Ajith Fernando: Servant Leadership

Today I've attended a seminar given by Ajith Fernando from Sri Lanka. Ajith Fernado is Director of Youth for Christ in his country and he is also an internationally renowned speaker, author and Bible teacher. This is an XXL posting, but I am sure it is not a waste of your precious time to read my notes!

[The Joy of Salvation]

Ajith Fernando made clear that church leadership differs from secular management, because the work in the Christian community is not carried out through paid people, but mainly through volunteers.

Let’s reflect on what it means to be a Christian community…

‘…so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.’ (Romans 12:5) One body in Christ – united through salvation. The body consists of sinners saved by Christ. That is why joy is such an important aspect of Christianity! Whenever we meet another Christian, we are thrilled and we embrace them in Christ. The key in Christian community is joy. (There are 23 different words in Hebrew for ‘joy’. Zephaniah 3:14-17 uses 8 different words for joy!)

The joy of salvation binds us as a community. We accept each other like brothers and sisters. The church is like Noah’s ark: you won’t be able to stand the smell inside, but there is a judgment outside!

[A banqueting community]

There were some divisions about eating and drinking in Rome: ‘For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 14:17)

In Acts we see that the church is a banqueting community. Christians shared their meals together (Acts 2:46), they broke bread together. That is Christian community!

The apostle Barnabas was sent to Antioch: ‘News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.’ (Acts 11:23). So when Barnabas arrived in Antioch, he saw the grace of God and was glad. There were many shortcomings in this church, but Barnabas saw the evidence of the grace of God and he was glad!

When you look at a Christian community, you can criticize the members and say: ‘You must do this and this…’ It is important to give instructions, but more basic is the joy of salvation, the heart of Christian community.

Ephesians 4 stresses the importance of unity within the body of Christ. Paul writes: ‘As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.’ (Ephesians 4:1,2).

The way we behave is essential – it is all about community, holiness. We need to be gentle people. When you realize that salvation is a gift of God, you have to be humble. Today the world says to us: ‘How dare you say that Christ is the only way!? You are so arrogant!’ But the heart of the Gospel is against arrogance. We are thrilled by our salvation and we are focused on gratitude!

[Arrogance focuses on oneself, gratitude focuses on the other]

A true Christian says: ‘Look what God has done. In spite of all my weaknesses He has saved me!’ ‘I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.’ (Ephesians 3:13) We find joy in our weaknesses and we bear with one another. Paul says: ‘Bear with one another as the Lord has forgiven you.’

We have committed the greatest sin: treason. God has forgiven us of this greatest sin. That is why we are a joyous and forgiving community. With patience comes kindness. Often these qualities are mentioned together in the Bible: ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness...’ (Gal. 5:22). ‘Love is patient, love is kind’ (1 Cor. 13). So patience and kindness are connected.

We need to be kind to one another. So as a leader, foster joy and foster patience! We also have to work together with people who don’t know Christ. Leaders are people who help others. Joy is a feature of a leader.

[A shepherd dies for his sheep]

We live in an efficiency orientated society, a disposable society – everything is thrown away. But the leader dies for his people – even if they are a nuisance to him sometimes!

In our society, efficiency has replaced effectiveness. But a leader dies for his sheep. We have a crisis in commitment in the church – it is very difficult to find committed people. The leaders must give the example, because commitment breads commitment. Being a servant is the norm for Christians. We win people by dying for them.

‘As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.’ (Ephesians 4:1). Urging people, this exhortation has come out of fashion. In today’s world you can’t do that. Paul says: ‘I urge you as a prisoner of the Lord’. That was his qualification!

There was a Japanese Christian leader, who also was a well-known leader in the labour movement. This man suffered for Christ. When he spoke somewhere, one person said: ‘He didn’t have to say much.’ Somebody else replied: ‘You don’t need to say much when you are hanging on a cross.’

