“Servant Leaders”

Sabbath Day Thoughts – Mark 10:35-45

When the economy cratered in 2008, the St. Louis-based manufacturing and consulting company Barry-Wehmiller took a big financial hit.  For CEO Bob Chapman it was clear that employee cuts were inevitable, but instead of sending out pink slips, Chapman made a surprising announcement.  He implemented alternating furloughs of four-weeks unpaid leave for all.  Chapman told his workers, “We must all suffer a little instead of letting people go.”  Chapman participated in the rolling furloughs, foregoing wages alongside his employees until the crisis was averted.

When Cheryl Bachelder became CEO of Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen in 2007, the fast-food franchise was struggling.  Popeye’s, which had started 45 years before as a grab-and-go fried chicken joint in the suburbs of New Orleans, had dwindling franchises and falling revenues.  Instead of cutting the bottom line, Bachelder implemented a new leadership model.  Bacheleder cast the vision for what Popeye’s could do: serve excellent chicken to families on the go for a reasonable price in more locations.  Then she set out to help her workers succeed with better pay, benefits, and training.  Bachelder transformed Popeye’s from just another fast-food mill to a business culture where everybody won.

In March 2020 as the world ground to a halt amid the exploding COVID-19 pandemic, the airline industry was in big trouble.  Governments issued lock-down orders, travel plans were cancelled, and we all sheltered in place.  The CEO of Delta Airlines Ed Bastian took drastic steps.  Bastian led his company through the crisis by announcing that he would take a 100% pay cut, going without his $900,000 salary for the next six months.

Bob Chapman, Cheryl Bachelder, and Ed Bastian are advocates of servant leadership, a model for business management first theorized by Robert Greenleaf in 1970.  Greenleaf cast the vision for management that shares power and puts the needs of workers first, so that they can reach their greatest potential.  According to Greenleaf, servant leadership creates businesses where employees are growing as people.  They feel healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous.  Those workers are also more likely to become servant leaders themselves.  Beyond the walls of the corporation, these companies make a difference for good, benefitting the least privileged and most at-risk people of the community.  Greenleaf dreamed of a world where servant leaders would create businesses that showed the way for others to follow while making a helping, healing difference for communities.

Our gospel lesson reminds us that, long before Robert Greenleaf cast his vision, Jesus was a servant leader.  He hoped that his disciples would follow him on that path.  Jesus’s words, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all,” were spoken as he neared the end of his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem for that final Passover.  Just before today’s reading begins, Jesus had warned his friends.  For the third time, he told them that he would soon be betrayed, arrested, condemned, and executed.

Even though they had heard this message three times, the disciples didn’t understand.  James and John had figured out that glory would not await them in the holy city, so they hatched a new plan.  They would convince Jesus to honor them in the Kingdom to come with places of greatest honor at his left and right.  The fact that the other disciples got so angry at the Sons of Zebedee tells us that they probably had their own visions of grandeur.  How dare James and John assert their right to be elevated above the rest of them!

In stark contrast to those visions of glory, Jesus called his friends to be servants and slaves.  A servant, diakonos, waited on others, whether serving food or completing helpful tasks.  A slave, doulos, simply did whatever he or she was told, acting at the direction of their master.  This was not what the disciples wanted to hear.

Jesus’s model of servant leadership was an extraordinary departure from business-as-usual in the Ancient Near East.  Think about it.  Caesar was a self-proclaimed God.  Petty rulers like King Herod lived in luxury at the expense of the people whom they were appointed to rule.  In stark contrast to Caesar and Herod, Jesus was the prime example of servant leadership.  Jesus allowed his core value of agape, self-giving love, to guide him.  That love called him to a life of service—helping, healing, caring, speaking truth to power, and ultimately giving his life for the salvation of us all.  Long before Robert Greenleaf tried to sell the business world on servant leadership, Jesus was blazing the trail and hoping that his followers would go and do likewise.

Back in 1970 when Greenleaf published his first essay on his new model of leadership, he had plenty of critics.  Those naysayers insisted that leaders would only be respected if they were firmly authoritative—that often translated to white men with graduate degrees from prestigious schools and years of experience at the helm of Fortune 500 companies.  Greenleaf’s critics also said that if you make your workers your priority, then they will walk over you.  They would indulge themselves with those opportunities, perks, and benefits, but they wouldn’t put their shoulder to the wheel.  The skeptics proclaimed that companies who embraced this radical theory of leader-as-servant would never make money.

