Servant Leadership: Pathways
“Discipleship--Lead by Following” (SL#54)
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack® 1:2 - Following Biblical Patterns

A thousand times a day, in every arena of life, discipleship and leadership intersect and blend into one whole journey. In Christian servant leadership, those who lead for Christ must follow after Christ. Staff minister or lay minister, young or old, trained or undeveloped, male or female, all of us are on this exciting journey.

To put it another way: Every follower of Christ is called to be a servant and--through service to others--to become a true leader. Let’s examine some of the elements of discipleship.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.--Eph. 2:8-10

Discipleship Reflection: Work through this article in a very personal way. You may even write a brief log on where you are in your journey.

Glossary: discipleship
Men are dependent upon one another and their lives are shaped by each other in many ways. Sometimes it is through a casual relationship, an interested companion or hanger-on. But it may be the more lasting relationship of a pupil or disciple to his master or teacher. In the NT, the words connected with discipleship are applied chiefly to the followers of Jesus and describe the life of faith. “akoloutheo” (follow) denotes the action of a man answering the call of Jesus whose whole life is redirected in obedience. A “mathetes” (disciple) is one who has heard the call of Jesus and joins him. [The verb] “mimeomai” (imitate) can be distinguished, in so far as it mainly emphasizes the nature of a particular kind of behaviour, modeled on someone else. Source: NIV Study Bible Dictionary

1. The Starting Place

Whatever terms we may use, the front end of discipleship is our acceptance of the love and life God gives in His Son, Jesus Christ. (See John 3:3, 16; Acts 4:11-12; Romans 10:9-10; Ephesians 2:8-10.) We may express it as:
  • “I became a Christian.”
  • “I accepted Christ as my Savior and Lord.”
  • “I became a follower of Christ.”
  • “I was saved, converted, born again.”
All are confessions that seek to express that central reality: Christ is the source and model for our life. The starting place in searching for Christ’s leadership model is the recognition that following the pattern of Christ is the truest calling in, and indeed the defining expression of, being a Christian. Why not write down three to five elements related to your beginning experience with Christ.

2. Discipleship Growth

The natural consequence of becoming a Christian, a disciple of Christ (Acts 11:26), is to grow in Christ. Early in life, Jesus gave the example of holistic growth (Luke 1:80, 2:40). Later, he spent much time with the growth of His apostles (Matthew 5:1). Paul describes both personal and congregational growth in Christ (Eph. 5:17), and Peter closes with a passionate admonition to grow in Christ (2 Peter 3:18; see also 1 Peter 2:2-3).

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.--2 Peter 3:18

Disciplines of growth have often been listed, including: prayer, Scripture study, public worship, witnessing, giving, serving, living with integrity, and social responsibility. Remember, following the pattern of Christ isn’t just about being a certain way, it’s also about growing a certain way: with purpose, conviction, humility and self-awareness. Are you continuing to grow in each of the disciplines mentioned above? Have you become overly content or comfortable in any areas?

3. Three Special Gifts

Servant leadership is energized by special gifts available to every disciple. These may not always be listed with traditional “spiritual gifts,” but they are not limited to the few but rather given to all of us (See SL#56 and SL#57 for a presentation of spiritual gifts):
  • The Holy Spirit: The presence and enabling power of the Holy Spirit is in fact the Father’s greatest spiritual gift to all the followers of Christ. He is the convincing presence of God to unbelievers and His abiding presence within believers.
    But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.--John 14:26
    Glossary--Holy Spirit:
    In the Gospels, as in the OT, the Holy Spirit comes upon certain persons for special reasons. Jesus promises the Holy Spirit in a new way to those who believe in him (7:37-39; cf. 4:10-15; Luke 24:49; Acts 1:1-8).

