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Understanding Servant Leadership


Editor’s note: DC Service Corps volunteer Matthew Fichter reflects on what it means to integrate leading and serving through his experiences at the Fr. Mckenna Center as well as lessons discussed in the book “Toxic Charity” by Robert Lupton. 

Prior to our February retreat at Harpers Ferry, the DC Service Corps team was asked to reflect on the experience of leading and serving these past few months.  We were also asked to reflect on the following questions: How do you integrate leading and serving? How has your understanding of servant leadership evolved and deepened?  What questions have come up? 

In my reflection, I have found that leading and serving can be a bit tricky at times.  When serving another, I have the tendency to delegate the leadership role to the person I am serving.  In doing so, I give them permission to tell me what they would like and how they would like it. Given their current struggles, I hope that, by giving them exactly what they ask for, I can offer them an opportunity to experience physical comfort and possibly mental peace.  As a volunteer at the Father McKenna Center (FMC), however, there are many times when rules and regulations have to be enforced and when an example must be made for others. When the rules and regulations conflict with the request made by the person being served, it becomes much harder to set a good example while also providing service.  

After experiencing this on numerous occasions, I have come to understand that sometimes being a good servant and leader requires tough love.  Along the way I have certainly questioned at times whether tough love was necessary. Whether it was more important to enforce the regulation, or to make an exception.  I have at times become so lost in the regulations that I have forgotten to be joyful. In the struggle to decipher the best way to serve another, I have often found patience, humor, and prayer to be necessary.  To maintain a sense of service while also being a good leader, I have learned that I must be mindful of my demeanor and willing to listen softly and attentively. It is in doing this, alone, that perhaps I am serving others.  Listening to them when others might not. Though they may not get exactly what they wanted–or anything at all–they can feel respected and understood despite the conflict at hand.

In addition to learning by experiences, weekly book club sessions at FMC on Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton, have taught me lessons about the art of serving others.  Through the first three chapters of the book, I have learned the importance of developing a partnership with those being served.  I have learned the importance of “doing with” and empowering others to build up their self-worth as opposed to “doing for” and fostering a relationship of dependency.  Compassion can be a good thing in serving others, but if blind to its impacts on the benefactor, it can pose a danger to their long-term well being. I have also learned that service is most effective when it contains elements of both mercy and justice.  Acting justly or fairly to the benefactor will ensure that his or her human dignity is upheld and sustained. Mercy or kindness, on the other hand, will nurture a relationship of love between both parties involved. In any circumstance of service, perhaps the best thing to ask is “What would Christ do?” As Christians, it is His example of love to all creation and humankind that can answer many of the tricky questions in learning to lead and serve others at the same time. Christ also promises that our personal internal wounds will be healed as a result of our loving sacrifices.   

Reflection: How can you become a better servant leader today?

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