As I’m sure you’ve realized by now, this winter has been COLD. This is what I was thinking about a few weeks ago as I knelt on the ground in a Baltimore neighborhood, picking up little bits of paper and plastic and tossing them into a big black trash bag. I could feel the cold penetrating straight through the multiple layers I was wearing as the amount of trash waiting to be picked up seemed to be multiplying. I was leading a group of students from Mount St. Mary’s in a Saturday service trip to work with The Sixth Branch, a fantastic organization made up of members of the US military who use their leadership skills gained from military experience for community development. This week, we were assisting The Sixth Branch and several representatives from the local community in restoring a park. My co-leader and I were responsible for facilitating a group of students throughout the day, and leading them in a discussion afterward to reflect on the work we had accomplished.
When I find myself challenged by jobs that seem monotonous or small, I remind myself that I didn’t become a leader with the Office of Social Justice at the Mount because I felt called to leadership alone, but rather, because I am called to servant leadership—something I believe we are all called to. Leadership, we’ve got down, but I think sometimes we may forget how closely intertwined service and leadership really are. How can we be effective guides and role models if we aren’t focused on the needs of those we lead? When I used to picture service, I always saw myself doing something “big” and exciting—maybe I would build a school or become a mentor to adorable first graders. It’s true that sometimes, as servant leaders, we are going to be called to do big things, and we are going to love every minute of it. As I delved deeper into the meaning of servant leadership, however, I realized that while service will sometimes leave us with that “warm and fuzzy” feeling we get from doing good, sometimes it’s going to be very challenging. As I was picking up trash in Baltimore that cold day, I wasn’t exactly feeling “warm and fuzzy.” As servants, we are not always going to be called to do the “glamorous” jobs, which are the ones that earn recognition and praise. We are challenged to find the meaning and the importance in those jobs that, to us, may seem to be small and inconsequential, like picking up little bits of trash.
One of the most vivid pictures of servant leadership we have is the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Our God—our father, teacher, creator, leader—got down on His hands and knees and washed the dirt off of the disciples’ feet. Talk about a job that is not very glamorous. Yet, in this act of service, Jesus provides a beautiful example of what servant leadership looks like. Our God literally and figuratively positioned Himself below those he was serving, showing us that we are called to humbly put aside our pride and our desires and place the needs of others above our own. This is sometimes going to mean doing jobs that to us seem menial and pointless. But, when we become true servants to others, we don’t focus on what we think another person or community needs. We empathetically listen to what others need, and then humbly use our own abilities and skills to work alongside them to meet their goals, whether what they need is a new school to be built or trash to be picked up from their community park.
When we look at servant leadership from this angle, even the most unpleasant jobs gain a new meaning because we know that they are important to the people we are serving. When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, He exhibited true empathy by realizing what they most needed at that moment, and then He knelt down on the cold, dirty ground and served them. Sure, maybe I would’ve liked to go into Baltimore that day and volunteered in a school or done some construction work. But being a servant leader wasn’t about what I needed, because that day, what the community needed was someone to pick up trash so that they could have a more beautiful place to enjoy being outside. As servant leaders, when we are challenged with difficult tasks and find ourselves on our hands and knees, all we have to do to remind ourselves of the importance of what we are doing is look up with love and see the beauty in the faces of those we are serving.