“Buzzword” is such an interesting word. It means a vogue term, with the idea that people are making noise about it. But sometimes buzzwords become like something else that buzzes: a fly. It hovers around your head, and you only pay enough attention to swat at it. You don’t actually stop and look at the fly. With buzzwords, we may hear them so often they lose real meaning.

Servant Leadership is one such term. A buzzword in churches for the last fifteen or so years, it’s been defined and redefined, tossed around and held up, until it has lost meaning. (Maybe not for everyone, but for many.)

gnarly foot
a gnarly foot, but clean–not mine!   (c) Carole Sparks

The image most often associated with servant leadership is that of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. I’ve written about this situation before, but today will be different. Let’s stop and put ourselves in that position: kneeling on the floor before twenty-four gnarly, calloused, dirty feet…probably hairy, possibly stinky, and perfectly awkward.

Just think about it for a second. Do you want to wash those feet? I don’t. I cut my son’s toe-nails, but only immediately after a shower. Still, it puts me in an uncomfortable position physically, there’s often a stink, and I’m left with…yep, a bunch of toenail clippings. Eww.

When our lives influence those
around us, we lead them…either
toward Jesus or away from Him.

Before you hit “next” on your e-mail or scroll down to another blog, thinking this doesn’t apply to you, remember that we are all leaders: from the CEO to “just” a stay-at-home Mom, from head pastor to nursery worker, from dean of the university to freshman student. When our lives influence those around us, we lead them…either toward Jesus or away from Him. So regardless of our leadership roles, serving those around us involves figuratively washing their feet.

Here are four observations of foot-washing as we reexamine servant leadership.

John 13:1-17.

In Jesus day, foot-washing was the job of the lowest servant.

Jesus turned a need
into an opportunity.

There were no servants in the upper room, but a bunch of feet needed to be washed. Jesus willingly stepped into a role that wasn’t in His job description because He saw a need. He didn’t delegate. Instead, He turned the need into an opportunity. An opportunity for what, you ask? For blessing those who followed him and for modeling service before He talked about it (John 13:12).

I’m a big fan of delegation. I delegate certain household chores to my children regularly. I delegate party planning to someone else in the group, if possible. Delegation helps people invest in the group/project/etc. and gives them a chance to grow. But we must never delegate a task because we are unwilling to do it. Never ask anyone to do something you refuse to do yourself.

The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.Luke 22:26

Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.Mark 9:35

Washing the feet removed filth from hard-to-reach areas.

footwashing 2
prayer with foot-washing (c) Carole Sparks

As I get older, I find it harder and harder to reach my feet in any meaningful way. Some of the disciples were older. All of them were wearing robes. (You ever try to wash off your feet in a skirt? It’s much harder.) Their backs may have been sore from all the walking. Instead of the disciples straining and stretching to scrub their own pinky toes, Jesus took each foot into His hands—toes and all—and cleaned them thoroughly. (Okay, I don’t think he gave each one a pedicure or anything, but the feet were clean when he got done.)

In leadership, it’s our job to point out spots that have been missed, to train where skills are lacking, and to fill in the gaps. The key is to approach the person with humility, like Jesus on His knees, rather than hovering over the person and pointing out all their mistakes. Again, this cleansing, though difficult, is a chance to bless the other person, to promote his or her growth (like disciplining our children).

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.Philippians 2:3

The need for foot-washing resulted from everyday life in the world.

The disciples got their feet dirty because they walked everywhere they went, and they wore sandals. They had done nothing exceptional. Just living was hard, dirty work.

“Just living” is still hard work. The stink of tennis shoes (or dress pumps) is different from the stink of sandals, but it comes from the same place: from living in the world. Sin rubs off on us; we lose focus or become lazy; we pick up a bad habit from an acquaintance. As leaders, we offer accountability to those around us, helping them shed these bits of worldliness before they grow.

“Just living” is still hard work. (I repeated myself on purpose.) We get weary or discouraged. Sometimes we lose hope. When we as leaders have the chance to figuratively bend down and pour cool water on someone’s weary feet, to take the menial task while they rest, we choose to take it because our actions will bless them and give them rest.

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.John 16:33

Foot-washing produced clean feet.

When Jesus hung up that damp towel after the final foot (including Judas’, don’t forget!) and unfolded Himself from the floor, all twenty-four feet were still just as gnarly, but at least they were clean.

Investing in the purity of
those around us reaps benefits
in every aspect of life.

As Christ-following leaders, we are called to prioritize the increasing purity (You could say holiness or sanctification, if you want.) of those we lead. Our correction, our encouragement, our instruction…all have this as an underlying goal. Investing in the purity of those around us reaps benefits in every aspect of life: business, relational, personal. It may not be comfortable at the time—for the foot-washer or for the other person—but in the long run, we bless the other person by helping them draw nearer to God.

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean [feet] and a pure heart.Psalm 24:3-4a (with a small change for fun)

One more thought: People can tell when we’re faking it. The desire to bless those around us must be authentic. Enough said.

Do those in your sphere of influence know you are interested in their personal growth…in their purity? Are they aware of your desire to bless them? When we get back to the real meaning of servant leadership, they will.

Want to share this? Servant Leadership: what it means to figuratively wash someone’s feet. #NotAboutMe #faith (click to tweet)

How does Jesus’ example here help you better understand servant leadership? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!


Shared at Mrs. Disciple’s #FridayFive linkup.

8 thoughts on “Servant Leadership: Focusing on the Foot

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