[The growth of the early church in Rome]

Efficiency and productivity have taken over community. Nowadays we have to pay people for counselling and psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is paid friendship. Of course there is a place for counselling and psychotherapy. The church can provide this need. This is the way the early church has won Rome! Sociologist Rodney Stark studied the rise of Christianity in Rome. When he wrote his book, he wasn’t a Christian.

You once wrote that you’re “not religious as that term is conventionally understood.” Rodney Stark: ‘That’s true, though I’ve never been an atheist. Atheism is an active faith; it says, “I believe there is no God.” But I don’t know what I believe. I was brought up a Lutheran in Jamestown, North Dakota. I have trouble with faith. I’m not proud of this. I don’t think it makes me an intellectual. I would believe if I could, and I may be able to before it’s over. I would welcome that.’ Source
Stark studied how people change their allegiances from one group to the other. In his book about the rise of Christianity he describes how plagues hit the Roman Empire. A lot of people died because of this. If they were looked after carefully, they could survive. But most people didn’t care for each other. Christians did care for their people, so the percentage of Christians who died because of the plagues was lower. And they cared for non-Christians as well.

Tertullian wrote, "It is our care for the helpless, our practice of loving-kindness, that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. 'Only look,' they say, 'how they love one another.'"

The Body grows not only through preaching but through kindness in and outside the church. So this is a leader’s role: foster a joyful and patient community where people tolerate each other and are kind to each other.

[A sense of urgency]

‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.’ (Ephesians 4:3) When you are a Christian, you are urgent about community. There is eagerness, a sense of urgency.

"Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.’ (Mathew 5:23, 24)

‘Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry…’ we read in Ephesians 4:26. Ajith Fernando: ‘I have made one modification: better wait with making things right until you’ve cooled down!’

As Christian leaders we are eager to maintain unity. You don’t create unity, but you have to maintain it! It is a unity of the Spirit. We have a great advantage. Ephesians 4:4-6 tells us what unites us ‘There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.’

Our problems are so small in comparison of what unites us. That is why we have the courage to unite.

[Who cares about the truth]

We must concentrate on the truth. But nowadays we are more feelings-orientated than truth-motivated. We act on our gut feelings. There is a crisis of truth in our society. People don’t think that truth is important anymore. We have to give people the truth and show them that it is important to be in the truth and we must demonstrate that the truth does work.

We must be an example, so that our lives bring people to Christ’s truth and love. We must have a learning attitude. People are confused. Jesus is the Truth and He lived the truth. He just did it. By living the truth, you demonstrate truth.
We demonstrate the authority of the Bible by our behaviour. This is one step before evangelism. Who cares about the truth? We must show the people that truth is important.

[Working for unity]

If there is dissent in the Body, we have to discuss this. In Acts 15 we read about a circumcision debate. Some men came from Antioch and told the men in Jerusalem: ‘You need to be circumcised.’ Paul didn’t say: ‘Let them do it in their own way.’ They debated, and after this debate they came to an agreement: ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ (Acts 15:25-28).

So they debated until they came to unity. We need to take time to debate until there is unity. We must be willing to pay the price. Of course there comes a time that we have to say: ‘We have talked enough, we have to move on.’ That is also part of leadership responsibility. Work towards unity!

Godly people will say: ‘OK, we’ll go and do it, if this is the way God wants us to do it.’ Insecure people will react like this: ‘I have lost this battle’. And then they will fight back to show that they are right and you are wrong. Or they will have an attitude like this: ‘You’ll see that it doesn’t work.’

Is it possible for insecure people to stay in a community? They have to find their security in Christ, but some people work on their own. They like to be a dictator. All dictators are insecure people, they can not tolerate dissent!

But the Bible says that God can change people. There is this book ‘Tears of My Soul’ by Sokreaksa S. Himm. It is about a man’s traumatic experiences in the Cambodian killing fields. Sokreaksa, gravely wounded, was covered by the bodies of his brothers and sisters and left for dead. He tells how God has healed him from post traumatic stress disorder. Each night, when the memories were haunting him, he read Psalm 23. He was healed by the Word of God!