Yet time has told a different story.  When Bob Chapman became CEO of Barry-Wehmiller in 1975 at the age of thirty, the ninety-year-old company had $20 million in revenue.  Their technology was outdated.  Their financial position was weak.  Today Barry-Wehmiller has survived that 2008 recession and continued to grow.  They now have 12,000 employees and a net worth of $3 billion.  Beyond that impressive bottom line, the company sees its unique measure of success as the way they touch the lives of others.  In addition to his work as CEO, Bob Chapman and his wife operate a foundation which teaches the principles of servant leadership for free to communities in need.

At Popeye’s, Cheryl Bachelder found that when she began to focus on changing the company’s culture to a servant-based model, things began to change for the better.  As franchise owners and employees benefitted, the chain began to grow.  Sales increased by 45%.  Stock price climbed from $13-a-share to $61-a-share.  Better yet, when surveyed, franchise owners, employees, and customers all said that they were happier.  In 2017 when Tim Horton’s acquired Popeye’s, that grab-and-go chicken joint had grown to 2,600 locations worth $1.8 billion.

Although COVID-19 remains an ongoing concern, thanks to the delta-variant, things are looking up at Delta Airlines.  Unlike their competitors, Delta has weathered the COVID crisis without resorting to furloughs.  In an interview last month, CEO Ed Bastian said that flights are full and Delta is hopeful and optimistic.  After losing $9 billion in 2020, Delta turned a profit last quarter and is on track to do the same this quarter.  Delta was the first airline to volunteer to help with the evacuation of Afghanistan.  With more than two dozen flights out of Kabul, they airlifted 3,000 refugees from the crumbling nation.  When praised for his leadership, Bastian brushes aside the compliments, saying, “It’s all about the people.”

Of course, after Jesus, the best example of the power of servant leadership is found in the disciples, the ones who really didn’t get it when Jesus told them three times that whoever wishes to be greatest of all must be servant of all.  Ten of the disciples would follow Jesus in losing their lives for the sake of the gospel.  As they reached out to the world with the good news of God’s amazing love, the disciples died untimely deaths in pursuit of Jesus’ mission and in service to God’s Kingdom.  They were crucified, put to the sword, stabbed, clubbed, stoned, and burned.  Even John, the only disciple to live to old age, suffered—driven out of Israel and forced to live in exile on the other side of the Mediterranean.  Despite the high cost of servanthood, by the time John died, the gospel had spread exponentially.  House churches spanned the Roman Empire, from North Africa to Syria to Spain.  Everywhere people were affirming that God is love and Jesus is Lord.

Those servant churches would grow.  Within four centuries, Christianity, which began as a persecuted sect of Judaism, was granted status as an official religion on the Roman Empire.  Today there are 2.5 billion Christians worldwide, about a third of the world’s population.  Nowadays, the fastest growing churches in the world are in places like Iran, China, and North Korea, where servants of the gospel take great risks to share the good news that Jesus, who was slave of all, loved us so much that he died for our sins.

I suspect that there would be more thriving churches if we worried less about number of members and the size of endowments and we thought more about servant leadership.  It is in putting love into action, it is in choosing to serve others, it is in saying “yes” to Jesus’s humble purpose, that greatness is found and growth comes.  May it be just as true for us as it is for those titans of industry.  May it be just as true for us as it was for Jesus and the early church.  Amen.


Thompson, James J. “Theological Perspective on Mark 10:35-45” in Feasting on the Word, year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Black, C. Clifton. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 10:35-45” in Feasting on the Word, year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Tait, Brian. “Traditional Leadership vs. Servant Leadership” in Forbes Magazine, March 11, 2020. Accessed online at forbes.com.

Liden, Wayne, Menser, and Hu. “Servant Leadership: Validation of a Short Form of the SL-28,” in The Leadership Quarterly, 26(2), January 2015.  Accessed online at researchgate.net.

Greenelaf, Robert K. “What Is Servant Leadership?” in The Center for Servant Leadership.  Accessed online at Greenleaf.org.

–. “Leaders Eat Last” an interview with Simon Sinek on CBS Mornings, January 7, 2014.  Accessed online at cbsnews,org.

Gibbons, Mike. “Servant Leadership Examples & Characteristics” in People Managing People Magazine, 2020.  Accessed online at peoplemanagingpeople.com.

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet 1852-6 Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893 Presented by subscribers 1893 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01394

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