Tag Archives: servant leadership

Have you ever taken a walk or a bike ride with no real target, no agenda, no destination?  These can be fun every now and then, but if there is someone else with you chances are you will disagree on where to go, how long to be gone and when to turn around toward home.  And the bigger the group (and maybe the younger they are), the more questions are asked like, “when will we be there?”  If you have no destination in mind, how can you even answer that question?


I don’t know why, but most people find volunteer or nonprofit work an acceptable place to not have an end goal in mind.  The excuses are myriad, but might sound like this, “there is so much work to do, we will never be done anyway” or “we don’t want to set a goal because if we don’t achieve it that will make the people we are serving feel bad, like they didn’t matter to us.”  There are others, but those are two I’ve heard more than a few times.  How can we get away with this attitude of a wanderer when it comes to service when we would never tolerate that from a company like Apple or Wal-Mart – and we certainly wouldn’t tolerate it even for our own family vacation (imagine just starting out to drive to Florida with no idea where Florida even is)?  We would never even think of doing that, hopefully.


We get away with it in the community service realm because not setting concrete goals and holding ourselves accountable to them has become acceptable in our society.  Not everyone neglects goals (and there are some awesome people doing great work and KEEPING their promises to communities), but it is prevalent enough in our society that setting goals can somehow seem to be too serious, not relaxed or “not organic”.  So how do we set a new standard of accountability and excellence, yet still maintain our laid-back, hipster image?  We must be forward-thinking and backward-looking.


Forward Thinking

Being forward-thinking means that we must start out with the end in mind.  We must have a goal before we get started, which to some puts you in the category of “brilliant visionary” and to others “nerd”.  But it is more simple than the first and more cool than the second.  The marathoner doesn’t just start out running haphazardly, somehow expecting to be ready to run 26.2 miles within a few hours.  No!  He sets a training schedule based on a reasonable expectation of completion time, then he diligently implements that schedule, even in bad weather.  In the same way, we have to decide beforehand what our goals will be and how we will know if we have met them.


So, say you were wanting to help your school’s Boy Scout troop do a community service project of cleaning the roadsides around the school.  You would decide beforehand what the definition of clean is – this might include trash picked up, leaves raked, twigs and fallen limbs removed, and maybe grass trimmed and mowed.  Maybe it only includes some of those.  Then, during the project if one Scout is not meeting the definition of clean, he can be held accountable and sent back out to rake or trim more thoroughly, or whatever he has fallen short in.  But if there is no goal, any work, even shoddy work, is OK.


Backward Looking

Being backward-looking means that along the way we must check, as a group, to see how our progress has come along toward that goal.  If that same scout troop knew they had 2 miles of roads to clean up and half of their time had passed, then they should have completed 1 mile.   If at the halfway point of time the troop is less than halfway in progress, then they can figure out what is slowing the work down and change their plan.  In that way, problems could be identified quickly and solved, while the group as a whole kept their pace up to ensure completion within the given time frame.  Or maybe they realized that another day would be needed to finish the job to the accepted standard.  That day can be scheduled and the community aware of the extension in the project time.  That might even motivate some community members to come out and help too, just to save the troop from the second service day!


Every project, even a modest one like a road clean-up day, should have a goal so that the participants and those being served can acknowledge the job is done – and so that there is a natural break time for evaluation of the project.  Any project that goes on seemingly forever is disheartening to those helping out and will eventually cause volunteers to abandon ship due to burnout.  Working without stop toward an undefined goal will feel like toil, not joyful work, even in service.  On the other hand, goals give us something to celebrate when we achieve them, something we as leaders should provide for anyone sacrificing their time to give back to the community.  Remember, we are still human after all, not emotionless robots, and we need to feel like our work makes a difference.

I really am not sure which is worse from a practical standpoint, ignoring local resources or ignoring the people in the community.  Probably ignoring the people from a Biblical standpoint, as God always wants us to value people greater than things.  But practically speaking, #4 and #3 are really more like a tie for third.  Just like ignoring local resources and potentially putting local businesses into difficult situations (like you bringing in something they sell and giving it out for free), ignoring the opinions and ideas of the people you are trying to serve can really end up back-firing big time.

