been the first person he might have called, but instead the news filters through what I like to imagine as the Servants Gossip Network – you know like in Downton Abbey where the servants all know everything even before the aristocrats do – until it reaches Elisha, who sends word to the king that he should send Naaman to him. So the king does and Naaman, with his whole entourage and all the gifts, comes to Elisha.

Here the story takes a twist. Naaman arrives and, instead of coming out to meet him, Elisha sends his servant out to tell Naaman to go to the Jordan river and wash in it seven times and he will be healed. Naaman is enraged! Not only does Elisha not come out to him personally and merely sends a servant, but Elisha adds insult to injury by telling him to go wash in some river that is not even as clean as the rivers back home. And Naaman stalks off in a complete snit.

Again our story stops. They are at an impasse. I can’t really say that I blame Naaman, right? I mean he is an important person and it seems like just good manners to at least greet him at the door, even if you don’t serve him tea!

But Elisha was probably seeing things a bit differently. Maybe Naaman’s real illness wasn’t the leprosy but his pride, his arrogance, his sense of entitlement? But we will never know since Elisha never tells us.

Then Naaman’s servants step in and try some reverse psychology on him. “Master,” they say, “if he had asked you to do some difficult thing, wouldn’t you have done it? So why not do this easy thing and just see what happens?” So Naaman does and he is cleansed of his leprosy…and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

What I want to point out to you is that this story moves forward not because of the leadership of kings, or military commanders, or even prophets. In fact most of them just got in the way or caused the story to stop completely. Instead it was the servants who made this story move forward, by raising options that were outside the box, like the Israeli servant girl, or the Servants Gossip Network that made Elisha aware of his king’s distress, or Elisha’s servant who delivered Elisha’s word to Naaman, or Naaman’s servants who talked Naaman down from his rage and got him to do what he needed to do.

*   *   *   *   *

In 1926, a man named Robert Greenleaf joined AT&T, one of the biggest corporations of its time. He had been told by one of his teachers that corporations were not doing a good job of serving their employees or their customers and this young, idealistic man decided that he would try and work steadily and quietly to try and change that. He rose within the organization, visiting the 200 or more subsidiary “Ma Bells” and other organizations within the umbrella of AT&T. What he found was that the companies that were thriving were places where leaders tried to serve their employees, clients and customers rather than companies where the leaders were “in charge” and demanded that everyone do what the leader wanted.

When Greenleaf retired in 1964, he began writing about his experiences and insights. In 1970 he published an essay, The Servant as Leader, in which he articulated his ideas.

Greenleaf said:

The servant-leader is servant first…. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions….

And he goes on:

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the ‘top of the pyramid,’ servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Finally he says:

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant – first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

Despite the fact that these ideas were meant to be used in the context of business management, the ideas resonated within the Church of the Saviour, and when Seekers was formed the ideas of Robert Greenleaf were part of our core understanding of how we would organize ourselves and what kind of leadership we wanted. In fact it is from Robert Greenleaf’s writings that we took our name, Seekers.

One of the questions I hear often from new people or people who want to understand Seekers is, “Who is in charge?” That is one of the hardest questions to answer. Because it depends.

If you want to know who is in charge of our worship services, then I can tell you it is the Celebration Circle Mission Group. Those in the group, raise your hands.

If you want to know who is charge of our School for Christian Growth I can tell you it is the Learners and Teachers Mission group. Raise hands.

If you want to know who is in charge of greeting people and helping new people adjust and find connections within the community, I can tell you it is the OMG mission group. Raise hands.

You see where this is going, right? I could go on, but we do need to move forward….

Leadership in Seekers is diverse, dispersed, and more often than not held not by an individual but by groups that are cooperative. We have tried very deliberately and intentionally to share power, and to nurture and develop the skills of servant leadership within this community. The standard we use to see how effective we are is still Greenleaf’s:

Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in our community? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

We are not perfect, but we are learning.

Within Seekers, the Stewards – a body whose members are self-selecting and is somewhat analogous to deacons in other church settings – hold the vision and ultimate decision-making power. They meet once a month and tonight is one of those meetings. Stewards makes every effort to be transparent, so the agendas and minutes of our meetings are shared with the wider community every month and everyone, whether Steward or not, is invited to our meetings and can participate in the discussions and voice concerns. The Servant Leadership Team has been delegated to hold some responsibilities by Stewards, to create an agenda and guide the discussions in Stewards meetings, to help implement the visions articulated by Stewards for the community, to administer the Holy Spirit fund which helps those in need within the community, and in general to keep tabs on the health and welfare of the community.  Applying to serve on the Servant Leadership Team is also self-selecting, however in this case, Stewards confirms their call by evaluating whether their gifts and their call are what is needed by the community at that time.

In 2002 I began serving on the Servant Leadership Team. Many changes have occurred since that time. I started soon after one of our founding members retired and left the community and since that time we have had as many as four on the team and as few as two. I served with Kate Cudlipp until her sudden and unexpected death and served many years with Peter who retired a few years ago. Today, I serve with Trish Nemore, David Lloyd and Joan Dodge.

As some of you know I had my review early this year and at that time I told my review team that this would be my final term. So in the next few years, when the time seems right for me and the community, I will resign from the Servant Leadership team.

My reasons are both personal and community based. I am sensing my limits. This role is complicated, exhilarating and exhausting. By 2022 when my term ends it will be twenty years since I began serving in this role. That seems like enough for me and of me for this community. I need to put this role down and you need to find new voices, new energy, new abilities and gifts to carry us all forward.

What I do know is that it will be servant leaders who will move the story of Seekers forward, just like it was servant leaders who moved the story of Naaman forward, or the Body of Christ who, on hearing the message of “Joy to the World,” moves God’s vision for this world forward step by step. We are all people who work for the good of all, especially for the family of faith, as Paul exhorted the church in Galatia.

Are you a servant leader?

How are we going to move the story of Seekers forward?

How are we, as servant leaders, going to move forward God’s message of “Joy to the World,” from this small, fragile, earthen vessel that is part of the body of Christ, out into our broken and beautiful world?


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