David Nienhuis, PhD — Guest Writer for the Dean’s Desk
Professor of New Testament Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University

April 23, 2016

This speech was given at the Ivy Honorary induction ceremony where Dr. Nienhuis received the 2015-2016 Top Prof award from Ivy Honorary.

I want to talk with you today about leadership. At the risk of starting things off on a down note, while I considered the topic, my mind drifted toward the presidential race, and I became depressed. I was struck by the realization that our culture is crawling with people recognized as leaders, and yet we suffer from a profound lack of leadership! Look at how these political campaigns are progressing along! We’re so completely unable to agree on a shared vision of the common good that we’re willing to settle for whatever leader can yell the loudest! We can’t gather up the political will required to care for the most vulnerable among us; we are encouraged to distrust those who are different from us instead of coming together to seek solutions; we seem to circle around and around the same problems year in and out; and through it all our leaders do not seem at all capable of finding a way forward.

And as I moaned about this for a while, I was struck by a rather obvious insight: it’s not that we need more leaders; what we need is a very different kind of leadership.

Now I’m no expert in the scholarship of leadership — I don’t research or write in this area — but I do think of myself as a student of leadership, mostly because all my life I’ve been identified as a leader. And when you spend your whole life being told “You know what, you’re a leader!” well, you eventually find yourself taking on leadership positions. And in my case a series of different leadership roles eventually led me to pastoral leadership in the church. And it was there, in the church, that I was first confronted by the possibility that my conceptions of leadership were all wrong.

It happened the first week I was there on the job. A great saint of the church — we’ll call her Barbara — was giving me a tour of the church building. Barbara was in her 80’s, a tiny, hunched, white haired woman, and she’d been attending that church her entire adult life. As it turned out, Barbara had taught Sunday School in that same church for 60 years. In fact, she was still teaching Sunday School — and not because they couldn’t get rid of her! She was good at it, the kids loved her, the parents loved her — and as she put it to me once, “So long as they’ll keep having me, I’ll keep doing it!”

At one point in the tour we came upon a hallway lined with a row of framed photographs of all the pastors who had led that church throughout its history. Here were all these white men in suits, gold name plates beneath their photos, some smiling, some solemn, all of them stereotypical images of leaders. Barbara commented on a few of them: “this one was only here for a year or two (he had an affair); this one was real good; this one stayed a long time, and he was okay but I don’t remember much about him….” All these leaders who had come and gone during Barbara’s long years at the church. And as she continued her commentary, I imagined seeing my own picture on that wall. I’d only just arrived, of course, but I was a leader, and leaders got their picture put up on the wall. As I continued to think about that, however, I was suddenly struck with a profound sense of shame, as I thought to myself, “Why isn’t Barbara’s picture on this wall?” The pastor who left in shame has his picture on the wall, but folks like Barbara don’t.

Now of course, I know very well why Barbara’s picture wasn’t on the wall. When we look at people like Barbara, we don’t think “leader” — we think “servant.” We typically reserve the title “leader” for the sort of people who stand up front, the people who are in charge of things, the people who can project their voices and can decide things efficiently and then persuade other people to do those things. And in my shame, I began to fear that perhaps that’s all I was. What if all those times people said to me, “You’re a leader,” what they were really saying was, “Hey, you’re a mildly egotistical extroverted external processor who likes to tell people what to do! We should put you in charge!”

I’ve thought a lot about Barbara and the leadership wall since then, and each time I do, I recall the scene in the gospel when James and John ask Jesus to sit and his right and left side when he comes into his kingdom. They were so sure of their stature as leaders that they believed they should be honored with places at Jesus’ side when he would eventually sit down to rule. Like they should get their pictures next to Jesus on the wall in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus responded to their request with a starkly different portrait of leadership:

“You know that among the Nations those whom they recognize as leaders lord it over them, and those in high positions assert authority over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to have a high position among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be most prominent among you must become a slave to everyone. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

This passage isn’t simply contrasting two different styles of leadership. It’s providing us with two different anthropologies, two different visions of what it means to be human in relation to other humans. In the first portrait, the one common among “the nations” of the world, humans are conceived of as power-bearing individuals; some individuals have more power, and others have less, and those with more power get to be in charge and make decisions for those who have little power.

But in the subsequent portrait, the one describing leadership in Christian community, humans are conceived of as being primarily for each other, not “over” or “under” each other. In this sort of community, the leaders are the ones who give themselves away in service to others, and the one who pours herself out completely in service is the one who is to be identified as holding the highest position of authority in the church.

Let me be clear: this text isn’t simply calling us to servant leadership; it’s saying the servant is the actual leader. It’s not saying, “When you have power, make sure you’re equitable and gentle and kind.” It’s saying, if you want to identify the true leaders among you, don’t look up— look down. Look at the people who aren’t noticed; the quiet ones who work faithfully for the good of others; the ones who don’t have their pictures on the wall; the ones who aren’t easily recognized because they’re too busy serving to draw attention to themselves. In this regard, the greatest leader is the one who is the most like Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.