    The Holy Spirit indwells believers (Rom 8:1-27; 1 Cor 6:19), gives gifts (12:4), and produces “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-23). Being “filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18) means that one experiences Christ living within (Rom 8:9-10). Teaching concerning the Holy Spirit has been both neglected and distorted, but the subject deserves careful attention as one reads the NT.-- Source: NIV Study Bible Dictionary

  • Sufficient Grace: Since spiritual gifts are often called “grace gifts,” then grace itself is a most notable gift of God to all humankind. It is mercy, loving kindness, divine and unmerited favor. It is the very source of our salvation (Eph. 2:8-10) and becomes the basis for daily living and serving (2 Cor. 9:8, 12:9; Col. 4:6; Heb. 4:16).

    But He said to me (Paul), ‘My grace is sufficient for you. . .’ --2 Cor. 12:9

  • Love--the excellent way: God’s greatest spiritual gift--the more excellent way--is to be desired and followed by all believers. It is “agape” --loving kindness--volitional, sacrificial, unselfish, lasting, transcending (1 Cor. 12:31; 13:1; 14:1). How does love excel?
    • By comparison, love excels all other spiritual gifts (see 1 Cor. 12:27-31): apostles, prophets, teachers, workers of miracles, healing, helps, administration, and tongues.
    • Love is the broadest, most all-inclusive gift; though other gifts are given only to some (1 Cor. 13:1-3): tongues, prophecy, mysteries, faith, generosity, even martyrdom.
    • Love behaves on a higher quality level in attributes and actions (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
    • Love never fails--it sustains us in development from childhood through adulthood--in all human frailty and final relationships (1 Cor. 13:8-12).
    • Love remains, even beyond faith and hope; it is the way to follow (1 Cor. 13:13 - 14:1).

4. Calling to Life and Service:

As servant leaders, we are not “on our own.” We are within the gracious calling and claim of God on our lives: called to salvation, called to daily discipleship, called to ministry and called to specific roles and functions of service in this kingdom. We are called:

  • to follow--Jesus, like a shepherd, called his sheep to himself and they followed him (John 10:3).
  • to productive living--The synergistic qualities of the Christian life enrich and ensure the calling of our Lord Jesus Christ to productive living (2 Peter 1:5-11).

    Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall.--2 Peter 1:10

  • to walk in unity--Disciples are urged to walk in unity, “worthy of the calling” within the one body of Christ and one Spirit (Eph. 4:1-6).

One of the most common verbs in the Bible, representing over 20 Hebrew and Greek words with four different meanings: 1. To pray-- “Call to me and I will answer you” (Jer 33:3). 2. To summon or appoint-- “I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms” (Jer 1:15). 3. To name a person or thing-- “God called the light “day’” (Gen 1:5). 4. To invite people to accept salvation through Christ. This last is a call by God through the Holy Spirit; it is heavenly (Heb 3:1) and holy (2 Tim 1:9). This call comes to people in all situations and occupations (1 Cor 1:26; 7:20).--Source: NIV Study Bible Dictionary

5. Kingdom Vision

As followers of Jesus, we are citizens in the Kingdom of God. His sovereign cause is to be our highest priority and His commission is to be our marching orders. Christ’s kingdom is to be the centerpiece of the discipleship way and service (Matt. 6:33-34; 19:29-30; 28:19-20).

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.--Matt. 6:33

  • Ask yourself the question, “Is my life centered on the priority of God's kingdom?” “Is my family, work, and school centered on the kingdom?”
  • Ask a similar question of your congregation: “What is at the center of your church? Tradition? Pastor and staff? Members/families? Budget and property? Programs?”
  • Discipleship centers on Christ and His kingdom.
  • Servant leaders today must indeed lead by first following.

6. Servant Congregation Functions

A congregation becomes a servant body in the cause of Christ as disciples/ministers significantly invest themselves in its life and functions all for the purpose:

. . . to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.--Eph. 3:21

What functions and roles are resident in most congregations? Which do you serve most consistently? Where could you enlarge your servant leadership? Use the following diagram adapted from The Management of Ministry by Anderson and Jones, p. 80, and other sources, as an assessment tool:

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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