NOTE Paul Abspoel: I have this book by Sokreaksa S. Himm and I looked up the passage that Ajith Fernando was talking about. On page 117 Sokreaksa writes:

Since I’ve been using this psalm for evening meditation, my nightmares have left me: I haven’t once dreamed about being hunted by the Khmer Rouge or the Thai soldiers. It seems as though my need for security and comfort while I sleep is met by this psalm, because I know I can trust God. I told some psychologists how I’d learned to deal with my nightmares by this method, and they didn’t believe me. I admit that it doesn’t sound very scientific, but I don’t care. I tried the scientific advice, and it didn’t work; the Book of Psalms does work, and that’s good enough for me.

It has worked for others, too. I have worked with many Cambodians who display all the symptoms of PTSD that I once had, and I have taught them the use of Psalm 23. Many of them have told me that it deals with their nightmares, and helps to feel secure in the presence of the Lord.

Broken people can become leaders. But can these insecure people change? Some have changed, others didn’t change. As Christian leaders we have to follow our calling, because people are important! How can we show that an insecure person doesn’t have to fight to show that he is right? We work with this people until they accept. Developing an attitude of unity is our biggest challenge.

Ajith Fernando tells about a CEO of a big bank in Sri Lanka. This man said: ‘A true leader spends most of his time building his team.’ When unity breaks, you pray, you write (although you have to be careful with writing letters) and you visit. Somehow you must bring unity. We have our own pain, but ‘divide and rule’ is not a Christian leadership model.

[The doctrine of gifts takes away jealousy]

‘But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.’ (Ephesians 4:7 NIV) ‘But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.’ (Ephesians 4:7 KJV)

This is the next feature of a Christian leader: he finds joy in leading a community, a group that’s been given gifts from God. In Romans 12 we see the same connection between gifts and unity.

According to the measure… This word ‘measure’ implies that there is a careful proportioning of gifts.

1 Corinthians 12 also shows the connection between unity and gifts. ‘The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.’ (12:12) Everyone has been given gifts. How does this help in unity? The doctrine of gifts takes away jealousy. Philippians 2:3 instructs us: ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.’ Take glory in the gifts that God has given to other people!

‘For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.’ (Romans 12:3)

[Significance is not a synonym to prominence]

Some gifts are prominent. Significance is not a synonym to prominence. God has given us a significant role to play, so therefore nobody is a threat for us. Some jobs are more prominent than others. It is hard to be a non-prominent worker! The prominent people must treat non-prominent people with respect.

People are overdoing this gifts thing by saying: ‘That is not my gift’. Sometimes we have to do things that we don’t like. We suffer from over-specialisation. If a preacher only focuses on preaching, and stops visiting the people, his sermons will lack power.

We have to be involved in other things too. According to the famous evangelist John Wesley, you have a healthy job when there is a certain percentage of things you like to do, a percentage of things you don’t mind doing and a percentage of things you don’t like to do at all – but you choose to do them anyway!

[The leader is an enabler]

In Ephesians 4:11, 12 Paul speaks about public ministry: ‘It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.’

Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers… What is their job? to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body.

This is also a matter of numbers, of quantity. In Acts we read that the number increased from 3,000 to 5,000 people. God is interested in numbers because each number represents a person who has been saved.

A mother was asked how many children she had. She started mentioning them by name. The person who had asked the question, said: ‘I didn’t ask for their names, I just wanted to know how many children you have.’ The mother replied: ‘My children don’t have numbers, they have names.’

The leader is an enabler. If you are a leader, you must have the ambition to see these people become something. ‘Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight…’ (1 Timothy 1:18). Paul wrote to Timothy: I give you an advice – looking at the prophecies, I have this ambition for you!

We must pray for the people we lead, encourage them, be creative, invest time in them and allow them to learn from their mistakes.