This word “ransom” is particularly fascinating to me. It only occurs in this scene in the New Testament. The Greek word is lutron, and it can also be translated as “redemption” or “payment.” The verbal form is “luo” and it means “to loosen or untie or release.” Lutron was most typically used to describe a situation where someone used their own money to buy a slave in order to set them free. Indeed, a literal translation of the word might be “means of release.”

The greatest leader is the one who serves by giving her life as a means of release for others. Such people lead the way in God’s healing of the world because they do not think of themselves as individuals with the power to influence others; they think of themselves as persons who live in, and with, and through other persons. Their lives reflect a profoundly permeable anthropology, one that cannot think in terms of individualism because they feel such a deep, kindred relation with the many others around them who are in need.

Those who think this way find it far easier to understand the radical call of the gospel. Why must I love my enemies? Because I’m not just me, I’m also us. Why must I forgive others unconditionally? Because I’m not just me, I’m also us. Why must I do nothing out of selfish ambition and consider others better than myself? Because I’m not just me, I’m also us.

Such leaders know that it isn’t enough to do good. They strive to be good. They don’t live like people who have all the answers— they live lives that model out alternative ways of being. These leaders don’t just want to engage the culture and change the world— they want to change the world by engaging in the hard, hard work of being changed themselves.

Imagining leadership in this way reminds me of another Barbara story. Once in the middle of a worship service a man walked in and sat by himself in the back row a good distance away from everyone else. He was a huge guy with a big bushy beard, and the moment he sat down in the pew he began rocking back and forth violently. Unfortunately he was wearing these huge gold medallions around his neck, and with each rock the medals would clang into one another, kang, kang, kang, kang! I was sitting up in the front in one of the pastor’s chairs facing the congregation, and I saw every head turn around and look at the man, and then turn quickly back around to stare straight ahead— as though deciding that ignoring him entirely would be the best way to handle the situation.

So the service continued, and the head pastor is in the pulpit trying to give his sermon, and the man is sitting in back clanging away, and I just froze. I was one of the leaders, but I had no idea what I should do. Do I disrupt the service by walking back there to address the man? Do I do nothing, thereby encouraging everyone to continue pretending he isn’t there?

Just then Barbara got up and walked down the middle aisle, sat down next to the man, and leaned over to speak with him. I watched as they both chatted for a moment, and then, just as suddenly as it started, the man stopped rocking. No more clanging, no more shaking, just the big bushy man and tiny white haired Barbara, sitting closely together, looking to the front of the church with big smiles on their faces.

After the service I asked Barbara what had happened. She said she sat down with the man, welcomed him to church, and asked him about his beautiful medals. He told her they were Special Olympics medals that he’d won years ago in competition. She said to him, “Are you ok? You seem a little nervous.” He said he was nervous, that he’d never been to church here before and he didn’t know anybody, and when he was nervous he rocked back and forth. He was embarrassed. He knew he was drawing unwanted attention to himself. So Barbara asked him, “How can I help you relax?” He said, “It usually helps when someone holds my hand.” So Barbara reached over, and held his hand, and with that the rocking stopped.

Once a month or so the man would return, walk in after the service had already started, and look around for Barbara. And Barbara would see him and wave, and walk over to him and grasp his hand, and they’d sit down together for the rest of the service.

In that one loving act of hospitality, Barbara carried the whole church on her strong, strong shoulders. In that one risky act, she fulfilled the call of the gospel for those of us who were too scared or confused to know what to do. In that one loving act, she didn’t just tell the man about Jesus— that’s what the pastor was trying to do from the pulpit (you know, the guy with his picture on the wall). No, in that one act Barbara became the embodiment of Jesus, taking leadership by offering her own life as a means of release for an unwelcomed, disruptive, embarrassed stranger in our midst.

Folks, we don’t need more leaders. We need to inhabit a different kind of leadership. I know some of you, and I know that different kind of leadership already exists in this room. Some of you are introverted. Don’t seek to become extroverted. Some of you aren’t good speakers. Don’t feel you ought to become one. Some of you want to change the world but don’t see how you can because you’re not an “up front” kind of person. Don’t embrace that falsehood. Keep doing what you’re doing – you don’t have to fit into this world’s model of leadership. The rest of us need your example! Keep looking for ways to give yourself in service to others— because Jesus tells us that’s the kind of leadership we really need.

If you’re more like me, an “up front” sort of leader: make it your habit to constantly search for those quiet leaders who tend to fly under the radar. The sort of people who aren’t often noticed because they don’t draw attention to themselves. Look for them, and watch them, and emulate them; in doing so you will come to see what real, world-changing power looks like.


  1. Missy Couch

    Thanks, Dr. Dave, for giving fine examples of servant leadership and how we might be able to become servant leaders ourselves. Congratulations on this well-deserved reward.

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