By Patti Johnson
It is often said that being a servant is not too bad until…you get treated as one.”
Much has been written about servanthood in ministry life. Much of it sounds good and noble and just what we strive to be.
Then reality hits and you are suddenly treated as a servant. An underling. A “not quite good enough, important enough, cool enough, outside looking in” servant.
But we know in our “heart of ministry heart” that it is still a good thing, a noble thing, a worthy “want to be” thing. To live out the example of Jesus, to serve not be served, to be last not first, to consider other’s needs not just our own.
So how to reconcile both sides of it? The good and that awkward funny feeling that comes from being treated “less than?”
I often go back 20 years now to the years my husband was a student in seminary. He was saved at 35 and entered seminary at 44. We had three children and had lived a good portion of our lives as adults. As a seminary student wife at the age of 40, I did not expect some of the experiences I had during those years to sting quite so much, but I am also grateful for the lessons learned that have helped me in the real life of ministry. Not the one in brochures, or the one in my mind, but the real one with real people.
Here is what happened when I went from being a servant to being treated as one. I call it my “other side of the railing reckoning.” See story below.
One day I was approached by a local Christian ladies group leader to be a part of a group that would show and offer our handmade crafts at an event they were having. I was thrilled to be asked and began preparations. As details of the event came to us, the crafters, we were asked if we would like to stay for lunch and continue showing our crafts in the afternoon hours to the ladies in attendance. Several of us said we would. Then directions came that we were to bring our own “box lunch” as the luncheon was only available to the “ladies’ group” of ladies. Well, that seemed okay. Several of us agreed to stay and made plans to bring our own lunch and continue our craft showing after the luncheon time.
The morning of showing our crafts went well. Then there was the break for lunch. The “ladies’ group” of ladies headed to their luncheon spot and we waited for instructions as to where we were to take our “boxed lunches”. We were escorted to an area of small tables and chairs and told this is where we were to have our lunch. We sat down and opened our boxed lunches from home and realized that we were just on the “other side of the railing” that separated the elegant luncheon dining area from our designated lunch area. We realized not only were the ladies in full view of us, but we were in full view of them. While they were served their lunch on china plates, we opened our foiled packed sandwiches. While their beverages were poured by the wait staff and sipped from glassware, our sodas were pulled from our lunch bags and consumed straight from the cans.
None of this was terribly wrong or even distressing to us. But it was awkward with that railing being the only thing separating us from them. Both groups were fully visible to one another, but it was as if we were to pretend neither existed.
I call this my “other side of the railing reckoning” because I had a decision to make. I was called there to serve these ladies with the showing of my crafts. No more, no less. I was not promised a place at their table, I was not invited to dine at their luncheon. So why the awkwardness? Why the funny feeling? I had to face the fact that there was something between us. A railing. The distinction between the served and the servant.
Those I ate lunch with all felt the same way. We could all tell. The awkwardness. The funny feeling. We did not voice it. We just felt it. We ate our lunch. We packed up our bags and tossed out our trash. We headed back to our spots in the areas where we were to show our crafts. We returned to our roll of serving these ladies. Without the awkward rail between us.
How has this helped me in the real life of ministry? Many ways. But two come to mind that I will share.
First, many years now as a leader of “groups” I am very aware of the environment I ask people to serve in. I establish servanthood as not “less than” or “apart from”, but as an extension of the whole process. I am sensitive that I do not set up an environment that has a “railing” between those serving and those being served. Neither an invisible railing nor an actual railing. We are equal in our part of the whole. This shows up in attitude and environment.
Second, I recognize that there will be times I “feel” the role of a servant and that is okay. I may feel separated, underappreciated, put aside, and maybe even awkwardly invisibly visible “on the other side of the railing”. I will be okay with it because 20 years ago I reckoned to be okay with it.
As we live out the real life of ministry, we are privileged to serve others and be the servant. Very rarely are we the served and that is okay. We are in good company. Jesus is our example. We have entered the ministry life to serve not be served, to be last not first and to consider other’s needs, not only our own.
If I were to create a brochure of the “feeling” of real ministry life, I may have a photo of that luncheon scene and the railing that sat between us.
The served and the servants.
The real ministry life is good and noble and something to be privileged to be a part of. To be aware of those we are serving and serving with is good. Jesus was, we should be too.