[Developing a character of holiness]

There are 2,005 verses in the New Testament; 1,400 from these verses are about developing a godly character. So 70% of the New Testament is related to developing a character of holiness, focusing on what it means to live a Christian life.

We must learn how to develop other ministers. As Christian leaders we have to impart passion when we tell others what to do. We must do this with passion. Paul says: ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!’ (1 Corinthians 9:16) You need to have passion and place your vision before the people.

Don’t put people into leadership roles if they are not passionate. They must know that this is something worth living for, worth dying for.

Create an atmosphere that allows growth! Sometimes the structure is not suitable. What worked ten years ago will not work now. Structure is culturally influenced. The structure must be such that capable people will not get frustrated and leave. Open doors for them to blossom. Give opportunities!

Barnabas was encouraging Paul. In Acts 11:27 we read that Barnabas went to the apostles. In the secular world, PR agents build up their leader. In the body of Christ - the Christian world - it is the other way around, because the Christian leader is the PR agent of his people.

Release a person to go somewhere else, when there are no more opportunities for growth. Your primarily commitment is the Kingdom of God. We are working for the same Company, be it in different departments. ’The glory of the teacher is to sit at the feet of the pupil and learn from him.’ (Robert Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism).

We push people forward. You will get hurt in the process, which is part of being a parent.


We have looked at some features of a Christian leader (Ephesians 4). These are: joy, patience, kindness, unity and gifts. As servant leaders we enable other people.

In Romans 12 we have read about community.
The structure of the letter to the Romans:

Chapter 1-3 on being lost (1:16 not ashamed of the Gospel!)
Chapter 3 (halfway) the salvation through faith.
Chapter 4-7 answering objections.
Chapter 8 is about holiness, about living a victorious life, even if suffering.
Chapters 9-11 focuses on Israel.
Chapter 12 focuses on the Christian community
Chapter 13 focuses on the general society

Sinners are saved by grace, made holy, living in community, going into the world.

Chapter 12 speaks about ’being a living sacrifice’. Don’t be conformed to the world.

‘Being a living sacrifice’ – this refers to crucifixion. Crucify self! ‘For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.’ (Colossians 3:3)

[Some things I scribbled down at the end of this inspiring message]

A man was asked about the secret of his successful marriage. His answer: ‘Everyday there was something I didn’t say.’

’I am loved. I am a child of the King. That is my greatest honour.
I don’t want to lose the smile of God.’

‘If the joy of the Lord is not your strength, you start protecting your ego.’

‘I am a pleasure seeker. I am very committed to happiness! Holy people are happy people. So, pursue holiness. But some people don’t want to be happy. They want the satisfaction of bitterness. But if you want to experience joy, you have to crucify your self.’

‘Don’t waste your time trying to prove that you are right.’

‘When the Spirit grieves, the Spirit leaves.’

‘No anger, no jealousy – crucify it!’

‘If God is to use us, we have to get our lives in shape!’

This seminar about Jesus’ leadership style (i.e. Servant Leadership) was organised by Evangelical Alliance NL and took place in De Meerkerk Hoofddorp.

Highly recommended:

Ajith Fernado, Jesus Driven Ministry, © 2002 Crossway Books – ISBN 1581344457,
Dutch edition: Leiderschap in de stijl van de Heer, © 2004 Uitgeverij Medema - ISBN 906353437x.


Broken Messenger said...

Great post, Paul.

Well worth the long read.... :o)


Andrew said...

wow - thanks for posting that

mark said...

Excellent read Paul. I linked to it from my blog.

Panda said...

Thanks, Guys. It is my privilege to share this with you! Please pray for Sri Lanka. Ajith Fernando told us that - after the tsunami disaster - many survivors gave their lives to Christ. They had witnessed how Christians helped to clean up the mess, took care of victims and started rebuilding. Now a law is waiting to be approved by the parliament to stop people from 'converting to other religions'. There is no way to stop the power of the Holy Spirit - but we still have to pray. Thanks.

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