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Gentle Servant Leader

Within the Old Testament book of Isaiah there are four passages that have been dubbed “The Servant Songs.” Ironically enough, the servant songs define a true leader in God’s eyes. For my next four sermons I will explore these passages as a blueprint for what a leader, or simply a person, who is striving to serve God (to live a life connected to God, if you don’t like the word “serve”) looks like.

Read out of context, the "Servant Song" passages have been interpreted as speaking about an individual, a messianic figure. And, in fact, you may recognize the language in some of our New Testament Gospel passages; but remember, Isaiah was written long before the Gospels and would have been well known to the authors of the New Testament. Clearly, they intended to draw the connection to Jesus.

Taken in context, the passages are about the people of Israel as a whole, called to teach and enlighten, to be examples of justice and faith. They are passages that describe the qualities of a true leader, and whether you consider yourself a leader or not, these passages speak to us about how we, too, can be in the world. 

Each of the four Servant Songs emphasizes a different characteristic of the servant leader - gentleness, integrity, listening and suffering. A complete picture incorporates them all. Let me begin with the first Servant Song in Isaiah 49:1-7 and discuss the quality of gentleness. 

I have endowed you with my Spirit

that you may bring true justice to the nations.

You do not cry out or raise your voice,

or make yourself heard in the street.

So gentle that you do not break a bruised reed,

or quench a wavering flame,

faithful you will bring forth true justice.

You will neither waver nor be crushed…

                        ~ Isaiah 42:1b-4a

What an amazing image for one who is filled with the Spirit. They aren’t the ones shouting on the street corners, spouting judgments or sending people to hell. They don’t even raise their voice and are so gentle as to not break a bruised reed or quench a wavering flame. To me this means that they show extra care for those who are suffering, hopeless, downtrodden, despairing and grieving. They don't kick others when they're down or prey off of other people's weaknesses.

Sadly, in our culture, gentleness is often thought of as weakness. A person who is gentle is considered soft, meek, a bleeding-heart, a sissy. Not surprisingly, gentleness is considered a feminine quality, which may help to explain why is it so maligned.

.But in Isaiah, gentleness doesn't mean they aren’t strong. In fact, the passage says they will "neither waver nor be crushed" as they work tirelessly to bring forth justice. This passage paints a picture of a paradox:  gentle strength.

St. Francis de Sales said, “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.” I believe this is true in that it takes a great deal of inner strength not to lash out or resort to violence when others are doing just that. Being gentle means making yourself vulnerable, which takes risk and therefore strength. And a true gentleness seems to stem from a connectedness to something more, giving you strength to treat others with care, kindness and respect.

A gentle servant leader is compassionate and empathetic, patient, and diplomatic.They empower others and remind them of their own inner strength. Listening and genuine care and interest are other elements of the gentle servant leader.

I searched long and hard for resources on being a gentle leader and found next to nothing. But the New Testament speaks of Jesus and his gentleness over and over again, and implores us as followers of Jesus to be gentle ourselves.

  • Matthew 11:29 “Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart.”
  • Matthew 21:5 “See your king comes to you gentle and riding on a donkey…”
  • 2 Corinthians 10:1 “I myself appeal to you by the gentleness and meekness of Christ…”
  • Colossians 3:12 “Because you are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with heartfelt compassion, with kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”

When I think of gentle servant leaders, Mother Teresa tops my list. There are stories upon stories that speak of her gentleness. One story she shares in the book, "Mother Teresa: In My Own Words," tells of going around Calcutta one night and picking up 5 or 6 people who were abandoned in the streets. They were in serious condition and so the sisters took them to their Home for the Dying and for the Abandoned.

Among the people they picked up, there was a little old lady who, due to her extreme condition, was near the point of death. Mother Teresa told the Sisters to take care of the others and she, herself, would care for the old woman.  As she was getting ready to put her in a bed, the woman took her hand and a beautiful smile appeared on her face. She said, “Thank you” and died.

Mother Teresa siad, “I assure you, she gave me much more than I had given her. She offered me grateful love.” 

It's important to remember that by this time she was the leader of a world-wide organization. She didn’t need to care for the woman herself. But a great deal of her successful leadership was her ability to be consistently gentle and caring with the people around her and the people she served.

Being a gentle leader means practicing self-control in difficult situations. It means being reliable, even-tempered and non-inflammatory, especially in crisis, so that people find you a stable, confident, consistent presence. Gentleness doen't mean that you don't hold people accountable, but it means that you speak the truth with love and respect.

Teddy Roosevelt once said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Gentle leaders show genuine interest. They honestly care about others and will protect the vulnerable, the hurt, and anyone in need of healing. 

One article I read was written by Dean Royles, a strategic workforce advisor, and a co-author for a book on Human Resources Management. The article was entitled, “Gentleness: an underrated quality in effective leadership. “ In preparation for writing the article, he decided he should do some investigating first, so he asked a few people whether they thought gentleness was a quality he had. Their response? “It’s not in your top three.” Wow. The good news is that he took that as an opportunity to be more self-aware and work on that aspect of his leadership.

This is my big question for each of us: Is gentleness in the top three at Sacred Journeys? Is gentleness one of our individual top three? If not, what do we need to do to change that?

Love & Light!