Servant leadership inspires engagement


By Dan Ebener
For The Catholic Messenger

(Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a series of articles by Dan Ebener on leadership in the Catholic Church. They are excerpts from his latest book on leadership, to be published this fall.)

Parish Council members at St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant participated in a leadership retreat July 14 conducted by Dan Ebener.

The church is a voluntary organization. People voluntarily join, attend, contribute and participate in a church. That is why engagement is such a watchword in today’s church. Voluntary participation cannot be coerced. It comes from the heart.

Lay engagement means that parishioners are intrinsically motivated to fully participate in the life of the parish. To get engagement, leaders need to get buy-in. Like any other matters of the heart, buy-in cannot be dictated. But it can be encouraged.


Take the ministries of evangelization and stewardship for example. Stewardship is giving from the heart. Evangelization is touching one heart with another. To lead a ministry of stewardship or evangelization, you need to encourage the hearts of people, so they are willing to try something new, or to try something old in a new way.

You cannot force people to become stewards or evangelists. You cannot “guilt” them into it. Leading change in stewardship and evangelization calls for different forms of influence. It takes leadership that stirs the heart. One way is through servant leadership.
Servant Leadership

Servant leadership starts with the motivation “first to serve and then to lead” (Robert Greenleaf). In the process of serving, a person sees something they want to change. They begin to influence others to join them in making that hange and … they are leading. In fact, they are servant leading.

Servant leadership is leading like Jesus. Leaders are “to serve, not to be served” (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:25). Servant leadership is following the example of Jesus when he washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-17). Servant leaders place themselves at the service of the people, the mission and the vision.

Research shows that servant leadership can enhance engagement of the people. It instills trust and confidence in the people being servant led. It inspires the people to participate, to take initiative, to help each other and to develop themselves as disciples of Jesus. It inspires people to become servant leaders themselves.

When leaders invite, inspire and influence the members with servant leadership, the people respond with discipleship (as followers of Jesus) — and apostleship (as leaders for Jesus). Servant leadership inspires engagement.

Some people confuse servant leadership with a nice guy who happens to be a boss. Servant leadership is neither. Bosses gain compliance. Servant leaders engage people in non-coercive forms of influence that get people to give above and beyond. Nice guys go along with the status quo. Servant leaders are passionate about changing things.

When you engage people, you get more intrinsic motivation. When you coerce people, you are not engaging or leading. Servant leadership is neither pushing nor pulling. It grants free will to the followers. To reach engagement, you touch hearts and minds — and eventually their wills.

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