Understanding Our Church

A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith

The call to leadership is a call to service, building both Church and self

Published: May 17, 2003

By Dr. Linda Webster

It’s opportunity season once again. In many parishes, pastoral council seats are coming up for election, committee memberships are rotating and catechetical leaders for the upcoming academic year are being wooed. It happens every spring, yet — if your parish is anything like mine — church members are not knocking down the doors to volunteer for parish service.

So, this is the perfect time of year to revisit the notion of “servant leadership” and what it means to our daily lives as Catholics. We are all called by Christ not just to volunteer for parish positions, but to lead others to him in everything we do. Most of us perform leadership roles all day, every day — and seldom stop to think about how or why.

Every time you do something for another in emulation of Christ’s love for us, you are leading that person to Christ. Taking it one step further, any role you play in your parish, even if there is no title or position, is a form of servant leadership. The key here is the concept of servant — giving of oneself in the service of others without stopping to consider whether it’s something we want to do or feel like doing.

Accepting the responsibility of servant leadership means two things: listening to the Spirit working within us and spending time in prayer. The call to leadership may come from within as a result of listening to the Spirit or from others in one’s life who recognize a capacity to serve. But the important thing to remember is that the call is there; we have only to listen and pray to discern it.

Even with prayer and an ear to the Spirit, there may be a cultural gap between a willingness to serve and a hesitation to take on a formal leadership role. We have families, jobs and obligations within and without the Church. However, if the word “serve” can be substituted for the word “lead,” a new understanding of parish service and leadership may be possible.

On the parish pastoral council, the members serve the needs of the parish; committee members serve the needs of the various ministries; and teachers serve the needs of their students. Servant leadership is a model where, with Christ at the center, we look for opportunities to serve one another even if we don’t think we’re qualified.

Others may recognize an expertise or a gift in us that would benefit the parish; we can serve others by agreeing to share our gift. And in fact, the most prayerful response to any call to leadership is to gratefully accept the opportunity to serve those who have extended the invitation.

Facing up squarely to leadership as a means of serving others rather than a series of tasks, such as holding an office and running meetings, is a big first step in moving parish members to a sense of servant leadership. The concept of servant leadership actually simplifies our roles, our lives and our ability to be open to the Spirit. Remember that Jesus neither sought out nor declined the titles defining his role. He simply ministered and emerged as a leader for all.