Let me illustrate with a hypothetical example.  The names and locations are fictional to protect any possible guilty, naive and innocent groups that might have done something similar. Say there was a group in Adelaide, Australia that was serving “HIV orphans” in Thailand.  They didn’t speak the language, but had found someone who they thought seemed trustworthy to serve as the local representative for them in a novel orphanage concept.  They sent money and teams to work with this individual and the orphans they had gathered, but didn’t attempt to meet or interact with other leaders in the community.  Years passed and the Australians found out that their representative was stealing from them, that the “orphans” weren’t really lacking parents but had been trafficked by their local representative, and that the community and its leaders questioned their work and their motives.  They had made a colossal error without realizing it, even thinking they were doing a great job.  It took an intervention from several community leaders who came into the situation to provide wisdom and cover for the Aussies.
If this situation were true, this group might have been in serious trouble with the local authorities (who may have thought they were child sex traffickers!) because they had not taken the time to develop better relations with the community they were serving.  If they had, they could’ve found out the reputation of their local representative and heard about what was really happening with their funds.  We could only hope for a good end to the fictional story because of their heart to serve true orphans.

So, how can we avoid this mistake?

  1. Actively pursue peer-leader relationships with multiple community leaders where you are serving.  Make sure you have a relationship with people from several churches or religious institutions, other nonprofits working in the area, political leaders and other influential community leaders – if only just to check in from time to time and find out what they think of your work and to ask other open-ended questions.
  2. Conduct a community needs survey.  Ask lots of questions about what people and leaders in the community think their main needs are and how these can be addressed.  Often you will find the best ideas come from within the community.  The community simply might not have the capacity to address those needs well from within – or may just need someone to help catalyze and coordinate a project.
  3. Ask open-ended questions when you get time with local community leaders or when conducting that community needs survey.  Questions like, “What do you think are the main issues facing the community now?” or “How do you think we could improve our work?” or “What trends do you see in the community?”  Asking open-ended questions generates discussion and ideas.  Open-ended questions also demonstrate your desire to hear their opinion.
  4. Share your plans while you are still in the research or planning phase.  After you’ve done a community needs survey, let the leaders in the community know the results and the main need that your group will be working to solve.  Then ask for their ideas on how to approach that issue – and maybe what else other groups have done that didn’t quite work as well as hoped.  Find out why past projects failed and what their ideas are for successfully addressing that need.  Take your time and don’t rush straight to a project without making sure to know the history in that area.  If we fail to learn from history, we are doomed to repeat its mistakes.
  5. Listen.  Listen to the community leaders, listen to your project’s beneficiaries, listen to people on the street.  If you get in the habit of #3, asking open-ended questions, then listening to what people tell you can reveal a lot.  If there is a language barrier, take a translator or learn the language yourselves.  Even halting attempts at another language (then turning to a translator for help!) go a long way to developing authentic relationship with the people you are serving.

The bottom-line is that we can’t act like we are the ones with all the answers, telling “those poor people” how to solve their problems.  This is a phenomenally arrogant and un-Christ-like attitude that, if we are really wanting to serve like Jesus did, we will shed.  Humility goes a long way on the path of success for community service!

Why should we try to serve others?  It is a hassle, takes us away from our favorite TV show and gets us out of our comfort zone, right?  But should this be our action as followers of Jesus?  Doesn’t the Bible say something about serving others being like serving the Lord himself?  It sure does!  That should be great incentive for us to get off the couch and get uncomfortable.  So, let’s examine that passage more closely.

Matthew 25:34-40 (NIV) reads:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take the inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

‘The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

This passage clearly sets out an eternal reward, an inheritance, for those who will take the time to minister to the needs of others.  So many times in our lives we work and give effort to something that we won’t see the benefit of for a long time.

Take exercise for example.  We might feel good immediately after, but often that doesn’t help with motivation the next day.  Our motivation to exercise has to come from someplace else – the desire for health, to fit into our clothes well, or simply to blow off stress.

Likewise, our motivation to serve others cannot come from what it gives to us immediately, which might be nothing!  Our motivation to serve others should be out of a heart to serve Jesus Himself- and for the eternal reward, which awaits us on the other side of this life.

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