In praise of servant followership

“. . . for all things are your servants” (Ps. 119:91b).
“They also serve who only stand and wait” (John Milton).

In my last column, I mentioned how the Scriptures tell us that all things are God’s servants. I commented that, in our culture, servanthood smacks of servitude, which is not very popular. To underscore this, I recently stopped by a huge Chapters/Indigo bookstore and checked out the titles on Leadership. There were literally hundreds of them (especially in the Business section), but I could find not one book on Following or Followership. A cursory online study of numerous colleges and universities (both secular and Christian) turned up lots of slogans about these institutions preparing leaders for the future. Christian colleges and universities sometimes used the “servant” modifier, as in servant leaders, but were nonetheless clear that their primary purpose consisted of creating leaders. Some of my friends and acquaintances who have pursued graduate degrees in Education do so almost exclusively in the field of Educational Leadership. Even my local public elementary school features a billboard that states in big print, EVERY READER A LEADER.

I am sceptical about this emphasis on leaders and leadership. Leaders, by definition, are rare. The sociologist Max Weber discovered that real leaders (those whom inspire others to follow) must possess a blend of uncommon personal traits and learned behaviours. He singled out the traits of charisma (enthusiasm and empathy) and expertise (specific knowledge and masterful communication skill). Few people have the gifts of personality and the training to combine these traits in such a way as to become leaders. Leaders must have followers. The reality is that most of us are followers. What I believe a good education should do (and especially a good Christian education), is to produce thoughtful, discerning followers who are able to evaluate their leaders in such a way as to decide whether they are indeed worthy of being followed.

I use a quote from the19th century British parliamentarian, Henry P. Brougham, as a tagline under my email signature. It reads, “Education makes people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave.” I like this quote because, rather than education focusing on producing leaders, it suggests that it should help create intelligent followers who, while willing to be led and governed by good leaders, are not willing to be ideologically enslaved by them. In that respect, good followers are like the Bereans (Acts 17: 10-11) who didn’t blindly follow Paul and Silas but “welcomed their message very eagerly [but] examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.” Thoughtful, discerning followers will refuse to follow putative leaders whose charisma is nothing but hubris and whose exercise of power brings destruction. Certain political leaders, both the past and present, spring readily to mind.

Ready to serve

John Milton was a great 17th century Christian poet and a leading apologist for religious freedom and education. He chafed at the realization that he was going blind in his early forties. He asked in his poem “When I Consider How My Light is Spent” why God would deny him his sight when he still had so much important work to do (Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?). However, on reflection, he realized that God doesn’t need our work or gifts of leadership to complete kingly work. While thousands at his bidding speed and post o’er land and ocean without rest: They also serve who only stand and wait.

Perhaps a humble, solicitous standing and waiting to be ready to serve where God calls is a more fitting Christian posture than the vainglorious hubris of calling all and sundry to leadership for which they may be neither gifted nor needed. I wonder if I’ll live to see the day when our Christian colleges and universities offer programs in servant “followership.” Now that would be a demonstration of real educational leadership.


  • Robert Bruinsma

    Robert (Bob) Bruinsma is a retired Professor of Education (The King’s University) living in Edmonton. He has interests in language and literature and loves birds and the outdoors. To help pass the time on long winter nights, he makes wine and beer (and drinks it in moderation) with his wife of 46 years (Louisa). Bob is a member of Fellowship CRC where he tells stories for children and happily participates in weekly communion. He and Louisa have three grown children and three little grandsons.

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